In fact, similar complaints have been historically made about most children’s entertainment media during the peak periods of their popularity, including video games, comic books, radio, film, and novels.
The essence of Ms. Healy’s case against “Sesame Street” is that it is designed to capture and hold attention, that it is entertaining, that it is visual in nature, and that information is presented too rapidly for its young audience. The consequences are claimed to be a shortened attention span, a need for education to be entertaining, reduced language-comprehension abilities, and an inability to infer, connect, and reflect. All of these factors presumably converge so as to short-circuit “Sesame Street’s” intent to teach prereading skills.
Like her predecessors, Ms. Healy provides no evidence to support her case except an appeal to authority (in this instance, “Sesame Street’s” longtime critic, Professor Jerome Singer of Yale University). She refers to only one study (in which Professor Singer and colleagues compare comprehension of “Sesame Street” to comprehension of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”), which she incorrectly summarizes as finding that children have better memory for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Concerned about such claims, the U.S. Education Department asked me and my student, Patricia Collins, to do a detailed review of the research literature on the influence of television on cognitive development. The 93-page review was published by the department in 1988 (“The Impact on Children’s Education: Television’s Influence on Cognitive Development,” eric document ed 295-271).
Briefly, we found no consistent evidence to support Ms. Healy’s and similar propositions, and, in fact, found considerable evidence to the contrary. I am not aware of any studies published since the review which would change our evaluation. Consider a few specifics.
The only studies which show any negative relationship of television viewing to attentional abilities involve violent, action-adventure programming. In contrast, a number of studies involving “Sesame Street” either find no influence or enhanced attentional skills. Taken as a whole, the evidence weighs in favor of the proposition that “Sesame Street” actually increases attentional skills.
No study has shown that children have a need to be entertained as a consequence of watching television in general or “Sesame Street” in particular. In contrast, a number of studies have shown that making educational television entertaining enhances learning of the educational content.
No study has found that television reduces language comprehension; rather, several studies have found that television viewing, especially viewing of “Sesame Street,” is associated with vocabulary acquisition. Parents of toddlers often use “Sesame Street” as a context for teaching word meanings. Controlled research has found that preschoolers are more likely to remember character dialogue when it is presented in an audiovisual context than if it is presented in the auditory modality alone. Carefully structured television may actually help preschoolers listen to and decode language.
Despite Professor Singer’s repeated claims that TV viewing reduces children’s ability to infer and reflect, there has been no study that has shown this to be true. In contrast, detailed analyses of children’s comprehension of television have shown that inference is a continuing process during children’s television viewing. The fact that children commonly discuss television programs with each other and ask older siblings and parents about the meaning of television programs is a clear indication of reflection.
Careful studies of the relationship between television viewing and reading find little negative about the role of television (except during the historical period when it was a novel communication medium). Evaluations of “Sesame Street”, furthermore, find that the program is effective in teaching prereading and reading skills.
Jane Healy’s Commentary taps a deep well of frustration with American education. Like many others before her, she finds it easy and popular to blame a medium of mass culture for the perceived failings of children. It is much more difficult, and a whole lot less popular to identify the real causes.
Research has shown repeatedly that children’s reading skill and reading interest are best predicted by family reading habits and encouragement of reading, and the deo which reading is encouraged and required by schools.
We live in a time when economic conditions and social forces are dissolving families and destroying schools. Ms. Healy’s Commentary is at best a distraction from dealing with the real problems. At worst, she will do real harm to a genuinely creative and effective children’s television program.
Daniel R. Anderson
Professor of Psychology
University of Massachusetts
To the Editor:
The thin air of Vail, Colo., and the rarefied, if not anachronistic, educational environment in which she evidently moves must have gone to Jane M. Healy’s head. As with inexpensive calculators and computers, the technology genie and its television tools are out of the bottle.
Her well-intentioned and detailed description of “Sesame Street” and its impact on the teaching of reading skips lightly over the fact that the educational establishment has no control over what children watch in the privacy of their homes: They will watch “Sesame Street” and similar programs, and they will learn to use language orally, verbally, and in writing according to a completely different paradigm than the one in which Ms. Healy evidently excelled.
Thoughtful practitioners who are in the real world of the classroom face the challenge of blending the pedagogies of the past, like Ms. Healy’s, with the realities brought to them through and in the form of their students and their everyday experiences. Whether it is well-reed or not, Sesame Street and its kind of “education” is here to stay, and it will drag people like Ms. Healy kicking and screaming (albeit eloquently) into a rapidly changing educational future.
To the Editor:
I am an elementary teacher with a master’s degree in reading. I am also the mother of two children under the age of 3. My children and I watch “Sesame Street” together each day--and learn from it.
It is important, I believe, to accept the influence of television on people’s lives. I agree that the medium shortens the attention span--of adults as well as children. But Jane Healy seems to blame “Sesame Street” for the problems television programming as a whole has created in the learning patterns of young viewers.
“Sesame Street” is successful because it presents vital educational material in such a way that it can compete with noneducational programming.
We use “Sesame Street” in our home as a springboard to discussions and educational activities. I don’t recall that the Children’s Television Workshop has ever released the statement that “Sesame Street” teaches preschoolers to read. It does, however, give them familiarity with concepts they will encounter in kindergarten. I believe research has shown that repeated exposure to concepts makes learning those concepts easier, even if true learning comes at a later stage.
June B. Overton
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Letters to the Editor