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Big Bird, Bert, and Ernie may be good at teaching preschoolers the alphabet. But when it comes to teaching reading, they may be delivering the wrong kinds of messages.

So say two researchers who analyzed 10 episodes of the popular children's public-television show "Sesame Street" to see whether it reflects current thinking on the development of children's literacy skills. Writing in the current issue of The Reading Teacher, Barbara Fowles Mates and Linda Strommen note that of the 350 segments they viewed, only 184 had literacy-related content.

Those bits focused mostly on the names, shapes, and sounds of individual letters. What the researchers wanted to see instead was more emphasis on the context in which words appear and on the usefulness and pleasures of reading.

For instance, examples of environmental print, such as street signs, logos, posters, or book jackets, cropped up only 21 times in all the shows. If stories were conveyed at all to children on the show, they were translated into colloquial language.

"And," the authors point out, "in 10 hours of programming, people were actually seen reading or writing (even as a background activity) on only nine occasions. Preschoolers cannot be expected to have much interest in letters if their role in creating meaning is not made clear."

Mates is the former director of research for "The Electric Company," a now-defunct children's educational-television show.

Studies have already suggested that when schools group students by ability, the achievement gaps among students widen. Now, a new study begins to uncover some of the reasons why.

University of Wisconsin researchers Adam Gamoran, Martin Nystrand, and Paul C. LePore and Mark Berends of the RAND Corp. conducted a two-year study of 1,564 8th and 9th graders in high-level, regular, and low-track English courses in 10 schools. Their idea was to examine the classroom climate and the nature of the instruction that took place across varying levels of classrooms.

They measured the frequency with which students were off-task in their classrooms, whether teachers posed questions for which there were no predetermined answers, and the frequency and kinds of discussions that took place in those classrooms.

In honors classes, they found, there were more discussions and students participated in them more frequently. These differences, they determined, contributed to the learning gaps among the classes.

More interesting, however, was that teachers in all the classes posed about the same number of open-ended questions. The difference was that the questions in the honors classes had more to do with the ideas and issues encountered in the texts the class was studying. In comparison, teachers of the remedial classes asked more unrelated questions such as, "How do you feel about test-taking?"

Overall, 73.4 percent of the questions in honors classes had to do with texts, but only 31.3 percent of the questions in remedial classes were literature-based. The researchers found a similar pattern for the discussions that took place during their visits.

"This pattern indicates that the practice of ability grouping must be reconsidered," the authors write in the winter issue of the American Educational Research Journal. At the least, they add, educators could take steps to improve the instructional atmosphere in classes for low-achievers.

The kind of lighting used in schools can have an impact on students' attendance and academic performance, a Canadian researcher has concluded.

Warren E. Hathaway, a private consultant in Edmonton, Alberta, tracked 327 4th-grade students in five schools for two years.

One of the schools was lighted with indirect high-pressure sodium vapor lamps, an energy-efficient kind of lighting. A second school was lighted with fluorescent lamps that emit a full spectrum of colors, much like natural sunlight, and two other schools used full-spectrum fluorescent lamps with ultraviolet supplements. Cool-white fluorescent lamps, the most common lighting found in schools, were used in the fifth school in the study.

Hathaway found that students in the schools lighted by more expensive full-spectrum fluorescent lamps with ultraviolet supplements developed fewer dental cavities and made greater gains in attendance, achievement, health, and physical growth than did students toiling under other kinds oflighting systems. Students working under the high-pressure sodium lamps made the least progress in those areas over the two-year study period.

"Clearly, this study points to the single conclusion that, no matter how efficient lighting systems are, they are not neutral with respect to their effects on people," Hathaway writes. His results were published last spring in the Journal of Educational Research.

--Debra Viadero

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