Profile: Teaching Toddlers to Read
On a mission to stamp out illiteracy.
By Julie Bawden Davis
When Toastmaster Steve Van De Walle attended college for his teaching degree in 1999, the former world-class boxing athlete and Olympic hopeful noticed something disturbing during his clinical observation class.
“So many children in the elementary grades struggled to read, and I could see defeat on their faces,” says Van De Walle, who decided to make literacy his mission. Once he became a teacher in 2002, he taught children to read using his own method and saw reading skills drastically improve among his students. It wasn’t until he showed a fellow Toastmaster his work, however, that he developed the idea to market his own revolutionary reading system.
The seeds for Believe It Baby! – Van De Walle’s program that teaches children as young as one to read – came out of a conversation with Toastmasters 2001 World Champion of Public Speaking Darren LaCroix.
“I met Darren during a regional speech contest and showed him a video of me speaking,” says Van De Walle, who belongs to the Easy Speakers club in Moline, Illinois. “The end of the clip featured my two-year-old daughter, Amaris, reading, which amazed Darren. He told me I had something that could help a lot of people and to pursue speaking about it on a full-time basis.”
LaCroix’s enthusiastic response spurred Van De Walle to develop the Believe it Baby! reading program, complete with materials such as interactive reading cards, a DVD and CD. In May 2007, he resigned his teaching position and has since concentrated his efforts on spreading the word about the Believe it Baby! system by giving seminars and selling monthly memberships to the program. He credits Toastmasters for helping him make his dream a reality.
“From assistance with developing my speeches and my method, to leadership and networking skills, the organization has guided me every step of the way,” says Van De Walle, whose boxing career was cut short by injuries he received during a near-fatal car accident.
“Toastmasters gave Steve a great outlet to convey his message and an effective program to follow in order to do so,” says LaCroix, who belongs to the Powerhouse Pros club in Las Vegas, Nevada. “On top of that, the energy, enthusiasm and conviction he has for the topic is amazing – which all combines to make people want to listen to him. Even when there is disbelief about what he’s doing, Steve digs in his heels and shows doubters proof that his system works.”
The idea that toddlers can be taught to read often elicits skepticism, which is why Van De Walle calls the program Believe it Baby!
“My wife, Kari, is a very analytical person, and at first even she was doubtful,” he says. “I started teaching Amaris, who had been born nine weeks premature, to read before she was two. Within the first week of using the method, she was able to read 17 words and enunciate them well. At that point, my wife became a believer. By the time she was three, Amaris read complete sentences and little children’s books, and today at six she can read just about anything she wants. Her younger sister, four-year-old Kiera, also reads, and I’ve started the program with their brother, 16-month-old Mateo.”
The whole idea of toddlers learning to read is not universally embraced; some suspect that this puts too much stress on young children. But Van De Walle says his method is set up as a game, which children find enjoyable. “There is a misconception about what we do,” he says. “The fact is that the whole program is designed as a series of fun games and kids don’t even know they’re learning. It is also more than just reading words – they comprehend what they’ve read.”
Van De Walle feels that teaching toddlers to read is critical to curing illiteracy because this time period of a child’s life is so formative. “Reading is one of the most fundamental ways we learn and ages zero to five are the most natural time for children to learn how to read, yet we don’t start teaching them until the end of that time period,” he says. “The window of opportunity is wide open from birth to five, and teaching them at that age gives them a huge head start and unlocks the doors to linguistic development. Rather than entering the school system and struggling, they can easily begin reading and become lifelong readers, learners and communicators, which will make them feel good about themselves.”
Van De Walle isn’t the first educator to teach young children to read. “Over 100 years ago Maria Montessori taught impoverished children to read at the ages of two and three,” he says. “In the 1960s, Glenn Doman, founder of the Institute for the Achievement of Human Potential, taught brain-injured babies of the same age how to read.”
Van De Walle’s broader mission is to help stamp out illiteracy. “There are an estimated 10 million children who are illiterate in our school system, and my method can inspire and empower parents and early childcare providers to teach children how to read during this formative time,” he says. “Learning to read opens up the world to children.”
Michelle Johnson of Moline, Illinois, signed up for the Believe it Baby! program after attending one of Van De Walle’s seminars. “My husband and I went to the seminar, and it made a lot of sense to us,” says Johnson, who has three young children.
The Johnsons have used the Believe it Baby! system on their four-year-old and their first-grader with great results. “We started working with our four-year-old just a few months ago and he already knows all of his letters and the words on the cards and is even reading sentences, which is very exciting. He really enjoys the whole program and thinks of it as a game. My oldest son has had low self-esteem about reading, and the system seems to have improved his self confidence.”
Though the Johnsons are very busy with three young children, they find the program easy to implement. “We simply grab the cards when- ever we have a chance and flip through them for about two minutes at a time,” she says. “Then the kids go on their way.”
As a father of three himself, Van De Walle knows that time is limited for most parents, so as Toastmasters taught him, he analyzed his audience and developed a program that can be done in quick lessons throughout the day with interactive playcards.
“I’m really encouraging parents to play and bond with their children using these cards,” says Van De Walle. “Some are picture cards and some are word cards, and the games last from one to three minutes. I also encourage regular lap reading. I especially like rhyming books because they help develop phonemic awareness.”
Toastmasters accredited speaker Johnny Campbell is Van De Walle’s mentor. “Steve has truly benefited from Toastmasters,” he says. “Today he is much more focused and proficient on stage compared to when I met him five years ago. He’s managed to take his love of speaking and intertwine it with his goal and mission of literacy worldwide, which is something that people are truly concerned about. This makes for a really powerful presentation with an important message.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to this magazine. She lives in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.