Readin', writin', and TV

Television can contribute to reading readiness and to a love of reading.

That's how PBS looks at it, anyway.

This fall, three new series are meant to prove it. "Clifford, the Big Red Dog" (premires Sept. 4, 7:30 a.m.), "Caillou" (Sept. 4, check local listings), and a three-hour Saturday morning block of book-based animation called "The Bookworm Bunch" (Sept. 30, 8-11 a.m.) highlight the PBS effort.

Eighty million copies of Clifford books by Norman Bridwell have sold over the past 39 years. The dog that grew up to be as big as a house captures children's imaginations because this lovable outsider is appreciated for who he is - despite his awkwardness.

The animated "Caillou," about a four-year-old discovering his neighborhood and his world, is a hit in Canada. Books have been produced to accompany the series (and these will soon be available in the United States as well). The "Bookworm Bunch" is composed of animated films based on books by some of the best-loved contemporary children's authors, including Rosemary Wells, Maurice Sendak, William Joyce, and Don Freeman.

What all these shows have in common are actively pro-social messages about sharing, accepting others who may be different, getting along with peers, and learning from one's own mistakes. They all present protagonists who are loving and who are valued for themselves - flaws and all.

"Many of the themes in preschool are about valuing each other, sharing, getting along - as a foundation for learning," says "Clifford" executive producer Deborah Forte. "If children can't get along, if they can't respect each other and learn to cooperate at school, day care, or in a community center, it's difficult for them to learn because they are easily distracted. The lessons are not didactic, but they do help the teacher, so that those are not the issues teachers are dealing with when they need to teach other skills."

Ms. Forte tells the story of a four-year-old who learned a valuable lesson from "Clifford." Leah had difficulty sharing with her older brother, Joey. After watching a "Clifford" episode about sharing, she handed Joey her blanket and said, "Leah is going to share now." After an hour, Leah took back the blanket and pointed out that she was done sharing. But the little girl got the message.

"Many PhDs in child development are thrilled with our pro-social messages," says Toper Taylor of Nelvana, the company that produces the "Bookworm" block. "Kids learn reading and arithmetic in school, but many are lacking social grace or enlightenment often because both parents are working. Children spend a lot more time on their own...."

"Caillou" is part animation, part puppet theater, and part live action. The sweet, engaging half-hour show tries to instill a sense of self-worth in its target audience (ages 2-6) and succeeds by giving kids an imperfect, but lovable, active, little boy with whom to identify.

"A child's ability to learn is based very much on his or her self-esteem," says executive producer Patricia Lavoie.

And like Clifford, "Caillou is read to quite a lot. Part of the culture of reading is being attracted to books and being read to," Ms. Lavoie says.

"We [foster] a love of reading in the show," says Clifford's Forte.

"In every episode, Emily Elizabeth [Clifford's human] reads him a story about his favorite character, a very small dog named Speckle. It shows the excitement of sharing a story together, and it shows that reading is an enjoyable experience," she says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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