Engaging the Sensitive Period for Language

According to Montessori, there are “sensitive periods” in which the child is intensely interested in and ideally suited to learn different skills. The earliest and longest lasting of these is the sensitive period for language, lasting from birth to age six. Doman also speaks of the incredible ease of learning language in this period, although he caps the range at age five. Others say that native-level fluency is most easily attained between birth and age three, with the window of ease closing around six or seven years of age. There is a general agreement, however, that earlier is easier when it comes to learning language.

We are fully utilizing this sensitive period with baby D. In addition to the reading cards, we make sure that he hears several languages spoken every day. His dad reads to him in Russian. One of the Russian language books we have is  Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia series.

I read French language children’s books aloud– this gives me a chance to work on correct pronunciation, also. Our public library has a small but well stocked foreign language section in the children’s department. Here is what we have currently:

It is important to us that he hear language spoken correctly. While his dad has near native level fluency in Russian and Arabic, and very respectable Mandarin, I have what I learned in high school french class. So I am listening to as much spoken French as I can, exposing baby D to recorded spoken French, and pronouncing what I read to him as carefully as I can. We are very happy to be able to open up the world of language for baby D. It will be fascinating to see how his understanding of multiple languages develops.


Next Step In Reading… and Russian!

The next step in using the Doman method to teach baby D to read is to add in two more sets of words, so that he will be seeing a total of twenty-five words every day. Now we are focusing on parts of the body. These are our first two sets of body words:


He will see these words several times, as well as the three sets of words we have been using. Starting tomorrow I will remove one word from all of the old sets and replace it with a new word. Each day thereafter one old word from each set will be replaced. I make sure to change the order of the words each time they are shown so that there is no association of the words based on pattern. This may seem like quite an ambitious program for so young a child, but Doman says that the child at this age assimilates information as fast as we can provide it, and that it is far more likely for a child to lose interest because of boredom from moving too slowly rather than to become overwhelmed with too much. Each session only lasts a few seconds– long enough to briefly show each card and say the words. We spend a total of a few minutes per day “playing the word game”. I figure if it works, great, and if not then no harm has been done and we’ve spent some time interacting. Before beginning each session I make sure I choose a time when baby D is alert and in a good mood. I then say either “I have some words to show you!” in an excited tone, or “would you like to play the word game?”. He often smiles and makes vocalizations when I offer the words. I think he enjoys it.

Baby D is lucky enough to have a multi-lingual father. He has been hearing several languages since birth, and will be given the opportunity to learn to read them as well. Today my husband will begin showing him Russian words. Here are his word cards:

Just like with the English words, my husband will begin by showing baby D one set of words, adding another the next day, and another the third day. He will show all of them for five days before beginning to drop an old word and add a new word every day.

One of the attractive things about this method is that there is no pressure to do everything perfectly. Doman stresses that the parent should always present words with a positive attitude, and take care to make sure that the child is in a good mood and wants to see the words. He also says that even a reading program implemented imperfectly can not help but benefit the child– no need to be obsessive about doing everything precisely the right way. There is no pressure on the child. Reading is a delightful gift, a key that unlocks the treasures of learning. Any attitude of compulsion or drudgery is anathema to this method. If this works, this will be a very pleasant way to learn to read.

Adventures in Learning to Read

We began today to use the Doman method to teach baby D to read. Glenn Doman, through his work with brain injured children starting in the 1950’s, found that it was possible and natural for very young children to learn to read, and that some parents had been doing just that for a long time. Just as the child learns to speak his or her native language effortlessly by exposure to the sound of the spoken language, so the child  learns to read by exposure to written language. His method was popularized in the 1970’s with the publication of How to teach Your Baby to Read. The method is simple: show the child large, clearly written words and tell the child what the words are. He suggests beginning with fifteen “first words” that are familiar to the child– mommy, daddy, the child’s name, names of relatives, familiar items in the child’s environment, favorite activities– written on 6″ by 24″ cards. They are very large so that the child can see them easily and clearly. Over time the vocabulary progresses to body parts, household items, verbs, and other words needed to make complete sentences. The cards the words are written on get progressively smaller over time, so that eventually the child is reading standard sized print in a book.

The book How to teach Your Baby to Read is brief but informative. The first part of the book addresses that it is possible to teach a very young child to read and why one would want to begin that early. The second part of the book covers making materials and the progression of vocabulary. It is highly unusual to begin teaching reading this early, I know, so I will let Mr. Doman speak for himself:

“When we began to study the literature on the subject intensively we were impressed by four facts:

1. The history of teaching little children to read was not new and indeed stretches back for centuries.

2. Often people generations apart do the same things although for different reasons and philosophies.

3. Those who had decided to teach young children to read had all used systems which, although they varied somewhat in technique, had many common factors.

4. Most importantly, in all of the cases we were able to find where small children were taught to read in the home, everyone who tried succeeded, no matter what the method.”  How to teach Your Baby to Read, pp.55-56

“The question as to when to begin to teach a child to read is a fascinating one. When is the child ready to learn anything?… Beyond two years of age, reading gets harder every year. If your child is five, it will be easier than it would be if he were six. Four is easier still, and three is even easier. One year of age is the best time to begin if you want to expend the least amount of time and energy in teaching your child to read. (Should you be willing to go to a little trouble you can begin at eight months or if you are very clever at three months of age.” How to teach Your Baby to Read, pp. 104-105                     

“If you start your child at one year old or before, he may not yet talk, or say only ‘mommy’ and one or two other words. It is quite possible to be able to read before one is able to speak. We have seen thousands of children who can read thousands of words who can not yet talk.Among adults it is almost always true that an adult can read a great deal more of a new language than he can understand of that language through his ear. Remember that a baby is learning a new language.Let us suppose that you have decided to teach your six-month-old child to read. Absolutely fine, go right ahead. Do it exactly in the same manner in which you would teach a child who talks. It will be easier for the six-month-old but more difficult for you… Remember reading is not talking. We adults are apt to think the two are the same thing. This is both unfortunate and unwise. Tiny children are capable of reading before they can talk. A six-month-old can not say his name yet but he can most definitely recognize the reading card with his name on it if he has been shown it frequently… The fact that your child may be too young to speak or may not wish to say his reading words does not negate the fact that you are increasing and enriching his language by teaching him to read. Indeed such investments in teaching the baby to read will speed his talking and broaden his vocabulary. Remember that language is language, whether transmitted to the brain via the eye or via the ear.” How to Teach Your Baby to Read, pp.123-124        


We want learning to always be natural and pleasurable for baby D. While it is certainly possible to learn to read at the traditional “school age”, it is not as easy at that age and often proves a frustration to children and colors the perception of learning and reading throughout childhood and maybe even into adulthood. The aim of early reading is not to make the child more “advanced”, but to ensure that learning is a delight rather than drudgery.

Here are our first sets of cards:

The first set of words. Baby D's name is also in this set to make five words.

The second set of words also includes the names of two family members, again to total five words.


The third set of five words.

Baby D, just because.

A Word A Day

Those familiar with Glenn Doman know he insists that the easiest time to teach a child to read is in the years before he or she is school age. He says it is easier to teach a child to read at four than at five, at three than at four, at two than at three, and at one than at two. He says that once a child is five or six years old, the window for ease of learning has passed, and while it is possible to teach reading once a child is of an age to be in school, it will not be done as quickly or as painlessly as it could have been done earlier. My parents were not familiar with Doman or his work, but they did teach me to read early. They just saw it as part of a natural progression, and not something unusual or mysterious. I believe that their approach gave reading consistently positive associations for me, and avoided the stress that is often part of learning to read in school.

Interestingly, they say that they did not actively teach me letters. They just happened to watch Wheel of Fortune in the evenings, and they say that I was fascinated by it and learned the letters by seeing Vanna turn them. I do not remember this. My father points out that Wheel of Fortune uses an almost ideal teaching method– someone clearly says the letter, then the letter is shown. Eventually someone reads what the letters spell. They did not realize that I was making connections between written letters, their sounds, and words until one day I looked at the cover of a baby book and said “B-A-B-Y. Baby!” My mother was shocked, because no one had gone over letter sounds or making words with me. Thanks, Pat and Vanna.

This falls right in with Doman’s theory. He says that when very young children are shown written words, and when those words are pronounced clearly, the child will begin to figure out the sounds associated with letters on his or her own. This is why he advocates using the whole word method with babies and moving to phonics when children are older. Phonics are essential– he just contends that older children are more suited to phonetic learning, and that children who were introduced to words as young babies will have much of it figured out and have an easier time learning phonics when they are older.

The next thing my parents did, and something common to many parents, was to label things in the house so that I could see the words. So at one time a visitor to our house would have been greeted with helpful signs: “chair”, “table”, “wall”, “cabinet” etc. There was even a label on the ceiling.

Once the household words were old hat, my father began doing something that I think helped me tremendously in building vocabulary and learning how to spell. Every day he brought me a new word written on an index card. My job was to learn the meaning of the word and how to spell it by the next day. Upon demonstrating that I knew the word and its spelling I was given a new one. This was a delightfully fun game, and I waited eagerly each day for my new word. This ‘word a day’ game laid a broad vocabulary foundation for me which gave me much more confidence once I got to school. My father says that he could have started bringing me words earlier, he just didn’t think of it until I was almost four years old.

Doman would agree– children can learn written words from the time they are babies! And new words don’t have to be introduced one at a time. The younger a child is, Doman contends, the faster the child learns and the more– and more quickly– words can be introduced. A child who reads early is not more gifted than a child who does not read early. The early reader has just been given the tools to be able to do so. I am really grateful to my parents for providing an environment that was conducive to learning to read naturally and painlessly. I am excited about providing the same opportunity for my child from infancy.