Robert Titzer never wanted to be on television, yet his journey to infomercials began when his wife, Thea, told him she was pregnant in 1990. Nine months later, Aleka was his firstborn, a pivotal moment for the Evansville native with a passion for learning how people learn. Titzer had a busy life new parents know well: He worked, cleaned house, cooked, and paid bills.
When Aleka was three months and eight days old, Titzer held a sheet of paper with the letters C L A P. He read the word and clapped. He had several other flashcards: face, laugh, and pointing. Some words repeated several times, and Aleka sat in her high chair giving no indication she knew what her father was doing. The next day, the two repeated their session. He wanted to work with her every day, but when he was too busy, he made a video with the same tutorial. “It was not that great of a video,” Titzer admits.
He continued for six weeks — working one-on-one when he could, playing the video when he couldn’t — until distracted, he played the video without sound. Before he could correct his mistake, a picture of a foot came on the screen, and the almost five-month-old Aleka pointed to her foot. Titzer thought she had memorized the order of the words. He shuffled the flashcards randomly, and Aleka recognized numerous words
By 18 months old, Aleka looked at a card with the letter B, and she said, “Buh.” Then, the letter T, and she said, “Tee.” Finally, she saw T I O N and said, “Shun.” As though the whole thing wasn’t weird enough, Aleka figured out how to read phonetically. Titzer never taught her that.
The premise seems — to say it politely — different to skeptics. Babies cry. Babies sleep. Babies poop. What Titzer says: Babies learn. He earned a master’s degree in motor learning at Pennsylvania State University, and at Indiana University, Titzer focused on infant development and received a doctorate in human performance. He credits his work at those universities as the inspiration for his program. At IU’s infant development program, he studied hundreds of babies, and he knew infants produce tens of thousands of new brain connections every second. Those connections mean the baby learns with little effort; the brain already is doing the work. So Titzer thought his baby could either watch the ceiling fan rotate or watch a video about reading. When Aleka did read, everyone, including his colleagues, believed Titzer’s firstborn simply was special. When his second daughter Keelin was born, he played the same video and saw the same results, and he was confident babies could learn to read before they learned to speak.
Titzer soon launched his business, the California-based Your Baby Can, and more than a decade later, millions of videos have been sold. But he has his doubters, who have a list of offenses: Babies memorize words in the videos, babies shouldn’t be forced to read, and babies should just be babies. Sherry Boyd, an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Indiana, has questions about the program made by Titzer, a USI alum with a bachelor’s degree in communications. “We certainly want to give children rich environments,” Boyd says, “but why do babies need to read?”
The first independent study on the Your Baby Can multi-sensory, interactive education series will be published this fall. The results — Titzer expects — should reduce the number of doubters, and the study will show how babies who learned to read developed through their adolescence. It will be further proof, he believes, for babies to read loudly and proudly.[pagebreak]
Loud and proud was the demeanor of the late Billy Mays, known as the infomercial king of “as seen on TV” gadgets. To market the product, Titzer’s become a reluctant paid-programming staple. He’s on hundreds of times a week throughout the country and abroad. “In order to reach people,” Titzer says, “we needed to show more than a 30-second commercial.”
Titzer is not Mays. Mays’ voice boomed, he developed tacky phrases (“Double or triple stack them and watch your family attack them!”), and he attracted attention with a slaphappy thumbs up. On TV, Titzer looks focused, and he uses an indoor voice. He moves his hands slowly and with purpose. Mays wanted to be on TV; Titzer never asked for the task. Mays was a face hired to promote products he didn’t create. Titzer is the creator of this educational tool.
His infomercials showcase real parents with real babies reading. On the Internet, scores of videos demonstrate the talents of 2-year-olds raised on Your Baby Can, and Titzer hails from academia where research is king. Since his company began, he’s led studies on the effects Your Baby Can has had on children, but he developed this program less than two decades ago, which hasn’t given much time to review the long-term influence it’s had on children.
Sesame Street is 41 years old — enough time for the hit children’s television series to have affected children’s learning habits. Plenty of today’s smart adults visited Big Bird and his fuzzy friends when they were kids, except this generation isn’t even watching the Street, at least not as much as their predecessors. Ratings champions SpongeBob, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Dora the Explorer have replaced Ernie, Elmo, and Oscar the Grouch. Those shows entertain more than teach, Titzer says.
Sesame Street came during a time when the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission wanted television to teach children something, anything. He thought programming was a “vast wasteland.” At the time, scientists made a new discovery about learning: Babies could be shaped by early experiences, and educators largely ignored preschool learning as an age too early to develop minds. An experimental psychologist, Lloyd Morrisett, thought differently and convinced the government to spend millions to create an educational program. After Sesame Street debuted, children as young as 2 years old could count to 20. The show captivated the nation, and then President Richard Nixon wrote a letter calling it “one of the most promising experiments in television history.”
When the mid-1990s hit, Titzer believed children could read at a younger age than toddlers, and for the guy who doesn’t teach with cuddly Muppets, Titzer received online videos from handheld cameras mocking his product. A few parodies: “Your Senior Citizen Can Read” or “Your Dog Can Read.” A letter from the president of the United States praising Titzer’s work never came.
Outside the U.S. is where the Your Baby Can program sees much success, and dedication to education is one reason China’s economy is on the rise, Titzer believes. In August, China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world, trailing only the United States. Economists believe China’s achievement, a $1.33 trillion second quarter in 2010, is more concrete evidence that the Asian country with a billion people will be a new economic superpower. The smarter a country’s citizens, the better off the country, says Titzer, who’s seen videos of warehouses filled with bootleg copies of Your Baby Can in China.
American parents look to inspire a love of learning in their children’s lives at early ages, too — perhaps not as early, though. Valerie Bostick says learning begins prenatally. Bostick admits she is unfamiliar with the Your Baby Can program, but as the director of early childhood education for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, she wants children to have the best possible start when it’s time for kindergarten. “School should provide a place for children to be cared for, to be safe, and to achieve academically,” Bostick says. “If you want your child to do that in school, you start preparing them in your home.” One way Bostick recommends developing reading skills is through experience. Take the child to the zoo, for example, and then read about the zoo. The more a child experiences, the easier reading becomes.[pagebreak]
This approach seems familiar to Ashley and Matthew Willett of Evansville. In February 2009, Ashley gave birth to their first child, Austin. Shortly after, she caught an episode of The Doctors, a nationally syndicated TV show featuring the advice of four attractive medical professionals. The guest on that episode was Titzer, and his interview sparked her interest in the program. When Austin sometimes kept Ashley up, she realized that the middle of the night offered plenty of infomercials, especially for Your Baby Can. When she asked friends who had older children about today’s education system, she learned kindergarten had evolved. “I could not believe how much more they were doing than when I was in kindergarten,” says Ashley, a Deaconess Hospital medical technologist. “I wanted to do something to help him be ready.”
At two months old, Austin sat in front of the television for his first 15-minute introductory program. Initially, Your Baby Can was a quick way for Ashley to catch up on her life — like taking a quick shower — while her son gazed at a video. He progressed through the five-video series, giggling as he watched one a day. As busy, full-time employees, the Willetts used the program’s flash cards when time allowed. It wasn’t mandatory learning. Then, “we started to do them a lot,” Ashley says, “because he would laugh and laugh and laugh every time we brought the flash cards out. He thought they were so funny.”
One day on the couch, a six-month-old Austin greeted his mother, “Hi,” a word he learned from Your Baby Can. By 18 months (Austin’s age at the time of the interview), he could read words for colors, body parts, animals, and more — nearly 40 words. Because numerous animals are in the videos, the Willetts take Austin to the zoo to share the experience with the words he knows.
That’s why babies should read because as they grow up, “they read so quickly, they remember what they’ve read, they comprehend what they’ve read, they read better than I will ever read,” Titzer says. “It’s not related to IQ. It’s related to efficiency of brain development.”
Today, Titzer’s first child, Aleka, is a 19-year-old in her second year at University College London and “retains information at a level that is completely unheard of,” Titzer says. “So whatever on earth she is doing in her life, she has advantages that are very large.” His second child, Keelin, 16, is quick, too, and she already is a senior in high school in California.
Ashley Willett thinks Your Baby Can is a big boost. “If we (had time) to work the program exactly as we are supposed to,” Ashley says, “I cannot imagine how much more he would know. I keep having my son do this because it’s not hard for him. He thinks it’s easy.”
For more on Your Baby Can, visit www.yourbabycan.com.