'It's never too early' to read Study: Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University find that infants begin reacting to words and their sounds as early as 7 1/2 months.

Education Beat

March 22, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

READING BY 9 months?

Of course not, but babies at that tender age know more than you think they do.

In the psychology department of the Johns Hopkins University, researchers are studying how babies react to words and their sounds. They've found that kids as young as 7 1/2 months can pick out such words as "kingdom" and "hamlet" if they've heard them repeatedly.

Moreover, babies at 8 months can remember words two weeks after hearing them 10 times in short stories.

"It's not that they know the meaning of words at that age," said Peter Jusczyk, a professor in the Hopkins psychology department who heads the Johns Hopkins University Infant Language Research Laboratory.

"But babies come with remarkable abilities to perceive speech."

It was quiet on the Homewood campus one morning last week during spring break, but Jusczyk's lab was bustling. At half-hour intervals, parents (usually mothers) and their babies arrived for sessions in the lab's testing booth.

Comfortably perched in the parent's lap, each child listened to recorded words and sounds arranged by computer. A light flashed above the speaker through which the recording was played. When the infants looked at the light, the word lists began and continued to play as long as the babies watched the light. A researcher hidden behind a screen recorded the sessions on video.

Babies who stopped listening looked away from the light, telling the researchers that they were no longer interested.

Using this technique -- it's painless and stimulating for the tiny volunteers, who get treats and an "Infant Scientist Degree" when their work is done -- Jusczyk and his colleagues have come to some tentative conclusions about infants' language acquisition.

In one experiment that got national attention last fall, the scientists tape-recorded women narrating three different children's stories, each lasting about 10 minutes. Then they visited the homes of 15 infants about 8 months old, playing the stories to them every day for 10 days.

The psychologists identified 36 "content" words (other than "the" and "an") from the stories and waited two weeks after the home visits to play them in list form to each child in the lab testing booth. A control group of infants hadn't heard the stories, and researchers had a "foil" list of common words not included in the stories.

"What we found," said Jusczyk, "is that the babies listened longer -- significantly longer -- to the words from the stories. What makes this even more amazing is that acoustically, the whole shape of a word changes in conversation vs. a list form, and yet these kids were able to discern words from a list they'd heard read to them in story form."

Here are some other findings of the Hopkins psychologists: At 4 1/2 months, infants respond to the sound patterns of their names. "That pattern is significant," said Jusczyk, whose chief lab assistant is his wife, Ann Marie Jusczyk. "It's not that they know, 'This is my name,' but that the pattern is familiar to them."

Infants in English-speaking families store words accented on the first syllable before they store other words. Why? Because the majority of words they hear around the house (mommy, daddy, kitty, baby) -- and almost all boys' names -- are accented on the first syllable. (Some with second-syllable accents, like Jerome and Bernard, are shortened to Jerry and Bernie.)

This may not be true in French, which has a smaller proportion of words stressed on the first syllable. One of Jusczyk's graduate students is in Paris -- his tough assignment is to replicate the Baltimore experiments with infants from French-speaking homes.

At 6 months, U.S. and Dutch infants pay equal attention to words in either language. But by 9 months, according to Jusczyk, "the English prefer English words, and the Dutch prefer Dutch words."

Something significant happens in language development between 6 months and 9 months, and then at about 18 months: A child's vocabulary and grasp of language suddenly expand. It's possible, Jusczyk believes, that what happens at a year and a half is that the babies are able to put to use the language they've been storing since birth.

What does this have to do with reading?

Jusczyk's work shows that exposure to language at an early age is important.

"It's pretty clear that if you read to your child at a very young age," said Jusczyk, "the child is picking up very useful information about the language. Don't forget that a lot of our experiments lack the real close contact between parent and child, the rhyming games you can play, the turning of pages of a book. All of this conveys to the child that this is an important activity that Mom and Dad value."

Jusczyk warned, however, against such strategies as using flash cards to accelerate the process. "That's the worst thing you can do. You ought to do what's natural, what's fun for the child. There's no room for drill at that age."

Pat Scully, early childhood education coordinator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agreed.

"I'm of the school that it's never too early," she said, "but you really can't read a book to a baby in the sense that you read a book to a 9-year-old. You can, though, get them used to turning pages, learning that print goes from left to right, what a word is, pointing to pictures and so on. The physical aspect of it is important -- the lap, the coziness, learning that reading is a good thing.

"It's sad that so many kids don't get this."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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