Why Sesame Street Is 'Bad News for Reading'

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The worst thing about "Sesame Street" is that so many people--most of whom have never sat down and watched it--believe it is educationally valuable.

The fact that this program has become an unquestioned standard for "good" children's television says a great deal about our culture's infatuation with expedient, product-oriented approaches to learning, our willingness to substitute surface glitz for intellectual depth. As a reading specialist, I find it particularly troubling that everyone seems to have bought the notion that a peripatetic carnival of on-screen activity will somehow teach kids to read--despite the fact that the habits of the mind necessary to be a good reader (and, in fact, an intelligent reasoner in any domain) are exactly what "Sesame Street" does not teach: language, active reflection, persistence, and internal control.

What do children learn from "Sesame Street"? Primarily, that we expect them to enjoy this manipulative sensory assault. With habit, of course, they may indeed grow to "love" it, since human brains tend to "habitutate" (get accustomed to or even need) often repeated experiences. If children tell us they "love" "Sesame Street," we should not decide it is ipso facto good for them; we should more likely be concerned about what has been done to their brains that enables them to tolerate--much less enjoy--it!

New research makes it increasingly clear that growing brains--and the types of intelligence they contain--are changed in significant ways by repeated experiences. A brain brought up on a steady diet of noisy, fast-paced, visually demanding programs like "Sesame Street" is physically different--and thus is equipped differently for learning--than a brain which has gotten its intellectual nourishment primarily from personally absorbing play, social interactions with peers, and intelligent conversation with real adults. In fact, there is every reason to believe that "Sesame Street"-type programming is related to the fact that teachers today increasingly complain that their students: can't listen; can't pay attention in class; can't apply themselves to problems that demand persistence.

I believe it is not a coincidence that our faith in puppets as teachers has presaged a major decline in reading and learning skills. Uncritical acceptance of a program like "Sesame Street" as a model for "education" has started a generation of children in the seductive school of organized silliness, where their first lesson is that learning is something adults can be expected to make happen for them as quickly and pleasantly as possible. Thus prepared, they can hardly be blamed if they fail to discover for themselves the personal joys--time consuming as they are--of serious learning, mental effort, and mastery.

Despite a large budget and the apparently good intentions of its producers, almost no research has been done to establish the true effects of this program on children's learning abilities. Executives of Children's Television Workshop acknowledge that their research funding has been mainly allocated to studies termed "formative" (what makes children watch--that is, what "sells") rather than "summative" (evaluating its real educational outcomes). Early studies suggesting success in achieving a few isolated objectives (such as teaching disadvantaged children to recognize letters and numerals) have, in fact, subsequently been challenged (1) because the meager results did not justify the effort and expenditure and (2) because the program's format does not reflect current research on how young children should be introduced to literacy.

Some of the areas that should be more closely examined are contained in the following, my "Ten Reasons Why 'Sesame Street' is Bad News for Reading":

What should preschoolers learn? "Sesame Street" has popularized the erroneous belief we should try to teach preschoolers to read. In fact, misguided efforts to train them to "sound out" words diverts valuable time and attention from their real learning needs: active, hands-on play and exploration to install the cognitive and language furnishings that will make the brain a comfortable place for real literacy to dwell. To bring preschoolers into the intellectual mainstream, we should seek ways to immerse them in imaginative social play, interactive conversation, and enjoyable experiences with good children's literature, not in a medium which has made a science of taking control of the viewer's attention.

Empty alphabets vs. language meaning. "Sesame Street" has overemphasized "selling" letters and numerals and underemphasized the verbal and reasoning skills necessary to make them meaningful. In fact, children who buy the implicit message that alphabet letters are the major key to reading are headed for trouble. When researchers ask groups of poor readers what reading is all about, they tend to say something like: "sounding out the words." When good readers are asked the same question, they give answers such as, "understanding what the words and the sentences say."

Understanding language, not simply knowing the alphabet, is what reading is all about. Thus, it is disheartening to note that "Sesame Street," over all, provides such a poor language model: among other problems, the characters talk too fast and shift topics too abruptly. Research shows that children of 4, 5, and even 6 years need slow, repetitive talk, with overemphasis on word inflections.

"You know, the way kindergarten teachers talk," explains the researcher Janet Jensen. "Everyone makes jokes about it: 'Now--children--let's--look--at--the--bunny.' But they do that because the kids need and respond to it."

"Sesame Street" also subordinates meaningful dialogue to brain-grabbing visual events, noises, and slapstick comedy. This emphasis is particularly troubling in view of the fact that both disadvantaged children and those with reading disabilities have difficulty using "verbal strategies" for processing information; they tend to focus on the nonverbal aspects of a situation and disregard the language.

Although, to its credit, the program attempts to present both standard and nonstandard dialects, they too often appear in the form of poorly modeled and unclearly articulated parody. "Sesame Street" also sporadically attempts to teach vocabulary (such as names of 10 baby animals in 90 seconds), but its format militates against sustained attention to the meaning of the grammar, sentences, or phrasal inflections that children will meet in books. And far too little effort is made to get the child to respond.

Twenty years of throwing alphabet letters and dancing words at children is producing exactly what we might expect: students who, even when they learn to sound out the words, find reading "boring," who can't understand why meaning doesn't magically appear--like a special effect--and who give up when it doesn't. The resulting failure and disenchantment is particularly tragic for the disadvantaged children the program was designed to serve.

Fooling children about how print behaves. The age of "Sesame Street,'' optimistically crafted to narrow the chasms of disadvantage, has, in fact, seen those gaps widen. Another reason may well be the facetious treatment of letters and other symbols that dance about, transform themselves, and generally give children a very erroneous idea of what to expect from the printed page. Youngsters, particularly those disadvantaged by lack of experience with real books, are in for quite a shock when they get to school and discover that print stands still. No wonder they "turn off" when informed they must bend their brains around the "hard" job of attacking the words, rather than having a barrage of letters, words, and pictures attacking them.

Bits, not bites of meaning. "Sesame Street" viewers are exposed to lots of incidental knowledge, but if children do not also integrate good reasoning skills, the data will be of little use. Indeed, one of the biggest problems of older students today is making connections, as in linking together and remembering concepts presented in science and social studies.

"They have all these little bits of information, but they can't seem to see relationships, make inferences, or draw conclusions," say teachers from kindergarten to college. Not surprising in a generation raised on "Sesame Street's" rapid, minute-by-minute alterations in context that make it impossible to see relationships, sequence ideas, or keep a train of thought in motion. Such brain-training is certainly antagonistic to the active and sustained work on connecting ideas that is needed to understand written text.

Looking vs. listening. Not only are this program's "graduates" deficient, over all, in ability to pay attention to and understand oral language, but many also lack the skills of auditory analysis that underlie mastery of "phonics." Many in our growing ranks of poor readers (and spellers!) can't listen carefully enough to discriminate individual sounds in words or identify the order in which they come.

"Sesame Street" purports to teach children "phonics," but its demanding visual format belies the claim. Phonics, by definition, is an ear skill, not an eye skill, and if "listening skills" aren't embedded in the brain during the critical early years, it is much harder, if it is even possible, to insert them later. What our children need is lots of good, slow, clear exposure to the sounds that will become their armamentarium for attacking language meaning as well as the written word. But they are not getting it from this program!

Perceptual organization vs. perceptual defense. To organize the confusing array of sensory stimuli in a young child's world, children need an environment over which they feel some control. Yet, rather than encouraging children to develop perceptual organization, this program may actually force them to practice habits of perceptual defense as a matter of neural self-protection. The "spaced-out" or overly active viewing behavior many parents report may be the immature nervous system's response to too much stimulation. How much exposure is needed to have an effect? No one knows, but different children have different thresholds at which they become "overloaded."

Encouraging passive brains. Poor readers--and poor problem-solvers--tend to be passive; they give up if they don't immediately "get it." ''Sesame Street's" overly confusing program formats teach young viewers they are neither required nor expected to grasp what is going on.

Adults assume children understand "Sesame Street" much better than they actually do, reports the Yale University psychologist Jerome Singer, co-director of the Family Television Research and Consultation Center. For example, in one segment designed to demonstrate the notion of deafness to children, a group of deaf children engaged in a series of activities, including suggesting letters through their body postures. Yet, reports Mr. Singer, "only one of the preschoolers in our sample of 60 who viewed this program grasped that the children on the screen could not hear. In effect, thousands of dollars went into the production, which failed completely to communicate its major message to the preschooler target-viewing audience."

The reason? According to Jerome Singer, the children failed to follow the material being presented from one sequence to the next because the program moved too fast: there was not enough repetition, so the viewers didn't have sufficient time for the necessary "mental replay."

Good readers learn to remember. Memory demands mental perseverance, for it depends on maintaining information in "working memory" long enough to "store" it in some sort of meaningful form, and "retrieve" it when needed. Passive brains retain sensations, not information.

Children who do not understand what they are seeing do not learn active-memory strategies. Curiously, although "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" does not rivet children to the television set (research has shown they are much more inclined to walk and look around than during "Sesame Street's" sensorially demanding format), they actually remember more. In this regard, reports Mr. Singer, "those children who were less intelligent suffered more [i.e., remembered less] from exposure to 'Sesame Street,' purportedly designed for the educationally disadvantaged."

Good readers can pay attention. When young children watch television their attention tends to wander unless it is continually pulled back. Thus, when the producers were initially deciding on "Sesame Street's" format, they set up competing video screens and other "distractors" to discover what would make children watch their program--whether they wanted to or not. The answer? Lots of rapid movement, bright color, and abrupt noises. Since the human brain is programmed to respond involuntarily to any kind of sudden change which might signal danger, these devices artificially manipulate--and, perhaps, eventually dull--its natural attention mechanisms. Despite the vociferous objections of child-development experts who were worried about the long-term effects of such a format, these elements became its hallmark.

Ideas in a book do not seize the reader's mind as do Ernie and Big Bird. Reading demands sustained voluntary attention from a mind that can hold a train of thought long enough to reflect on it, not one accustomed to having its attention jerked around every few seconds.

Who makes the pictures? One of the most serious charges leveled against television-viewing in general is that it robs children of the chance to learn to use their imaginations by making pictures in their minds. When poor readers--and poor verbal problem-solvers--hear (or read) words, they have trouble projecting anything on the screen of imagination. Visual imagery is also important in solving the kinds of math and science problems that now cause American students so much difficulty.

"Sesame Street" is constrained by its medium in teaching visual imagery. Yet, with some research already available, it should not be too difficult to come up with activities to give "mind pictures" much more emphasis than they now get. The longer children are habituated to this externally demanding visual format, the less likely they will probably be to generate their own scenarios.

If "Sesame Street" did not purport to be educational, it might be regarded as a cute diversion of arguably better quality than most other children's television. Its producers have incorporated many important concepts, some delightful songs, a sensitive treatment of emotional issues, and a refreshing approach to cultural diversity. They have endeared millions of children to some colorful new heroes of cultural literacy (which will be particularly useful when high-school texts start featuring talking animals instead of human beings.)

I maintain, however, that Children's Television Workshop has seriously misfired on its essential mission of readying children's brains for academic life, and particularly for literacy. Reading is a complex intellectual act that cannot be peddled like an educational toy. If it is "sold" to unprepared minds, they will soon discard it as worthless or uninteresting, because they lack the inner resources, both mental and physical, to bring life--and meaning--to the printed symbols.

Children immersed from birth in the spicy sensory bouillabaisse of visual immediacy will not become readers unless they have also soaked up the rich broth of language and reflection. Preschoolers who have been sold gimmicks in the name of learning and school-age children whose minds are habituated to the "easy" pleasures of viewing may well find the culture of the school an alien one. Their brains, shaped by visual novelty, may gradually lose the ability to bend themselves intelligently around the written word.

Who, then, will teach the next generation to read?

Vol. 10, Issue 03, Page 32

Published in Print: September 19, 1990, as Why Sesame Street Is 'Bad News for Reading'
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