Brain is receptive far beyond age 3, educator says

The Education Beat

Development: One expert argues that children who don't receive optimal brain stimulation before age 3 are not slated for failure.

September 05, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PARENTS, RELAX. If you haven't played Mozart in the nursery or read 300 books to your children by the age of 3, they are not condemned to a life of illiteracy.

That's the message in a new book generating controversy even before its publication this week.

In "The Myth of the First Three Years," John T. Bruer, president of a St. Louis foundation specializing in education and child development, takes aim at the view that the first three years of life are critical for optimal brain development and that children (particularly poor children) who don't receive stimulation at that time are essentially doomed.

Nonsense, Bruer writes, the view isn't supported by brain science. Fortunately, he says, we learn throughout life, and if we don't receive optimal stimulation in the first three years, we can still learn readily in later life.

Those who urge parents to read to babies lest they flunk the SAT are generating needless panic, in Bruer's view. "Brain-based parenting advice has the same character as the advice one gets from reading [popular] books on nutrition and diet. You want to live to be 100? You should have a glass of red wine every day, but avoid alcohol."

As for reading, Bruer asserts that children who don't develop fluency in the normal period of time -- the second or third grade -- "are not necessarily condemned to a life of illiteracy. With proper instruction, junior high and high school students, and even adults, can acquire these skills, and with the appropriate instruction they can do so in a relatively short period of time."

Even IQ scores can be increased in later years, Bruer argues. "Psycholinguists tell us that there is no critical period for vocabulary learning. The limiting factor in vocabulary growth, and presumably for some of the other things verbal IQ measures, is exposure to new words, facts and experiences. The brain can benefit from this exposure at almost any time -- early childhood, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and senescence."

In other words, says Bruer, the human brain isn't hard-wired at any age.

As one approaching senescence, I have mixed emotions about Bruer's argument. On one hand, it's counter-intuitive. I've seen too many youngsters from impoverished backgrounds succeed in school and life specifically because their first teachers -- their parents -- prodded and inspired them.

On the other hand, Bruer's view is comforting. Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks. Maybe I'll take up the piano again.

It's understandable why Bruer's book has the 0-3 establishment in a dither even before its Sept. 9 publication date. The 0-3 folks are everywhere, playing classical music to toddlers in Florida, handing out CDs to every new mother in Georgia. County libraries in Maryland hold pre-reading sessions for 2-month-olds (accompanied, of course, by a parent).

What if Bruer's views eventually were to prevail? We would redirect national policy and educational energy, and revise child-rearing advice, to reflect the idea that all education received through grade 12 is crucial. Assuming limited funds, an entire industry would be threatened. Kiss Head Start goodbye, although adult literacy programs might get a much-needed boost.

As the editorialists of The Sun used to say, this bears watching.

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