Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why Is the 'Your Baby Can Read' Program Being Investigated by the Federal Trade Commission?

Within our current education system we are often so focused on 'child based learning' and on constructivism (an established theory of knowing and learning rather than a theory of teaching) and teachers often do not realise that there is a serious lack of supporting evidence for its effectiveness in teaching children to read. Unfortunately this 'method' of teaching reading- the 'whole-language' approach to teaching and learning - reflects this philosophy of learning, and has been the predominant approach for early literacy teaching and learning throughout English - speaking countries (Pearson, 2000; Westwood, 1999, 2004). This approach assumes that children are inherently active, self-regulating learners who construct knowledge for themselves, with teachers needing to give little or no explicit decoding instruction.

While this may be ok for many children there are around 20 - 30% who will fail. In Queensland (Australia) for example there are estimated to be around 20% of children who aren't reading to the expected level by the age of 10 according to NAPLAN testing. This group of around 20 - 30% of our children also include those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds who often do not have rich phonological knowledge and phonemic awareness upon which to base new learning. Being taught using this 'whole language' method has the effect of compounding their disadvantage once they begin school. This is particularly the case for children from non-English speaking backgrounds, including Indigenous children where English may be their second or third language. So why do so many people advocate their method- and use it? Results show over and over again that this does not facilitate literacy development and achievement for ALL children.

Health Literacy

The 'Your Baby Can Read' product is based on this method of teaching reading. It is advertised around the world with their video series having been run on cable television for years. Recently however the Federal Trade Commission received a complaint arguing that the product amounts to deceptive marketing.

Why Is the 'Your Baby Can Read' Program Being Investigated by the Federal Trade Commission?

On a basic level the Federal Trade Commission will look to the program name- and it's promise 'Your Baby Can Read!'

According to the World English Dictionary- 'baby' - means ' a newborn or recently born child; infant ' Most would describe a baby as a child under the age of one- and a toddler thereafter- generally when they start to 'toddler' around on their feet. So it is not developmentally possible for a 'baby' to 'read'.

The program also does not appear to clearly define what they consider 'to read' to actually mean.

Teaching very young children, who are already talking (ie older than 'babies') to recognise whole words is not something new. Even very young brains have the capacity to memorize whole words - as is the main component within the 'Your Baby Can Read' (YBCR) program, and to link them with meaning ie see 'wave' and do the action. However this does not directly correlate with learning to 'read' and certainly not to develop the skills required to 'spell' words which is interlined with literacy development. It could do more harm than good for many if parents are encouraged to push children into something they are developmentally not ready for. We don't expect them to start running at the age of 6 months- so it would be laughable to buy trainers and start manually moving their legs back and forth quickly in a quest to develop an Olympic runner. Moving legs back and forth in the air quickly isn't running- and memorizing words isn't 'reading'.

Children need to learn to speak before learning to read- ie our spoken word recorded on paper in text. Babies begin to develop language/ speech at different rates however when young enough to be called 'babies' they are not yet talking. They are developmentally unable to say the words on the 'YBCR' flash cards. The name of the product is being investigated for deceptive advertising, and a recommendation will probably be that the name be changed to more accurately convey what is achievable ie indicating that the product may help toddlers to memorize the shapes of words.

According to the National Institute of Child Health Human Development: only 5% of children learn to read effortlessly, 20 - 30% of children learn to read relatively easily once exposed to formal instruction, and for the remaining 60% of children, learning to read represents a considerable challenge. For at least 20 - 30%, learning to read is one of the most difficult tasks they will ever encounter during their school years. 74% of the children who have reading problems in the 3rd grade, continue with the problems into the 9th grade.

According to National Assessment of Educational Progress, approximately one-third of all poor performers in fourth grade have college-educated parents. Fortunately, 90% - 95% of poor readers can greatly increase reading skills through prevention and early intervention programs that focus predominantly on teaching children about the alphabet code using synthetic phonics. We must teach these children explicitly and directly using (synthetic) phonics if we are to help them before they completely 'switch off'. The problem is that many don't recognise who these children are until already failing- with 'phonics' being used as some type of remedial program. Why not just teach all to 'de-code'- and to develop phonological awareness from the very beginning? This is something that is not included within the 'YBCR' program.

Parents should not despair- they can help their children themselves for free, and potentially help them far more in the short and long term. Parents can start listening for sounds in words very early on with children- alongside their individual language development. When they can say the word 'cat' they can also learn to hear the sounds in cat ie c+a+t (sounds not letter names) Start looking for the pictures of those sounds in their environment and in words when sharing books- ie the picture of the sound 'buh' looks like this b (focus on lower case) In the early years children need to learn that we read words from left to right, and that the sounds in the words correspond with the sounds we make with our mouths when saying them aloud. Listen for how many sounds there are in words- and what phonemes/ digraphs etc are used to represent them.

Ask children listen to words 'sounded out' slowly (ie blending) and we manipulate sounds. (what word would be say if we took the 'r' out of 'frog' etc. ) Basically developing phonological awareness- teaching using synthetic phonics- amd making it meaningful as it relates to the words they are speaking. So (other than their name) the first words parents could teach are words that they can de-code- using a small number of sounds. Within the Jolly Phonics program for example the sounds ''s,i,n,p, a, t' are introduced because the children can learn to reading and spell numerous words using those sounds. It doesn't have to be those sounds though. What is important here is that the child is learning at his own pace- and that is it fun. Yes, I have taught many very young children to read and spell- based on learning the 'code'. Teaching and learning strategies need to be developmentally appropriate - and not at the cost of other types of learning.

What is 'reading' and 'spelling'?

We could perhaps describe the main concepts being:
* that the words we speak are made up of sounds.
* that these sounds can be represented on paper - and together become 'words'. Words can then be used to form sentences and so on- with the text used for a number of reasons- to tell a story, to record information etc
* that sounds are represented on paper from left to right
* that we form pictures of sounds/ letters on paper in ways that makes writing easier (and will be quicker and neater) - ie from top to bottom and flowing across the page
* that some sounds in spoken language can be represented using more than one letter, and in different ways ('f' could be ph, ff etc)
* that some sounds on paper can be spoken in different ways depending on the other sounds in the word - eg 'ow' as in cow or as in 'tow'
* that some words can't be de-coded and must be learnt (eg yacht)

If children learn 'the code' then they don't need to rely on memory, as happens within the 'YBCR' program. Children can therefore learn to not only be confident, fluent readers but also proficient when spelling nonsense and unfamiliar words. In fact this is recognised as being so important that 'non words' are now included within the UK, within National Curriculum spelling tests. In the early stages learning to read and spell words actually has far more to do with the mechanics of the alphabet code than the meaning of the words. Ensuring that 'nonsense' words are included sends the message that synthetic phonics is important. Children taught using a whole language approach - as in YBCR- will struggle as they haven't had chance to learn the words. Children taught using phonics can read and spell any word that is de-codable- which is most of the English language. It would seem far more logical - and helpful-to give them those skills instead.

Yes, some children will learn to read using sight words-combined with other skills- ie the whole language approach put forward within YBCR however if they can learn in this way then they can learn in any way and won't have difficulties later on. Studies show that children can start to learn to read and spell later on and still be at the same level as others. In many countries with excellent academic standards children don't even start school until the age of seven. The Cambridge Primary Review is the biggest review of primary education for more than 40 years. Within the review formal schooling is not recommended until at least six years of age. There is no 'window of opportunity' for learning to read, as there is for learning language - as the creator of the program claims. My approach is to start early and instill a love of learning - and to create an effective partnership with child, parent and then teacher. The confidence that comes with early achievement is far more likely to help that child continue to do well in school.

Good early years educators start developing phonological awareness and a love of the written word early on- being careful to make sure they are working at the child's level, that learning is meaningful, and that he is having FUN. They offer play opportunities to create learning. The focus is on helping children to become effective and motivated learners- however they are also aware that learning to read is something most children need to actually be taught explicitly. Parents don't necessarily trust that their child is going to have fantastic teachers, so why not teach them to read and spell even before school if ready? And this is why so many turn probably to the 'YBCR' program. They don't see this as pushing their child but more as a preventative measure. They do have a valid concern that not all teachers have the knowledge they need, in order to teach ALL of the children in their class to read and spell with confidence.

Literacy is different to most subjects - the children who will find it difficult need direct, explicit instruction in the alphabet code. However trying to do this as early as possible isn't the answer. We need to teach parents what they can do- and also how to know if their child is ready. The children who will struggle in school won't 'just pick it up' - they won't 'just catch' up. If this was the case literacy achievement wouldn't be so poor in so many schools and in so many countries.

What is worrying for society is that delinquency and poor literacy achievement are known to be so interlinked; with several US prisons actually predicting future intake on year 3 and 4 reading scores! We are failing too many children, even though we know that if we use a preventative approach and teach children directly and explicitly in the early years, with a focus on phonological awareness, then we could change this. So we need to arm parents with the best information. My concern with this program is that it doesn't send out the best information- especially if they have a child who is going to have phonological processing difficulties and poor phonological awareness.

Of course there are benefits to using the 'YBCR' product as it encourages parents to become actively involved in their child's learning. Many children will love the attention they get when adults cheer and clap their 'success'. And many may develop a love of the written word because of this positive attention- if, of course, they succeed. The reality though is that YBCR can not only confuse many children but give them the wrong message about what reading and spelling is. It sends out the wrong message to parents who are only looking for ways to help their children- and can inadvertently do just the opposite.

How, as adult readers, do we 'read' unfamiliar words. As these are not words you use daily you will go back to your ability to 'de-code'. You will start from left to right and sound out the word- looking for 'sounds' or smaller words- and putting them together. For example in the word 'multitudinously' you would probably read 'multi' first and then sound out the rest- tu (chew) or tud followed by 'in and then 'ously' (as in enormously) You may have done it differently. If asked to spell the word 'fasorta' you will realise there are more than 10 ways you could 'spell' this word based on your knowledge of the alphabet code. If having to learn whole words you would not know how to spell this word as you hadn't be taught it specifically.

Bottom line, children deserve to be taught in ways that will work for the highest number. Teaching them to recognise whole words - the crux of this product- - is not something that will work for all children and will actually confuse them as to what reading and spelling actually is. Why risk starting out on the wrong foot? Parents can prevent reading difficulties by helping their children in the early years- but should be doing so in ways that are supported by modern research and empirical studies and more likely to help the greatest number of children. 'Synthetic phonics' is possibly our best weapon in the fight against literacy difficulties and anything does not use this at the centre of their teaching should be carefully reviewed and ultimately discarded.

There has been considerable research into early literacy development over the past few decades, and this has been cited within government reports such as the Rose Report (UK) and the AU Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. All recommending that early programs focus primarily on systematic, explicit and direct teaching in phonics. The YBCR includes no phonics work (the development of phonological awareness and the link to our alphabet code) So in addition to 'babies' being developmentally unable to read using any method, there are also valid issues relating to whether the 'Your baby Can Read' program can be effective for older children. As a result this investigation by the Federal Trade Commission is highly likely to be upheld.

Why Is the 'Your Baby Can Read' Program Being Investigated by the Federal Trade Commission?

Conference Calls

No comments:

Post a Comment