Can television make kids better readers?

May 30, 2012

By Anthony Martinez

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(Image by Flickr user Dolanh, licensed under Creative Commons.)
Child watching Elmo on Sesame Street.

Coya Paz lives in Chicago with her partner and Ida, their three year-old daughter. Paz is a playwright and college professor. Reading is central to their family life.

In the living room of their cozy Humboldt Park apartment, books line-up neatly inside three floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

But one of the things that gets Ida most excited about reading isn't on those shelves.

Ida loves the PBS show Super WHY!

“She watches Super WHY! quite a bit, which is designed to help kids learn to read,” Paz said. “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.

The local public broadcasting channel WTTW broadcasts from Chicago across a four state region. In an average week, ratings show that 47 percent of all children in the region tune into its children’s programming. Nearly half of that line-up focuses on literacy. 

It begs the question: Can watching television make kids better readers?

Peter Panagopoulos of the WGBH Educational Foundation says it can.

Television shows like Between the Lions, a co-production of WGBH in Boston and Mississippi Public Broadcasting are based on a strict curriculum based on literacy instruction research.

“Each episode had a variety of entertaining animation, puppetry, live-action, music, and a lot of different segments to reinforce those goals,” Panagopoulos said.

During the show’s ten years on air, Between the Lions 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.

Students who watched the show were able to identify uppercase letters 75 percent more than those who didn’t. Lower case letter identification was even more dramatic: Students who watched scored nearly 113 percent higher.

This study may be the exception, not the rule.

Tim Shanahan says comparing structured use of education television to kids watching television alone is like apples and oranges. Shanahan is director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“There’ve been studies on things like children’s educational television,” he said. “They find it to be somewhat effective but usually with the more advantaged homes where moms had time to sit with their children and use the show as a platform for teaching. In homes where maybe the mom was more stressed and not quite available, youngsters were going to be sitting there watching it by themselves and not getting all that support. A lot of times TVs are just used as baby-sitters.”

Paz doesn’t expect educational television to teach her daughter to read. But she hopes that choosing educational television isn’t wasted time.

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

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