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Video: Is reading kit for tots just a marketing ploy?

  1. Transcript of: Is reading kit for tots just a marketing ploy?

    MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back now at 7:42. This morning on TODAY INVESTIGATES , a popular reading program for infants. You've probably seen the ads on television. But now some experts are casting doubt on the catchy sales pitch. NBC 's Jeff Rossen is here with what he found out. I have a feeling it's not good.

    JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Yeah, it never is. Hi, Matt. I know you've seen these commercials.

    LAUER: I have.

    ROSSEN: They're -- so have I -- sitting at the kitchen table with my little girls. And it's very, very popular with parents between those national commercials. Plus, it's sold in some of the country's biggest baby stores. The program , as you mentioned, is called Your Baby Can Read !, and that's the promise, that if you buy this program your baby, as young as three months old, can learn to read . This morning, our TODAY investigation goes after the truth.

    ROSSEN: The commercials are amazing. Those babies sure look like they're reading, and if you buy the program , the ads claim, your baby can, too. Your Baby Can Read ! is a kit packed with flash cards, pop-up books and lots of DVDs for kids to watch. And it doesn't come cheap, costing up to $200.

    Ms. GINGER TORRES: The reason why I wanted to buy it was to give her a head start before school.

    ROSSEN: Ginger Torres was hooked by the ads and bought it for her three-year-old Chloe , but she says it didn't teach her daughter anything.

    Ms. TORRES: What you're getting is not really what they say.

    ROSSEN: They say it's based on science, that all babies can read, warning that if you miss that window your child will fall behind. But is that really true? We went to experts at Harvard. Are those babies reading? Ms. NONIE LESAUX , Ph.D ( Child Development Expert , Harvard University Graduate School of Education): No.

    ROSSEN: And Tufts . Ms. MARYANNE WOLF , Ph.D (Director of Cognitive Neuroscience , Tufts University ): It's an extraordinary manipulation of facts.

    ROSSEN: And NYU.

    Dr. KAREN HOPKINS (Developmental Pediatrician, NYU Langone Medical Center): I think it's misleading, I thing it's false, and I think it raises false expectations.

    ROSSEN: In fact, we spoke with 10 child development experts from the

    country's top universities and organizations, and the message was universal: This isn't reading, it's just memorization.

    Ms. LESAUX: They've memorized what's on those cue cards and they're going to respond the way they've been taught.

    ROSSEN: It's not reading?

    Ms. LESAUX: It's not reading.

    ROSSEN: Is there any evidence that learning even to memorize at a young age makes you a better reader later?

    Dr. HOPKINS: No evidence at all that learning to memorize images of words can make you a better reader.

    ROSSEN: In fact, experts say, most children don't even have the brain development to read until four or five years old.

    Ms. WOLF: I know not of one single study in which anyone says that children who learn to read before five do better later on. I am a reading expert. I know of not one single study.

    ROSSEN: There are extremely rare cases of babies learning to read.

    ANN CURRY reporting: Can you read this word to me?

    ELIZABETH: Happy.

    CURRY: Happy.

    ROSSEN: In 2008 , we tested one of them here on TODAY with words she'd never seen before.

    CURRY: And what about this word, Elizabeth ?

    ELIZABETH: Kangaroo.

    ROSSEN: Her parents say Elizabeth taught herself, but she's an exception. And these experts say promising all parents that their babies can do it too as long as they buy this product is deceptive because this program drills kids with the same flashcards, the same DVDs , the same words over and over again. Memorization.

    Ms. WOLF: The reality is whoever is behind this doesn't know either the brain or reading.

    ROSSEN: That man is Dr. Robert Titzer , the creator of Your Baby Can Read ! He calls himself an infant learning expert. His face, his name, appear on the books, the DVDs and in the commercials. Dr. Titzer agreed to sit down with us.

    Dr. ROBERT TITZER: We are changing the way people are looking at reading.

    ROSSEN: We've spoken with child development experts from some of the world's

    most prestigious universities, and I'll list them for you: Harvard , Yale , Tufts , NYU , Cornell , Penn , as well as experts at the National Association of School Psychologists , the National Center for Infants , Toddlers and Families, and they say they your program is not only misleading, but it's false.

    Dr. TITZER: Well, they're all wrong.

    ROSSEN: You're saying they're all wrong?

    Dr. TITZER: Yes, I'm saying they're all wrong.

    ROSSEN: Titzer says his program is backed by a scientific research . And while he acknowledges it all starts as memorization, he says it leads to reading.

    Dr. TITZER: We have a book full of studies that support the use of our program . It's literally thicker than this.

    ROSSEN: Can you provide us that research?

    Dr. TITZER: Yes. Yes, I can.

    ROSSEN: But instead of published research on Your Baby Can Read !, he sent us this customer satisfaction survey conducted by his own company, along with general studies about child learning that experts we spoke to say he's twisting and taking out of context. As for his resume, Titzer has worked in some infant learning labs, but his PhD is in Human Performance , the study of physical motor skills. How do you respond to that?

    Dr. TITZER: Well, I'm not an -- a traditional expert as far as reading, a reading specialist person. I'm looking at this from a different perspective, which is...

    ROSSEN: Right. But the name of your program is Your Baby Can Read !

    Dr. TITZER: The baby does learn to read .

    ROSSEN: But much of the research he cites for his program seems to be based on his own daughter using it.

    Dr. TITZER: My children could read better at age four than I could at age, you know, at my age, so...

    ROSSEN: Your saying your four-year-old was a better reader than you as an adult?

    Dr. TITZER: Of course, much better. That's correct. And not only that, I was teaching in college at the time, and she could read better than my college students.

    ROSSEN: But experts say those extreme claims just target parents who'd do anything to make their kids smarter. Experts say you're preying on that vulnerability, you're preying on that insecurity just to make money.

    Dr. TITZER: This has nothing to -- this has nothing to do with that. This is about helping babies learn literacy skill.

    ROSSEN: Titzer wouldn't tell us how much money he's made, but they've sold over a million kits. And parents like Ginger Torres say he's cashing in on false promises.

    Ms. TORRES: I was very angry because I felt so misled.

    ROSSEN: By the way, Ginger called the company and did get her money back. Experts say this product can actually be harmful because it forces your baby to watch all of those DVDs , too much TV time. Matt , they say the best way to teach your kids is free. You just talk to them, you interact with them, you sing to them, you play with them. And they'll learn just as well as they can or better than this program .

    LAUER: And at their own pace.

    ROSSEN: Yeah.

    LAUER: Jeff Rossen , thanks very much.

NBC News
updated 11/1/2010 3:18:58 PM ET 2010-11-01T19:18:58

Ginger Torres was fascinated by the television commercials featuring babies, some as young as 3 months old, reading. Not just words but phrases, like “Touch your ears.”

The ads boasted that the remarkable achievement was made possible by “Your Baby Can Read,” a program which promised that with the use of flash cards, DVDs, pop-up books and some quality time between parent and child, almost any preschooler could learn to read before they even entered kindergarten.

Ginger Torres wanted that for her 3-year-old daughter, Chloe, so she bought the kit. It was a decision she would come to regret.

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“The reason I wanted to buy it is to give her a head start before school,” Torres said. “[But] what you’re getting is not really what they say.”

Reading or memorization?
TODAY wanted to find out if the claims were true, so child development experts from the nation’s most prestigious institutions of learning were contacted as part of an investigation of the “Your Baby Can Read” program.

Are those babies really reading?

“No,” said Dr. Nonie Lesaux, a child development expert at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. “They memorize what’s on those cue cards … It’s not reading.”

“It’s an extraordinary manipulation of facts,” said Dr. Maryanne Wolf, director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Tufts University.

From coast to coast, TODAY found 10 experts who were all of the same basic opinion: Young children can be made to recognize or memorize words, but the brains of infants and toddlers are just not developed enough to actually learn to read at the level the way the enticing television ads claim they can.

Related: Preschoolers watching WAY too much TV

There are some remarkable exceptions, like the toddler who surprised Ann Curry on TODAY in 2008 when Curry pulled out a cue card with a word the child had never seen before. She successfully mouthed the word “kangaroo,” but experts say the vast majority of children cannot be taught to read until their brains are developed enough.

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Video: Watch this baby read

Dashed hopes
The problem with programs like “Your Baby Can Read,” the experts TODAY contacted say, is that they promise such results routinely, raising hopes that will only be dashed.

“I think it’s misleading. I think it’s false, and I think it raises false expectations,” said Dr. Karen Hopkins, a developmental pediatrician at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Asked about the experts’ collective opinion that children cannot really learn to read until they are 4 or 5 years old, the creator of “Your Baby Can Read” offered a simple explanation.

“They’re all wrong,” said Dr. Robert Titzer, who calls himself an infant learning expert but actually holds a graduate degree in “human performance” — the study of motor skills.  

Titzer told TODAY his program is backed by scientific research. He acknowledged that it starts with memorization, but insisted it leads to reading.

Related: Fussy newborns may have more troubles later on

“We have a book full of studies that support the use of our program,” Titzer said, agreeing to provide the research.

But instead of published research on “Your Baby Can Read,” Titzer sent TODAY his own customer satisfaction surveys and general studies about child learning.

Video: 17-month-old who can read

Titzer stood by his company’s claims.

“The baby does learn to read,” he said. “My children could read better at age 4 than I could at age, you know, at my age.”

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Titzer would not disclose how much money he’s made off his program, but the company says more than a million “Your Baby Can Read” kits have been sold — some for as much as $200 in stores and online.

Ginger Torres got her money back after complaining to the company, but believes the program is still cashing in on false promises.

Video: Look who’s reading ... a tot!

“I was very upset because I felt so misled,” Torres said.

The experts say the best way to teach your children reading skills is the time-honored one that doesn’t cost a dime.

Read to them. Talk to them. Play with them. If a child is having fun, he or she will learn.


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