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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Titzer stood by his company’s claims.
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.
“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.