WHEN I HEARD a few months ago about a book titled "How to Teach Your Baby to Read," I figured it was another attempt to take advantage of a craze that has parents jamming books in their children's hands before they depart the maternity ward.
It turns out that the book is 37 years old, and the techniques it espouses were discovered during 60-year-old research on brain-damaged babies.
Even before "How to Teach" was published by Random House in 1964, its author, Philadelphia therapist Glenn Doman, had been roundly criticized. Doman and seven others had been studying brain-injured children since 1938. They expanded their research to include normal infants, and founded the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia.
The book presents four tenets: "Tiny children want to read. Tiny children can learn to read. Tiny children should learn to read, and tiny children are learning to read."
Doman, who's still going strong at 82, informed parents that, after age 2, reading gets harder every year. So 2 years old is the optimum age to start reading. "Should you be willing to go to a little more trouble," he wrote, "you can begin at 18 months. If you're very clever, you can begin at 10 months of age."
Doman's audacity earned him opprobrium, especially in the midst of a decade known for progressive views. Children, most educators believed, learned to read naturally, in their own time.
His techniques were even more disputed. Exposure is the key, he said. "Just as a mother speaks instinctively in loud, clear tones to a baby, so must the reading stimulus be large, clear and repeated for very young children."
Working for just two or three minutes at a time with up to three children who were about 2 years old -- but repeating the exercise several times a day -- the teacher flashes word cards with large print. The first words are anatomy words, such as "head," "toes" and "ear," the parts of the body babies first explore.
Vocabulary words are carefully increased, progressing from "self" words, such as "mommy" and "brother," to "neighborhood" and environment words such as "fork" and "milk." In a culminating activity, children create their own book, "My Magic Words," in which they depict family members, household objects and familiar situations.
Doman believes that reading is not an academic subject, such as geography, but a brain function, such as seeing and hearing. It's also a joyous activity for parents and child, he says, "filled with fun, enjoyment, discovery and pride.
"Teach joyously," he advises. "Tiny children have an absolute rage to learn about everything in the world, and they want to do so right now."
Other advice: Go very quickly, applaud your child's success enthusiastically, and don't test. "Trust your baby -- he or she will quickly succeed in telling you how much she or he is learning."
The program was commercially packaged in the 1960s, and the latest edition is still available. Of course, the "full-color slide film" advertised in 1964 is now a video.
Doman's Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential has grown into a worldwide nonprofit organization with offices in such places as Kobe, Japan, and Mexico City. It has a small campus in Philadelphia, where parents from all over the world attend seven-day classes.
Doman and his associates have produced a small library of books, among them "What to Do About Your Brain-injured Child," "How to Multiply Your Baby's Intelligence," "How to Give Your Baby Encyclopedic Knowledge" and -- this is one my mother missed -- "How to Teach Your Baby to Be Physically Superb."
Doman was traveling in the Far East last week, but I had a delightful conversation with his assistant, Nest Holvey. She countered the criticism that teaching babies to read deprives them of the play time they need during their youngest, developmental years.
"Anything to a child is play," she said. "One of our pieces of advice is that if a child or you [don't] enjoy it, don't do it."
("Approaches to Beginning Reading," by Robert C. Aukerman, published in 1971 by John Wiley & Sons Inc., aided in the descriptions used in this column.)