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Too Young to Read?

Education: Robert Titzer says he can help parents teach even infants how with his videotapes and books. His critics say it's just a scheme to sell his wares.

August 29, 1998|ELAINE GALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Titzer didn't come to Orange County to be invisible.

Before starting his new teaching job at Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday the Ph.D. in human performance was standing in front of a crowd of parents at an Irvine baby store, touting his video "Your Baby Can Read." Copies were available on site, at $13.99 a shot. Unlike most academics, he comes equipped with his own public relations man.

According to Titzer's teachings, infants as young as 9 months can read, as long as parents don't wait too long to start. Say, by about 3 or 4 months of age.

Titzer concedes that his main study for this theory, and for the book and video he sells via his Web site, is based on his own daughters, now 4 and 7. He has published academic papers in the field of human learning, but not about infant reading. And when challenged by the criticisms of other child-development experts who say babies cannot truly read, Titzer acknowledges that what the infants are doing is memorizing the images of a few words, which despite the title of his video cannot be called reading.

"Initially it's simple word recognition," he said, adding that it takes several months for babies to respond to the word images. But he defends its worth. "There is this window of opportunity for learning language and earlier is better."

Titzer's critics abound, but he also has supporters, who say that in some areas of child development he has done solid and important work. A number of fans also showed up at his Irvine talk, parents who like what he has to say and several who snapped up copies of his video.

"He's like a god," said Corinda Vasquez about Titzer. She was one of the parents at Babies R Us who had been using the video with her child. "He can't do any wrong in our eyes."

Her 14-month-old son, Tanner, has been watching the video for almost a year. "I hate to brag, but Tanner is so smart due to Dr. Titzer's teachings," she said.

The 30-minute video flashes more than 50 words in a sequence followed by a pictorial representation of the word. For example, the word "bellybutton" lingers on the screen, with a slow pronunciation, followed by footage of a child pointing to her bellybutton.

Tanner, after a year of watching Titzer's video, responds to all 50 words. "He needs to see more words in order to learn to read new words," said Titzer. "Now he can only read the words in the video. But that's still quite impressive."

Titzer, 38, said that when his daughter was 9 months old, before she could talk, she would recognize words. If he held up a placard with the word "mouth" on it, she'd open her mouth. "Reading is the most important skill that parents can teach their children," he said.

Titzer's academic credibility isn't questioned by his colleagues at Cal State Fullerton, says Roberta Rikli, chair of the college's division of kinesiology and health promotion, who hired Titzer.

"People are mostly quizzical about his work rather than critical," said Rikli. "They are waiting to see if it's for real."

Cal State Fullerton hired Titzer as a part-time adjunct faculty member, where he will be paid $11,000 to teach and conduct research about infant reading to further his theory--and, critics say, his company profits.

"The lack of rigorous scientific review combined with the commercialization of the product leaves me a bit suspect," said Matthew Melved, executive director of the Zero to Three Foundation in Washington D.C., an organization that conducts research on young childhood.

"Perhaps it impresses adults if a very young child can repeat words like an orangutan, but it doesn't promote their long term-brain power," he said.

Titzer rejects the notion that his work is any more commercial than what other academics do. Some professors write textbooks and require students to buy them, he said. "I'm not getting rich off this," he said, and parents can make their own videos or use flash cards.

Melved's concern with Titzer's work is that parents may wind up teaching rote memory-based learning rather than cultivating thinking, thereby undermining a child's long-term progress.

Defending his video, Titzer says Melved's claim that it won't lead to higher thinking skills is ridiculous.

"Babies gain by learning new words, and learning new words helps their thinking skills," he said.

Melved advises parents to resist the hype of rearing an uber-baby. "Being able to read at a young age does not guarantee that a child is going to be successful later," he said.

Another child development expert questioned the use of videotapes to teach very young children.

"In the first two to three years of life, the best learning occurs in terms of human interaction, not in the form of videotapes," said Dr. Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

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