How babies learn and why flashcards don’t work

Early Childhood Development

How babies learn and why flashcards don’t work

Years of literacy research have shown that if you want to teach Your Child language, you shouldn’t do it with formal reading instruction — which is why flashcards or reading apps for toddlers are usually useless. 

The reason is, before learning reading, your child first needs to master the spoken language and understand the actual meaning of words.

What are flashcards?
Many mothers teach their babies by showing them cards with boldly written words while speaking the words. They think that if their child can correctly identify the card, the child is learning the word and hence reading. They think they are giving their children a head start.

Why flashcards don’t work
Solid research shows, however, that in order to be able to read, spoken language must be mastered first and that flashcards are, therefore, useless. To learn a language Your Child needs to interact and communicate with you and other adults. To do that, you may be pointing out and naming interesting things around or always respond to Your Child’s interests. 

When you provide your children with a strong foundation of language development, through playful conversation, storytime, and reading aloud, they’ll learn to easily decode and comprehend printed text. If they miss the language development and go straight to reading text, they not only learn it much harder but also don’t know what they are learning. Because they don’t understand what they read —  “Du kannst Deutsch lesen, aber verstehst du es?” (you can read German, but do you understand it?). 

Therefore, putting flashcards in front of babies doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t stimulate the children as much as communicating with them about the world around them. Even during the babbling stage, children learn a lot about language by listening to adults and conversing with them.

Professional psychologists agree
Experts in child development agree with this. Psychologists advise parents against flashcards or other baby-can-read products since there has been no convincing evidence of their effectiveness. When children say the words correctly, they aren’t reading, they’re just responding to shapes in a typical stimulus-response fashion — just like a monkey. 

Don’t train your child like we train monkeys
We can train a monkey to pick the letter A, among the three letters ABC, by rewarding it with a banana every time it picks A when we say A. And yes, you can train Your Child to pick the correct word, by rewarding your child with a smile. But a monkey can’t understand that A is just a symbol used to form a word, which is used to describe something (say an Apple). And a child doesn’t understand the word Apple if the child has not touched, smelled, or eaten one. Yes, Your Child might be able to point it on a flashcard, but the difference between an apple and a red rubber ball becomes only clear if the baby has played with both. 

What we can learn from Finland
Finland doesn’t teach reading early.

Students in Finland, the world leader in education and literacy, are not introduced to formal reading instruction until age 7. Finnish kindergarten and preschool emphasize play, activities, project-based learning, and language development via real live conversations and storytelling.

Once the children have a deep understanding of words and their meanings, they can then learn to spell them out. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is to understand what words actually mean. To do that, Your Child needs rich experiences with you and others in the family. 

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