Update: this post now has another video.

This father has been using spaced repetition (Anki) to teach his children how to read several years earlier than average.

Michael Nielsen and Gwern[1] tweeted about the interesting case of a reddit user, u/caffeine314 (henceforth dubbed “CoffeePie”), who has been using spaced repetition with his daughter from a very young age.

CoffeePie started using Anki with his daughter when she turned 2, and he continued using Anki with his son starting when he was 1 year 9 months. Here's his daughter’s progress as recounted in January 2020:

My daughter is now about to turn 5 in a few days… She's still going strong -- she uses Anki every single day for English, Hebrew, and Spanish. She's very confident about reading, and moreover, she reads with ... "context". Many kids her age read mechanically, but she reads like a real storyteller, and that comes from her confidence. At the beginning of the school year her teachers said she definitely has the reading ability of fifth grade, and if we're just going by the ability to read and not focus on comprehension of abstract ideas, her reading level may rival an 8th grader.

(From Update on my daughter and Anki)

For reference, fifth graders are usually 10 or 11yo in the US, and 8th graders are usually 13 or 14yo, so this puts her ~5–9 years ahead of the average child.

You can see a video of his daughter reading at 2 years, 2 months later in this post.

CoffeePie has made several posts about their experience but I still had questions so I reached out to interview him back in January.

Interview

Responses have been edited for clarity.

What did you learn in going from using Anki on your daughter to your son? How has it gone with your son?

It's a hard question, because I got so much right. We were so wildly successful that I "cloned" just about every aspect with my son.

A couple of things I can think of:

With my daughter, I held back on lowercase letters for a long time because I thought it would confuse her, but when I started to introduce lowercase to her, to my extreme shock, she already knew them, down cold!

I think what happened is that she learned them just by looking at books, TV, magazines, storefront signs, menus, etc.

So when we started with my son, I started doing lower case letters the very day after we finished capital letters.

Another difference is that we did numbers the very next day after lowercase letters.

I really, really thought I was pushing too hard; I had no desire to be a "tiger dad", but he took it with extreme grace. I was ready to stop at any moment, but he was fine.

Another difference is that our expectations of what the kids were getting out of it had changed, as well. At first, I just really wanted my daughter to get a jump start on reading, but stupid me, I didn't realize there were unintended consequences. A four year old with a 3rd grade reading ability learns about a WHOLE lot more -- it opened up politics for her. She would read our junk mail, and learn who our council member was, who our representative is, the mayor, current events, history, etc. I know it's stupid of me to say, but I underestimated the effect that reading early would have on her breadth of learning.

One last thing is math. I mentioned that we started numbers early with my son. But we also started arithmetic. He wasn't reading by 3 the way Hannah was, but he knew all his multiplication tables up to 12 by 12. This year we tackled prime factorization, Fibonacci sequences, decimal and place values, mixed, proper, and improper fractions, light algebra, etc. I was much more aggressive with the math, and again, he handled it with grace. I was ready to stop at any moment.

Do you still use Anki with your daughter now as she's gotten older?

We pretty much stopped Anki with my daughter. She hasn't been tested lately, but I'd say her mechanical reading is high school level, easily. Her understanding / comprehension is still advanced, but more aligned with her age. That's not something Anki can help with, easily. Between school and her extracurricular activities, I didn't want to steal more time from her, so we stopped Anki on weekdays. We still do Anki -- Hebrew only -- on non-school nights (weekends and holidays). I felt we were being unfair since she's now in 2nd grade, and is spending significant time on homework and stuff. I wanted her to be a kid.

To clarify- did you stop using Anki with your daughter in large part because you ran out of topics beyond reading/language/math?

I think that's what it amounted to with Hannah. Mechanically, she reads at high school graduate level. But her reading comprehension is more age-appropriate. She's been tested by the BOE, and her reading comprehension in Kindergarten was 4th grade. 

I don't think there's much that Anki can do for reading comprehension. She's missing the type of knowledge that comes with experience. Occasionally we'll come across something that shockingly reminds me she's still 7 -- like not knowing what giving someone a cold shoulder is. She's such a good reader, it's ... a jolt when we come across stuff like that. I think Anki reading ran its course with her.

As for math, she could be better at the times tables. Still knows them better than anyone in her class. But here, again, she needs the kind of info that Anki just can't test, like thinking about 87-8 as being the same problem as 80-1. Oddly enough, a long page of problems is probably more conducive to that sort of thing.

I'm curious if you've seen the experience of Larry Sanger (cofounder of Wikipedia) in teaching his kids to read early. What do you think of that?

I never heard of Larry Sanger, but that is precisely our experience, to a T! Here's Hannah reading Rollie Pollie Ollie at 2 years, 2 months: 

Oops, I can't figure out how to embed videos. View the video on substack here.

Do you think using Anki ever felt coercive to either of your children?

Hannah went through a phase where she didn't want to do it. We tried to compromise and work through it. Eventually, it became part of her "job" -- we told her that every human has a job, and her job was to do Anki. Other than that, we never had to coerce any of the kids.

Do you have any other interesting or unusual plans for educating your daughter in the next few years?

Interesting question. I feel like a bad parent writing "no", but being such an early reader gave her access to advanced learning at an earlier age. She has such an advantage compared to her classmates, I think I'm going to let her be for awhile. She's a curious person, and she has the tools to follow her own interests, and I trust her. We did start some high school algebra -- I've been showing her the properties of algebras: commutativity, associativity, identity, distributivity, etc. We've been looking at symmetries -- mirror, reflexive, rotational. Highfalutin math topics that don't really require hardcore calculations. But it's always in the context of "hey, I have something interesting I want to show you" rather than "please sit down and work on these problems".

Actually, if YOU have any suggestions for interesting education opportunities, I'm all ears!

Closing

That’s everything I’ve asked CoffeePie so far. If you have anything you want me to ask him, or any suggestions of things he could try with his children (who are currently aged ~5 and ~8), let me know and I’ll tell him!

One confounder here is that CoffeePie used to be a physics professor, so some of this effect is likely genetic.

CoffeePie also runs a tutoring business, Brooklyn Tutoring and Test Prep.

I will be posting more about parenting soon: subscribe my posts or my blog.

Thanks to Priya (@Prigoose) for turning the draft into a final post after I sat on it for far too long! 

See this post on twitter.

Update: video of practice

CoffeePie just sent me this video he found of his wife practicing Anki with his son at 2 years 6 months. It's very cute.

  1. ^

    Gwern’s twitter account is private; the tweet reads:

    @michael_nielsen https://reddit.com/r/Anki/comments/8iydl7/using_anki_with_babies_toddlers/ https://old.reddit.com/r/Anki/comments/a9wqau/using_anki_with_babies_toddlers_update/ Neatest spaced repetition use I've seen in a while.

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Credit to their dad and these kids who achieved these early results. As noted, genetics could factor into aptitude at such a young age -- I'm curious (if not skeptical) whether this system is reproducible in many children of the same age. The following excerpts in conjunction made me cringe a little bit:

I really, really thought I was pushing too hard; I had no desire to be a "tiger dad", but he took it with extreme grace. I was ready to stop at any moment, but he was fine. 

Hannah went through a phase where she didn't want to do it. We tried to compromise and work through it. Eventually, it became part of her "job" -- we told her that every human has a job, and her job was to do Anki. Other than that, we never had to coerce any of the kids.

But that's more a personal values issue, and I'm in no position to judge parenting styles. Congrats again to this family, and I hope Anki is useful for other families.

Did you think they were going too easy on their children or too hard? Or some orthogonal values mismatch?

It sounds quite intense, though I'm hesitant to describe it as "too hard" as I don't know how children should be reared. The cringing was more at what I perceive as some cognitive dissonance, with "I didn't want to be a tiger parent" coinciding with informing them they didn't really have a choice because it was their job (I don't see the compromise there, nor do I put much stock in a 3-5 year old's ability to negotiate compromises, though these do sound like extraordinary children). But my views are strongly influenced by my upbringing which was a very hands off, "do what you enjoy" mentality. That could be a terrible approach. Internally I grapple with what the appropriate level of parental guidance is, to the extent that can be ascertained... [Narrator: It can't.]

Great to see this. Kids can learn to read much earlier than we teach them. My older son was reading quite a bit by the time he was 3 and my younger son currently 32 months is tracking well.  At this point the thing that holds my older son back from reading more at age 4 is endurance. He is gets distracted reading much more than a paragraph of text at a time.  Although I expect that will improve as he gets older.

How much time did they spend practicing with the kids? (Frequency and length of sessions. e.g. 7 times a week for 5-10 minutes)

Note: Might not work for everybody's children. He is a physicist himself and there is very likely a genetic component. 

I tried something like this with my ~3-year-olds: Learning letters with a self-made variant of the Concentration/Memory game (which is basically flash-cards of letters). They quickly learned to associate the letter forms with the sounds, but it didn't extend to words. Maybe the indirection from the game was too complicated.

You also need to strictly control the environment and often exclude other children and other activities, much like László Polgár did. He maybe tried not to be a Tiger dad, but the results of such procedures are likely non-standard. Some of the gifted children I have known or heard of rebelled earlier or later, even if they objectively (e.g., economically) benefitted from the procedure. 

I offered a lot of such engagements and my kids had to at least try many interventions, but those that they clearly didn't like were dropped quickly - or tried again at a much later age. And so it was with the reading too. One of the games that was really successful in this regard was Boggle. At times I said that my kids learned to read thru Boggle when they were ~5 years old. 

I'd be really interested in how the kids do in school and in general in their future. It seems to me that they may get really bored, at least at some classes, and this can backfire --it often happens with gifted kids.

This to me is amazing and so exciting!

When I was a child in preschool I was diagnosed with Autism. I had trouble recognising emotions. One doctor warned my mother that it'd be unlikely that I'd make more than 1 or 2 friends in my life.

I started "early intervention" pretty soon after. For years I was drilled once a week on flash cards of cartoon faces expressing different emotions. And eventually I guess it stuck because I'm pretty excellent at picking up emotions these days.

I still have major trouble if I can't see the face. Laughing and crying sound very similar to me. Now I'm actively thinking about it, I don't think I pick up much with body language. Unless it is cliche level obvious like curling over in pain. But, I honestly don't know if that is something that people can see??

However, when I am looking at a face and listening to the content of speech I'd say I am now extremely accurate at determining emotions. Especially in people I am close to as I have a larger bank of information I am able to predict on. I don't want to say I am better than most people, because I don't know, and there is that once bias that I forget the name of but it's the one where in coples both partners claim to start about 70% of the fights and do 70% of the cleaning. However, I can sometimes just, tell what people are thinking/going to say. I'd assign a 25% probability that the early intervention had some effect on my predicting of emotions. Purely because as a child I had to actively and consciously guess the feelings of these flashcards.

Update: I've attached a video that CoffeePie just sent me to the post