Study Links Television Viewing, School Readiness

By Mark Walsh — June 07, 1995 3 min read

One of the most extensive studies of “Sesame Street” in more than two decades concludes that early viewing of the venerable educational television show appears to boost children’s readiness for school.

By contrast, young children’s viewing of noneducational programming--cartoons or general-audience shows--has a negative effect on their school readiness, according to the study, which was released last week.

John C. Wright and Aletha C. Huston, a husband-and-wife team at the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children at the University of Kansas, conducted the five-year study of children from low-income families in the Kansas City, Mo., area.

It concludes that through age 5, regular viewing of children’s educational programs, particularly ~"Sesame Street,” resulted in statistically significant gains in letter-word knowledge, mathematics skills, vocabulary skills, and general school readiness as measured on standardized tests.

“Early educational viewing does appear to contribute to children’s school readiness,” the report concludes. “Children who watched ‘Sesame Street’ and other children’s informative programs when they were 2 to 4 years old performed better than nonviewers on tests of reading, math, vocabulary, and school readiness, as much as three years later.”

The study was commissioned by the Children’s Television Workshop, the New York City-based producer of “Sesame Street,” which has appeared on public television for more than a quarter-century. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation paid for the study.

The authors stressed that the C.T.W., the show’s producer, did not influence the design or conclusions of the study.

“Sesame Street” has been the subject of more research than perhaps any other children’s television show.

However, Mr. Wright and Ms. Huston, who are both professors of human development, said their longitudinal study is the first “summative evaluation” of the show’s educational effects since the Educational Testing Service evaluated the show in 1971. The E.T.S. study gave the show high marks, but a later re-evaluation of its data by other researchers suggested that some of the educational gains shown by children could be attributed to strong encouragement by their mothers rather than to the effects of the show. (See Education Week, 10/4/89.)

Viewing Habits Studied

The University of Kansas study is based on periodic evaluations of some 250 families with preschool children over three-year periods, with different groups evaluated over a total of five years. The children were either 2 or 4 at the outset of their study period and either 5 or 7 at the conclusion. The researchers gathered data about the families’ television-viewing patterns and later administered the standardized tests.

The researchers found that~ “Sesame Street” viewers’ educational gains were significant even when they took into account the families’ education, income levels, and home environment.

The study found that the positive effects were not as dramatic in some categories for 6- and 7-year-olds.

In contrast to the positive influence of viewing educational shows, the study found that “heavy viewers of cartoons and general adult programming performed more poorly than less frequent viewers of these popular entertainment programs.”

Another conclusion of the study is that watching educational shows regularly does not lead children to become more frequent television viewers in general. These viewers tended to spend less time watching cartoons than other children.

That conclusion clashes with the view of some researchers and social critics who have suggested that “Sesame Street” has served more to teach children to love television than to embrace learning.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1995 edition of Education Week as Study Links Television Viewing, School Readiness