While using television to teach children to read may seem like a strange partnership, it is also an act of realism about the way children are reared in this media age.
National estimates put the average amount of TV viewing for young children at between five and seven hours daily. Given the importance of reading, and despite a mandate for broadcasters to provide a minimal level of educational programming, there's a lesson in the fact that only the nonprofit PBS has accepted the challenge of using the medium to develop early reading skills.
The award-winning "Sesame Street," that rock of educational children's TV, has taught several generations of preschoolers the basics of math, but till now no program has specifically focused on teaching children in grades K-3 to read.
"Between the Lions," a new show that premired in April, has navigated some of the thorniest educational waters (see "A win-win approach," page 16), to create a basic multimedia reading curriculum.
By early accounts, the show has been a roaring success. Adults like it: "Lions" is the first TV show in more than a decade to win the endorsement of the National Education Association, and in its first short season, it has garnered an Outstanding Achievement in Children's Television Award from the Television Critic's Association.
"Between the Lions" features medieval knights who blend words by jousting for fun; interactive games like Arty Smartypants, in which children find words hiding in big trousers; and Martha Reader and the Vowelles, a girl's rock group that sings vowel sounds. The show is set in a library, where librarians Theo and Cleo teach their cubs, Lionel and Leona, how to read.
Not only do the children like it, but they are learning from it as well. In an independent study commissioned by the show's producers, University of Kansas researchers concluded that kindergartners who watched "Between the Lions" dramatically outperformed their peers who did not watch the show on significant measures of reading ability.
"We were surprised the results were so dramatic," says Deborah Linebarger, an assistant research professor at the University of Kansas, who directed the study.
Four groups of approximately 35 kindergartners and first-graders in the greater Kansas City region were shown the program before it aired in April, and were tested after watching 17 episodes in their classroom.
"It worked ... well with specific skills such as letter-sound correspondence, things that have to be learned because they are unique to English," Ms. Linebarger says.
Because "Between the Lions" was developed by the same writers and producers who worked on "Sesame Street," the show was conceptualized as the logical next step. "[It's] doing for primary-age children what 'Sesame Street' did for preschoolers, and just as well," Linebarger says.
One of the most significant lessons the "Sesame Street" alums applied to "Between the Lions," is the importance of assembling a team of reading experts, and making that expertise translate into the visual medium.
"The educators and the writers have to find a way to get along," says Christopher Cerf of Sirius Thinking Ltd., the creative producer of "Between the Lions" who began his career at "Sesame Street" in 1970. "Educators need to understand silly things might be done with their vast wisdom, and writers need to be able to accept advice from the experts."
In an era that has witnessed budget cutbacks for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, network officials say "Lions" proves the value of supporting the right sort of programming.
"Many education experts are quick to blame television for contributing to illiteracy in this country, and it's true that kids who watch the most television tend to become the poorest readers," says John Wilson, senior vice president at PBS programming. "Let's use the fact that TV has a captive audience," he adds. "Why not teach kids to read while they're watching television?"
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society