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Studies Support Benefits of Educational TV for Reading

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 02, 2009 6 min read
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Even the harshest critics of the role that television plays in children’s lives would have a hard time arguing that Elmo and Big Bird are bad for youngsters. From the earliest days of “Sesame Street” nearly four decades ago, educational television has earned high praise and millions of fans for entertaining and educating young children.

Now, a new generation of programs, and a rigorous research effort to test its impact, is adding to the “Sesame Street” legacy and working to clarify for parents the potential benefits of television viewing, particularly for literacy development.

While learning experts surely agree that too much television and inappropriate content can have detrimental effects on children, the right kinds of programs can set them on the path toward reading.

“I’m a big supporter of media technology and I do agree that kids spend far too much time with television and other media,” said Milton Chen, who in the mid-1990s helped launch the Ready to Learn Service, a partnership between the Public Broadcasting Service, or PBS, and the U.S. Department of Education to create educational programming. “But I come out on the side that specific television programs and experiences can very much support literacy.”

Well-designed programs can teach distinct skills such as letter and sound recognition, as well as cultivate a love of reading, said Mr. Chen, the director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in San Rafael, Calif. As the director of research earlier in his career for the Children’s Television Workshop, which has since been renamed Sesame Workshop, Mr. Chen helped to design and test some of the lessons embedded in programs like “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”

Gains in Understanding

Literacy has been a dominant theme of public-television programs since the first episodes of “Sesame Street” pioneered the genre in November 1969.

Many parents since then have observed firsthand the effectiveness of those lessons, such as one on “Sesame Street” that featured Y as the letter of the day and was accompanied by Grammy winner Norah Jones singing her song, “Don’t Know Why.” Or when Synonym Sam, the girl genius character on “Between the Lions,” demonstrated the meaning of sets of words like “walk,” “strut,” and “stride.”

There is now growing empirical evidence that such carefully crafted segments deliver an academic punch.

A federally financed study released last month, for example, found that “WordWorld,” a program funded under the Ready to Learn initiative, helps preschool children learn oral vocabulary and featured words.

“Between the Lions,” hosted by a puppet family of lions who live in the New York City Library, has been studied even more extensively. Studies on the 10-year-old program have linked it to significant gains in students’ understanding of how letters combine to make words, as well as of the purpose of the printed word.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized that some television programming has benefits. But the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based organization urges parents to avoid television viewing altogether for children under age 2, a prime audience for many programs, because it may be detrimental to their brain development.

The academy also points to the potential for television in general to send the wrong messages about violence, drug use, and other negative behaviors, as well as its documented role in promoting sedentary behavior that can lead to childhood obesity.

The Ready to Learn initiative, begun in 1995, set new priorities for children’s television several years ago, requiring that new programs receiving public funding home in on early literacy. At least a quarter of federal grant money for the programs must be used for research to drive their design and gauge whether the lessons in the programs affect children’s literacy development.

That research is now emerging and providing critical information on the most effective approaches to infusing learning into television programming, according to Deborah L. Linebarger, the director of the Children and Media Lab at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

“We know that we can successfully merge learning and appeal to children, but it takes work,” said Ms. Linebarger, who is studying the impact of several popular shows on public television, including “Between the Lions” and “Super Why!”

The best programs, she said, create content that reflects research on how children learn and test it out on children prior to putting it on television. While public television tends to dominate the educational market, she said that the cable stations Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel have also found success in promoting children’s learning on shows such as “Blues Clues” and “Little Einsteins.”

“When they do these things and kids understand them and like them, the shows are really successful,” Ms. Linebarger said, adding that the commercial success can often underwrite the costly development process.

‘Literacy 360 Approach’

Even as children become more accustomed to different kinds of media, from computer games to interactive Web sites, children’s television has held a large and steady audience, experts say. The newer programs, and even those now heading into middle age, are adapting their approach to engage the digital generation. Most of the shows have accompanying Web sites that provide video clips, activities, and related lessons and games.

“Television, particularly for preschoolers and the early grades, is still king,” said Michael H. Levine, the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, which promotes research and best practices about digital learning for young children. “But now everything needs to be developed for a range of different platforms.”

The Sesame Street site, for example, provides podcasts with vocabulary lessons and information related to a selected word, such as “dog.” A video clip is offered as well, with former “Late Night” talk-show host Conan O’Brien explaining interesting facts about dogs.

“They are taking a literacy 360 approach and surrounding kids with learning opportunities,” Ms. Linebarger said.

Those resources help to broaden the impact of the programs and provide learning opportunities beyond the television hour, she added.

With a range of activities, and even some aligned assessment tools, parents and caregivers can use educational programming more formally to teach children, experts say. A summer camp was launched last year in association with the “Super Why!” program on PBS and will be offered around the country this year.

PBS is reaching out to parents and caregivers through social-networking tools, such as Twitter, to provide reminders and daily strategies for nurturing language development and background knowledge, precursors to reading. Public-television officials are also devising initiatives to train early-childhood professionals to use educational television and other digital media to promote learning goals.

Detrimental Effects?

Parents and caregivers, however, need to be aware of the darker side of television, some experts say, particularly in light of data suggesting that children’s daily media exposure can exceed the amount of time they spend in school.

“It would seem that viewing of age-appropriate educational programming in the preschool years is positively associated with reading,” Marie Evans Schmidt, a research associate at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital in Boston, wrote in an e-mail. “But there may be some detrimental effects of TV viewing in general (total hours viewed) for slightly older children who are learning to read.

The thought is that watching TV may displace reading practice, which of course affects whether and how soon children become fluent readers.”

That’s why television focused on learning is a valuable asset worthy of public support, said Susan T. Zellman, the vice president for education and children’s content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit organization established by Congress that underwrites public television and radio services.

“These characters are engaging, and the kids are drawn into [lessons] by the characters and the stories, so you motivate them to learn,” she said. “Educational television is so powerful and the research is so compelling.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as Studies Support Benefits of Educational TV for Reading

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