Elizabeth Barrett is to all appearances your standard 17-month-old girl, complete with wisps of gossamer hair so blond it’s almost white and the unsteady gait that is the definition of a toddler. As her parents and two other adults talk earnestly around her, she paws through a couple of large-format children’s books on a table, blissfully unaware of the conversation around her.
Then TODAY’s Ann Curry holds up a sheet of paper with the word “HAPPY” printed in big, block letters and asks Elizabeth to read it.
“Hap-py,” Elizabeth chirps without hesitation, enunciating each syllable in a bright little voice.
Curry holds up another sheet of paper.
“Zip-per,” Elizabeth says.
Curry goes on flashing words, none of which Elizabeth has been coached on, and the remarkable little girl reads them.
“Kang-a-roo.” “Flow-er.” “Nice to meet you.” “Take a bath.” “Good morning, Ann.”
This happened on the TODAY show Monday in New York. Elizabeth wasn’t showing off or performing, this sort of thing being old hat to her. Way back when she was 13 months old, she read her first word, says her mother, Katy Barrett of Lubbock, Texas.
The word was “corn,” and little Elizabeth read it on a cereal box at the supermarket. There was no picture of corn to give her a clue. She just pointed at the word and read it. She also signed the word in sign language.
Katy Barrett and her husband, Michael, are speech pathologists, and when Elizabeth was born, they said on Monday, they started teaching her sign language along with spoken language. They read to her often, and her favorite television program — the only one her parents let her watch — was a PBS show called “Signing Times,” which teaches kids sign language.
Yet, as much as her parents worked to stimulate her language skills, they were as astonished as anyone when she started picking out words and reading them, especially as they never attempted to teach her to read.
“We tried to do everything we could to try to stimulate her language growth,” Michael Barrett told Curry. “From day one Katy has been using sign language with her. We think anything relating to language is a good thing to nurture.”
Even so, he went on, that wouldn’t be enough to teach Elizabeth to read. “I think there’s more to it than that,” he said. “I think she has some special abilities that have just been a fortunate thing she’s been born with.”
“This is something we never expected,” added his wife. “We didn’t teach her this. We don’t sit down and drill her on words. She loves reading books.”
Nature or nurture?
The Barretts were joined by Susan Schwartz, a clinical director at the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the New York University Child Study Center, who agreed that Elizabeth’s extraordinary abilities have a lot to do with genetics.
“I think she has extremely well-developed visual perception and visual memory,” Schwartz said. “I think that Katy and Michael have done a great job giving her a lot of multisensory input, so she sees things, she’s talking about them, she is signing and she is using all of those skills together.”
The Barretts said that as amazing as their daughter’s skills are, they’re also a little frightening.
“The fact that she could do it was scary to us at first,” said Michael Barrett.
“Even though this is an amazing skill, it makes her different, and it’s not easy to be different. So that worries me,” added Katy Barrett.
In fact, they said, the reason they called their local NBC affiliate with their daughter’s story was because they wanted to reach out to experts who could help them deal with Elizabeth’s abilities.
On Monday, they were surprised to discover that Elizabeth had talents they weren’t aware of. While Schwartz was talking, Curry wrote a word in script on the back of a sheet of paper, then showed it to Elizabeth.
“That’s cursive,” Michael Barrett started to say.
“Ba-by,” Elizabeth interrupted.
“She reads cursive?” Curry exclaimed.
Replied Katy Barrett, “We didn’t know that.”