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Reading, Writing, and Television: A New Partnership

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On a recent visit to see friends, I heard the dad say to his 10-year-old son, "You watch too much TV. Try something really different. Read a book!'' This familiar admonishment reflects our widely held belief that television and literacy have little in common. Many educators and parents, in fact, cast television as the enemy of literacy--a major cause of our "literacy crisis.'' Even some who may credit the television show "Sesame Street'' with introducing their young children to letters and written words complain that the literacy skills of older children are terribly weakened if they watch television.

While it is true that watching a lot of television may keep children from pursuing other activities, like reading and homework, research has not borne out claims about negative relationships between television and literacy development. Allowing misunderstandings to go unexamined could mean wasting a valuable resource for reaching millions of children. Kids like watching TV and learn from it, so it makes sense to explore how the medium can be among many supports--including classroom instruction and the bedtime story--that promote children's literacy development.

Understanding the connections between television and literacy involves understanding what it means to read and write. During the past 15 years, researchers have discovered that we need to teach reading and writing as communication skills rather than focusing only on cracking the code of letters and words. In exploring reading and writing as extensions of speech, we have identified a new set of basic skills. These new basics include learning to communicate for social and personal purposes as well as learning new vocabulary and spelling. We have also seen that children who do not read and write easily benefit when they are encouraged to apply their social skills, like debating with friends, to the tasks of reading a book or writing a letter.

Such ideas about literacy flourish in many effective classrooms, and an increasing number of classroom teachers welcome a variety of technologies as support for reading and writing instruction. Like books and conversations, television is a medium that can engage children with the written word and can provide instruction on how to go about the complex processes of reading and writing. But deliberate programming efforts are required to create this new partnership.

As the senior educational adviser for the development of a project called "Ghostwriter,'' I have collaborated with television producers, writers, teachers, and other researchers to forge a partnership between several powerful communication media--television, the spoken word, and the written word. The television show "Ghostwriter,'' which premiered last fall on PBS, is the centerpiece of a larger project involving print materials and activities that can be used by teachers, families, community groups, and individual children. This multimedia project is designed to reach millions of children who are not skilled readers or writers but who do have other communication skills. The message is that reading and writing can be fun and can meet personal needs. It is conveyed by:

  • Placing literacy in the context of children's lives. Children benefit from experiencing reading and writing as part of their lives and not just as school tasks. "Ghostwriter'' tries to do this by placing its literacy message in the context of the lives of a group of young "detectives'' who solve mysteries in their neighborhood with the help of a friendly ghost who sends them written messages. In the show's first episode, two of the main characters--Lenni, an artistic, sensitive, funkily dressed 12 year-old white girl, and her friend Jamal, a smart, thoughtful, and "cool'' African-American boy about the same age--become aware of a mysterious stranger sending them written messages on a school bulletin board, in a magazine article, and on Jamal's hand-me-down computer. They become enthralled by the puzzle and seek ways to communicate with this unknown presence who knows so much about their lives. After a note from Ghostwriter saying that he feels "sad and lonely'' begins to fade from the computer screen, Lenni and Jamal work and play together to compose just the right message to keep Ghostwriter from going away. When they type in, "We'll be your friends,'' Ghostwriter's words become brighter on the computer screen. And they know they have been successful in convincing their new friend not to give up on them.

Lenni and Jamal have been drawn into reading and writing by motivations in their lives--motivations like forming friendships, making sense of the world around them, avoiding danger, and having fun. The excitement and drama of trying to communicate with Ghostwriter involved them in planning, composing, spelling, evaluating their writing, and other literacy skills. At the same time, their interactions with reading, writing, and Ghostwriter supported their budding friendship. Not every child encounters a ghost who writes notes on the computer or sends a message in alphabet soup, but most children are involved in situations where reading and writing can play a role in their lives.

Television can situate literacy in the context of children's lives because, like books, this medium can tell a story in an engaging way. Drama, music, and special effects are tools for creating worlds where appealing characters use text to serve their own purposes. The 10 multipart stories that will be shown during the first season of "Ghostwriter'' are designed to appeal to children from a wide range of backgrounds. They involve plots that center around such problems as injustice, clashing points of view, and poverty, and they include such varied interests as comics, video games, and friendship. The characters approach text confidently and resourcefully, while acting pretty much like real kids. Since these mystery stories hinge on reading and writing, viewers become involved with literacy as they become involved in the character and plots.

  • Building reading and writing strategies based on social interaction. The "Ghostwriter'' project is also based on the insight that the tricks of the writer's and reader's trades--the strategies of skilled readers and writers--are important additions to modern literacy curricula. Researchers have found that experienced readers and writers set goals for themselves and refer to these goals as they work with text. Other strategies include using prior knowledge about a topic to help in the search for new information and getting into the habit of reviewing one's own writing.

Like Lenni and Jamal, children use their social skills as a way to gain control over the reading and writing processes when they have the chance. While learning was once viewed as a process of teachers' pouring knowledge into children's heads, we now know that children's spontaneous interactions with their peers, families, and teachers form the basis for their acquiring knowledge about the world and expressing themselves. In fact, some of the most profound intellectual development occurs as children play with ideas in their everyday lives.

The characters in "Ghostwriter'' use effective strategies to read and write in ways that make sense to children. Lenni, Jamal, and their friends tease each other as they come up with a better word; they challenge each other with statements like, "So what's the point?''; and they honestly tell each other such truths as "That's not good enough''--in ways that a child can accept from a peer more easily than from an adult. They focus on how to go about reading and writing, rather than only on what's right and wrong with a particular text. When adults or children on "Ghostwriter'' do make evaluations, they make the values behind their evaluations explicit. For example, when Jamal writes, "Mr. Brinker you stinker,'' Grandma Jenkins challenges him. "What are you trying to do with this letter anyway?'' she says, rather than simply telling him his letter is no good. After Jamal explains that he wants Mr. Brinker to stop picking on kids, Grandma and Jamal play a kind of word ping-pong to find a word that might persuade Mr. Brinker, rather than alienate him.

While some of us have picked up such strategies more easily than others, each child deserves to be privy to them from an early age--and to know that his or her spontaneous life skills can apply to reading and writing.

  • Doing reading and writing. Children also need to interact with print to become efective readers and writers. The special effects of television can work for rather than against the written word by making print appealing and accessible. While television is often cited as the cause of children's impatience with the written word, children pay close attention to moving pictures and music, so images, sound, and print can be integrated as vehicles for communication. Visual effects such as animating print, scrambling letters on street signs and other ambient print in scenes, or accompanying children's writing with drumbeats are all ways of making print and literacy strategies stand out from the context in which they appear, without isolating the print or strategies from meaning. Because the special effects of television are used to highlight and analyze print in interesting ways rather than to detract from the literacy message, children are drawn into reading.

Moreover, this show gives viewers time to read the many forms of print on the screen as the characters write with chalk on the playground, type words on their computer, or watch Ghostwriter recycle words on a package into new sentences.

By making the written word compelling and accessible, we hope to illustrate one of the most important points about literacy: Literacy belongs to all children. It is not the domain of any one group--not adults, nor the middle class, nor specific groups of children. Reading and writing should be based in children's social and personal purposes as well as those designed by the societies in which they live. The methods of literacy are those that children invent as well as those of experts. By taking this and other initiatives to exploit television as a vehicle for literacy awareness, we can tap into an inclusive instructional tool. Television serves as a means of communication for a wide range of social and economic groups--the same wide range of people who should own the written word. The challenge facing any literacy project is to make this point come alive by engaging children in reading and writing to serve their own needs and desires.

Colette Daiute is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She served as the senior educational adviser for the PBS television series "Ghostwriter.''

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