Reading & Literacy

‘Martha Speaks’ and She’s Got a Great Vocabulary

By Debra Viadero — May 18, 2009 2 min read
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Research has long shown that children who come to school with a rich storehouse of vocabulary words tend to have an easier time learning to read than peers who know fewer words. There’s a huge gap, though, between preschoolers of different socioeconomic levels in terms of the number of words they learn at home.

One study estimates, in fact, that by the time they are four, children of professional families have heard nearly 30 million more words than those growing up in working-class homes. (See a good summary of the 30-million-word-gap study here.)

So it’s no surprise that producers at WGBH Boston and Studio B Productions Inc. in

Vancouver turned to researchers for expert advice when they wanted to create an animated children’s television show, based on the popular Martha children’s book series, that would be aimed specifically at boosting young children’s vocabularies.

The six Martha books, written and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, tell the story of Martha, a dog who becomes humorously loquacious whenever she eats alphabet soup. (My daughter loved to memorize all of Martha’s long and chatty speeches, which are depicted in the books in a cartoon bubble.) Martha’s talkative nature makes her the perfect vehicle for introducing children to some of the words the series tries to teach, such as “deserted,” “neglected,” or “recuperate.”

In putting together the show, Martha Speaks, senior executive producer Carol Greenwald says, the production team called in some of the biggest research names in the field. They include: Andy Biemiller of the University of Toronto, David Dickinson of Vanderbilt University, Michael Graves of the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsbugh’s Linda Kucan, Catherine Snow of Harvard University, Mariela Paez of Boston, and the University of Maryland’s Rebecca Silverman, who is also the show’s content director.

Greenwald says the researchers provided input on which words to teach and which words would be more challenging for the target age group, which is 4- to 7-year-olds. Silverman also observed Head Start preschool programs and preschools in affluent neighborhoods to round out the research.

“She also did a crash course on vocabulary for everyone who works on the show,” said Greenwald, who also produced the Arthur educational TV series.

With financing from the U.S. Department of Education, researchers are now evaluating the educational effects of the Martha Speaks show, which began airing on public television stations in the fall. Those results are still a few months away, but in the meantime, here’s a Monday morning treat, a cute video clip of a couple of young fans lip-syncing the show’s theme song. You can also check out the show’s interactive Web site for kids here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.