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Photo: dolanh via Flickr
Photo: dolanh via Flickr

Can TV make kids better readers?

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More than two decades ago, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the Children's Education Act. The goal was to increase the amount of children's educational programming on television.

Since then, the airwaves have offered a variety of children's television programs that aim to educate as well as entertain. Some shows even try and use television to make better readers.
But have they succeeded? For Front & Center, our collaboration with WBEZ Chicago, Anthony Martinez has the story.

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With their catchy songs and cuddly characters, shows like Sesame Street, the Electric Company and Schoolhouse Rock have charmed generations of viewers. And for parents, they’ve become a useful tool for helping their young children learn to read.

Coya Paz, a playwright and college professor, lives in Chicago with her partner and their three year-old daughter. In the living room of their cozy Humboldt Park apartment, books line-up neatly inside three floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

Paz says, “She watches Super Why quite a bit which is designed to help kids learn to read. If we’re home, she usually watches TV while I’m cooking or we’re trying to get some work done around the house.”

Paz says she enjoys the convenience of boosting her child’s literacy with educational television. And she’s not the only one. Viewership of shows like Sesame Street are at a three year high. Take the local public broadcasting channel, WTTW which broadcasts from Chicago across a four state region. In an average week, WTTW’s ratings show that 47% of all children in the region tune into its children’s programming—nearly half of which focuses on literacy.

So, that begs the question: do these programs really work?

Between the Lions is a co-production of WGBH in Boston and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. Peter Panagopoulos is with the WGBH Educational Foundation.

He says, “It was built around a pretty strict curriculum that incorporated a lot of evidence based research and literacy instruction. Each episode had a variety of entertaining animation, puppetry, live-action, music, and a lot of different segments to reinforce those goals.”

During the show’s ten years on air, it was a hit by any broadcast television standards. It garnered around 1.3 million weekly viewers and landed 10 day-time Emmys awards.

In 2008, the federal government commissioned a study to assess whether Between the Lions helped kid’s reading abilities. The study looked at Mississippi children aged 4-5 who had watched the show as part of their instructional time at school.

Panagopoulos says the results were impressive amongst some of the most challenging literacy skills, “Upper-case letter identification, students who watched it knew 75% more than those who didn’t watch the show. And with lower case letter identification, students scored nearly 113% higher when tested than their non-participating classmates.”

However, outside of the Between the Lions study, there’s relatively little research on the effectiveness of children’s educational television. And when it has been done, nearly all studies took place inside of classrooms with a teacher present.

This is key, says Tim Shanahan of the University of Illinois Chicago.

Tim has been a reading teacher and professor for 40 years and was the former Director of Reading for Chicago Public Schools. He says there’ve been studies on things like children’s educational television, and they find it to be somewhat effective, with a caveat: “Usually with the more advantaged homes where moms had time to sit with their children and use the show as a platform for teaching. And in homes where maybe the mom was more stressed and not quite available, youngsters were gonna be sitting there watching it by themselves and not getting all that support. But, a lot of times TVs are just used as baby-sitters.”

Paul Martinez Pompa is a parent, writer, and teacher in Rivergrove, Illinois. He has a different take on educational programs. He says, “I would never want to sit my kid down in front of the TV and say, ‘OK, educate my child’, and then just walk away for however long. I feel like if you really want to teach someone to read or get excited about learning in general, they got to be able to see, to touch you and I think that gets lost from TV.”

But sitting down to watch television with their children can be hard for some parents, especially working families with little time on their hands. And according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, families where both parents are working make up about 58% of all families. That’s why Coya Paz turns on the TV and crosses her fingers.

“ I hate to think about the television as a babysitter,” Paz says. “But you know, I think at the very least, we have the hope that this isn’t just mindless entertainment.”

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