Thursday June 28, 2007
Window of opportunity
Children aged two and below can learn to read – well before they learn the alphabet – says an infant researcher.
By ALLAN KOAY
CAN an 18-month old baby read? Not just make unintelligible sounds but pronounce words as correctly as their developing speech would allow?
Yes, says Dr Robert Titzer, an infant researcher from the United States who was recently in Kuala Lumpur to promote his Your Baby Can Read! language development series of books and videos. He has video testimonials to prove it. In one of the videos, a toddler is able to point out the different parts of her body when a card with words like “nose,” “foot” and “head” are held up in front of her. In another, a child of three reads a storybook and even creates different voices for the various characters in the story.
Titzer says the first two years of a child’s life are the most crucial as tens of thousands of synapses in the brain are forming. About 75% of the mass of the brain is formed by age two.
“That’s why it’s highly recommended in the first two years that parents spend as much time as possible talking, interacting and playing with their babies,” he says. “No matter how busy the parents are, their baby will only have this rapid brain development period one time in her or his life.”
Titzer himself was inspired to create a video for his own daughter when he found little time to spend with her and the baby ended up with the babysitter more often than not.
He carried out research with literally hundreds of babies and came up with his own system of teaching language to toddlers, called the Multi-Sensory Reading Approach. The series of books and videos are interactive and designed to be fun for the children. The books focus on the word first, then the picture. Each page contains an action or question for the child. As soon as the child has developed visual tracking and can follow a moving object, she will be able to use the video and books, as the videos teach them to read a word from left to right.
According to Titzer, research has shown that learning to read early in a child’s life can help to accelerate learning later in life and in other areas. And his method pretty much dispels the notion that children have to learn the alphabet first before learning how to read.
“Most parents will spend a year or a year-and-a-half teaching the toddlers the names of the letters,” he explains. “From the baby’s perspective, think about how abstract that is. If you’re a typical two-year-old and you don’t know how to read a single word, and people are pointing out ‘D-O-G.’ You don’t even know what the letters are used for.
“Usually, the children sing the ABC song and just point at the letters, hoping you haven’t moved the letters around. They don’t really know letters that well. But if they know how to read, they will not think of these as abstract things. They will think of them more like objects, as if you were pointing out a doorknob or something. They will know what a doorknob is after hearing it once or twice.”
If children are taught words first, then they would already be familiar with letters and would be curious to know that each letter has a “name”, says Titzer.
“I taught my own children the alphabet in a couple of minutes,” he says.
He emphasises the need for parents to spend as much time interacting with their children as possible. They should talk to their children from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep, and they should use simple, descriptive language in a soothing manner. Most importantly, they must see things from a baby’s perspective; something that is “little” to an adult may be “huge” to a toddler.
“Repeat the words as many times as possible,” Titzer advises. “After the baby has learned 50 words, she will be able to learn new words after hearing them once or twice. You need to be careful of the words you use because baby can remember what you say!”
He says it is also important for parents to listen to their babies, and show their appreciation when a baby makes language-related sounds, as this will help a child to make new sounds.
“There tends to be a delay of six months from when the baby understands the language to when the baby can say the words,” says Titzer.
As far as learning disabilities and reading disorders go, Titzer says some people have claimed that the multi-sensory approach can even prevent those kinds of problems.
“For dyslexia, the most common reading disorder, a lot of the children do not look at words from left to right,” he says. “This can help prevent that problem, because they’re being taught, as babies, to look at words from left to right.”
Since his products seem like wonder solutions at first glance, did he face a lot of scepticism when he first introduced them?
Yes, Titzer replies: “I personally would be very sceptical as well, so I understand that. If you look at how babies learn all other aspects of language, then it will start to make more sense. Babies can learn second languages easier than six-year-olds. Babies learn any aspect of language very naturally and easily, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be to learn at high levels.”