Television--Don't Trash It--Control It
Reprinted with Mr. Trelease's permission from The Read Aloud Handbook.
by Jim Trelease
Modern technology, if we use it instead of abusing it, can actually help us create lifetime readers.
Nothing exemplifies my television thesis better than the following story, which I've shared with every parent audience I've addressed in the last decade.
It begins with a woman named Sonya Carson, trying to raise two sons in inner-city Detroit as a single-parent. One of 24 children, Mrs. Carson had only a third-grade education. A hard-working, driven woman, she worked as a domestic or child care-giver for wealthy families---sometimes working two or three jobs at a time to support her sons. Sometimes she worked so hard that she had to "get away to her relatives for a rest." Only years later did her sons discover that she was checking herself into a mental institution for professional help for depression.
Her sons, on the other hand, were not working themselves into any kind of frenzy. Both were on a slow ship to nowhere in the classroom. Bennie, the youngest, was the worst student in his fifth grade class. The two brothers had done fine in a church school previously in Boston but the change to Detroit public schools revealed the low standards of the earlier institution. As if raising two sons in one of the most dangerous cities in America were not enough, Mrs. Carson now had a new challenge---the boys' grades. She met it head-on. "Bennie---you're smarter than this report card," she declared, pointing to his math score. "First thing, you're going to learn your times tables-every one of them!"
"Mom, do you know how many there are? It would take me a whole year!" he replied.
"I only went through the third grade and I know them all the way through my twelve's," his mother answered. "And furthermore, you are not to go outside tomorrow until you learn them."
Her son pointed to the columns in his math book and cried, "Look at these things! How can anyone learn them?"
His mother simply tightened her jaw, looked him calmly in the eye and declared, "You can't go out until you learn your times tables."
Bennie learned his times tables---and his math scores began to climb. His mother's next step goal was to get the rest of his grades up. Her intuition pointed to the television that never seemed to rest when the boys were home. "From now on, you can only watch three television programs a week!" A week! (What Sonya Carson lacked in book sense she made up for with common sense---that would be vindicated nearly 30 years later when major research studies showed a powerful connection between "overviewing" and "underachievement."
She next looked for a way to fill the free time created by the television vacuum. She said, "You boys are going to the library and check out two books. At the end of each week you'll write me a report on what you've read." (Only years later did the boys discover she couldn't read well enough to understand any of the reports.)
They didn't like it, of course, but their awe of her was such they didn't dare refuse. And in reading two books a week, then talking about them to his mother, Bennie's reading scores began to climb. And because the entire curriculum is tied to reading, the rest of the report card began to improve. Each semester, each year, the scores rose. And by the time he was a senior in high school he was third in his class, scoring in the 90-percentiles of the nation.
http://www.drbencarson.com With colleges like West Point and Stanford waving scholarships in his face but only $10 in his pocket for application fees, he let his choice fall to whichever school won the "College Bowl" television quiz that year (Yale). His four years majoring in psychology at Yale were followed by medical school at the University of Michigan, then down to Johns Hopkins. Today, at age 50, Dr. Ben Carson is one of the world's premier pediatric brain surgeons. When Johns Hopkins named him head of pediatric neurosurgery at age 33, he was the youngest in the nation.
How you get from a fatherless inner-city home and a mother with a third-grade education, rank as the worst student in your fifth grade class, and today you're a world-famous brain surgeon and your brother is an engineer? Again and again, Ben Carson points to two things: His mother's religion (Seventh-Day Adventist) and the pivotal moment when she limited their television viewing and ordered him to start reading. (For the "complete" story, read Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story by Ben Carson.)
I have people in my audiences with three times the education of young Mrs. Carson and ten times her income---but not half her common sense when it comes to raising children. They can't bring themselves to "raise" children---they can only "watch them grow up" and most of the watching occurs from the couch in front of a television set.
There are two important factors to remember from the Carson family's story: 1) Mrs. Carson didn't trash the set---she controlled it; and 2) she had high expectations of her children and demanded appropriate behavior from them.
What exactly is so wrong with television?
Nothing. There's never been a single TV set that caused brain damage or committed a crime. Critics who assault TV as a nemesis of society are looking in the wrong corner of the room. It's the people who control it and use it, it is the over-viewing of the set that causes the problem.
This is largely a plea to control the amount of television viewed within the home, not a petition to eliminate it. While there is no evidence to support the elimination of TV, there is some research to support the premise that students who have no television in their homes do no better tin school than do those who watch a moderate amount. Moderation and the choice of programming appear to be significant factors, along with the age of the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under two years of age should not watch TV at all and older children should not have them in their bedrooms (more on that later). Part of the recommendation on babies was based on research that indicates developing brains need live interaction with people and object, not passive viewing of TV.
The Academy has called for a child-limit of 10 hours of TV a week. This was based on a research analysis of 23 TV-learning studies involving England, Japan, Canada, and five areas of the U.S., involving 87,025 children, in a time period from 1963 to 1978. The study's findings showed no detrimental effects on learning (and some positive effects) from TV viewing up to 10 hours a week, after which the scores begin to decline. It also found the most negative effects of heavy TV viewing was felt among girls and students of high IQ. Since the average child watches at least twice the recommended dosage, the research team cited that as "clearly a matter of concern."
Isn't TV the same as reading: stories made out of words?
There are distinct differences between reading and TV viewing, including:
- Television is the direct opposite of reading. In breaking its programs into eight-minute commercial segments (shorter for shows like "Sesame Street"), it requires and fosters a short attention span. Reading, on the other hand, requires and encourages longer attention spans in children. Good children's books are written to hold children's attention, not interrupt it. Because of the need to hold viewers until the next commercial message, the content of television shows is almost constant action. Reading also offers action but not nearly as much, and reading fills the considerable space between action scenes with subtle character development.
The arrival of the remote control is only exacerbating the attention span problem: the average family "zaps" once every three minutes, twenty-six seconds, versus those who have no remote (once every five minutes, fifteen seconds); and higher-income families zap three times more often than poorer families.
- For young children television is an antisocial experience, while reading is a social experience. The three-year-old sits passively in front of the screen, oblivious to what is going on around him. Conversation during the program is seldom if ever encouraged by the child or by the parents. On the other hand, the three-year-old with a book must be read to by another person---parent, sibling, or grandparent. The child is a participant as well as a receiver when he engages in discussion during and after the story.
- Television deprives the child of his most important learning tool: questions. Children learn the most by questioning. For the more than 20 hours a week that the average five-year-old spends in front of the set (usually alone or with siblings), he neither asks a question nor receives an answer.
- Television interrupts the child's most important language lesson: family conversation. Studies show the average kindergarten graduate has already seen nearly 6,000 hours of television and videos before entering first grade, hours in which he engaged in little or not conversation. And with 58 percent of families watching TV during dinner and 53 percent of preteens and teenagers owning their own sets (and presumably watching alone in their rooms), the description of TV as "the great conversation stopper" has never been more appropriate.
- Television encourages deceptive thinking. In Teaching as a Conserving Activity, Neil Postman pointed out that it is implicit in every one of television's commercials that there is no problem which cannot be solved by simple artificial means. Whether the problem is anxiety or common diarrhea, nervous tension or the common cold, a simple tablet or spray solves the problem. Instead of thinking through our problems, television promotes the "easy way." The cumulative effect of such thinking is enormous when you consider that between ages one and seventeen the average child is exposed to 350,000 commercials (four hundred a week) promoting the idea that solutions to life's problems can be purchased.
- The vocabulary of telvision is lower than nearly all forms of print, from comic books to children's books and newspapers and magazines. A study of the scripts from eight programs favored by teenagers showed a sentence averaged only seven words (versus eighteen words in my local newspaper). Since TV is a picture medium, a fair comparison would be with children's picture books:
- 72 percent of the TV scripts consisted of simple sentences or fragments.
- Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey, only 33 percent of the text is simple sentences;
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter, only 21 percent of the text is simple sentences.
Thus one can say even good children's picture books contain language that is at least twice the complexity of television's. Imagine how much more complex the novels are.
Does "closed-captioning" really help children's reading?
Thanks to former President George Bush, all televisions sold in the U.S. since July 1993, are equipped with a computer chip allowing "closed-captioning" (subtitles) to appear at the bottom of the screen. Initially invented to make television and film accessible for the hearing-impaired, the captions reach all but the blind, and a recent federal law requires that all TV programming be captioned by 2006.
Because of its newness, research is just beginning with captioned TV but there is enough to indicate significant gains in comprehension and vocabulary development (especially among bilingual students) when receiving instruction with educational television that was captioned. Since we know children easily learn to read words from pages or product labels when they see the words and simultaneously hear the parent say the words, it appears that reasonable doses of captioned television can do no harm and most likely help with reading.
Research among 9-year-olds in Finland appears to confirm this. These children are the highest scoring young readers in the world, but they also spend more time watching TV than reading. "However, there is a special feature in Finnish TV programs and also those of other Nordic countries," reports Pirjo LinnakylŠ, a Finnish national research coordinator. "Many programs have subtitles, and watching these programs seems to motivate and enhance reading among young students." In fact, almost 50 percent of Finnish television consists of foreign TV programs and movies that must be read---and read quickly---in order to be understood. Finnish 9-year-olds want to learn to read in order to understand TV and therefore watch a moderately heavy amount. By age 14, however, the situation reverses itself and Nordic children who watch a light amount of TV outscore the heavy viewers.
And a final aspect of captions you might wish to consider: For children who already are competent but lazy readers and prefer watching television to reading, turn the sound off and the captioning on; this requires children to read their shows instead of just watching them. With the sound off, there are no vocabulary gains but with achieving readers, that's not your goal: It is to keep the child's mind from turning to mush and discourage TV overdosing. Reading the captions prevents mindless viewing.
Is there any difference between educational TV and the rest?
I've often said that educational TV is television from the neck-up; while the rest is from neck-down. Parent-fans of PBS can take heart from numerous studies indicating I'm not far off the mark in that assessment---that PBS programs have a positive impact on children's intellect and other programming (particularly cartoons and sitcoms) leave a negative impression if done in heavy amounts. Done in small amounts, commercial programming is benign entertainment.
In a two-year study of 326 five- and seven-year-olds, viewing of educational television had a positive effect on children's reading while non-informative shows (situation comedies) had a detrimental effect. That same long-term project concluded that the biggest influence on children's reading development and skills was parent attitudes about reading and the availability of books in their homes. A follow-up study seven years later confirmed the original findings and showed the intellectual gains for at-risk children were long-lasting.
One of the things I respect about PBS is that it learns from its mistakes (something seemingly beyond the grasp of network and cable channels) and keeps improving its educational programs. For example, "Sesame Street," as popular as it is, does not qualify as a great literacy lesson. When researchers studied ten episodes of "Sesame Street" in 1995, they counted 350 segments, of which 184 were literacy related and overwhelmingly those related to letter sounds, not context. Of those 184 segments, only 21 included print "in context," as in signs, labels, posters, or logos. Even the impact of "role modeling" was missing most of the time in "Sesame's" instruction; only nine times in the ten hours were characters actually seen reading, and always to themselves. Not once in 350 segments did anyone read aloud to children or Muppets.
Recognizing the limitations of "Sesame Street's" format, PBS created two literacy shows targeting specific literacy issues---"Reading Rainbow" and "Between the Lions."
"Reading Rainbow," the award-winning PBS series on children's books, shows what can be accomplished when the industry sets its mind to educate and entertain. It is presently the most used television program in elementary classrooms, with more than 4 million students tuning in regularly. Once a book is spotlighted on the show, libraries and bookstores report an immediate positive response among children and their parents. It is not unusual for a book that normally sells 1,200 copies to sell 20,000 after appearing on "Reading Rainbow." A complete list books used on the hundreds of "Reading Rainbow" episodes can be found at http://gpn.unl.edu/rainbow/parents/mainlib.htm.
"Between the Lions" is a highly praised children's television program aimed at promoting reading skills and is based on solid classroom and early childhood research. It's truly the best of its kind ever on national TV.
With the show's extensive Web site www.pbskids.org/lions, PBS has shown it's possible to marry TV to the Web in a meaningful way for families. Most of the entertainment industry's Web sites are strictly intended to sell, seldom to educate, and never intelligently. This site's parent index includes ways for parents to teach literacy using story time, bath time, made-up stories, warning labels, television, food, errands, songs, newspapers, the dictionary, and airport or train signs. Each category offers nearly 10 simple literacy activities.
Lawrie Mifflin, "Pediatricians Urge Limiting TV Viewing," New York Times, Aug. 4, 1999, p. A1, A11.
Patricia A. Williams, Edward H. Haertel, Geneva D. Haertel, and Herbert J. Walberg, "The Impact of Leisure-Time Television on School Learning: A Research Synthesis," American Educational Research Journal, Spring 1982, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 19-50.
"Zapping of TV Ads Appears Pervasive," The Wall Street Journal, April 25, 1988, pg. 29.
Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity (New York: Delacorte, 1980), pp. 77-78.
Michael Liberman, "The Verbal Language of Television," The Journal of Reading, April 1983, pp. 602-9.
Susan B. Neuman and Patricia Koskinen, "Captioned Television as 'Comprehensible Input': Effects of Incidental Word Learning from Context for Language Minority Students," Reading Research Quarterly, 27, 1992, pp. 95-106; Koskinen, P.S., Wilson, R. S., Gambrell, L. and Jensema, C. J., ERS Spectrum: Journal of School Research and Information 4(2), pp. 9-13; Patricia S. Koskinen, Robert M. Wilson, Linda B. Gambrell, Susan B. Neuman, "Captioned Video and Vocabulary Learning: An innovative Practice in Literacy Instruction," The Reading Teacher, September 1993, pp. 36-43; Robert J. Rickelman, William A. Henk, Kent Layton, "Closed-Captioned Television: A Viable Technology for the Reading Teacher," The Reading Teacher, Apr 1991, pp. 598-9.
Pirjo LinnakylŠ, "Subtitles Prompt Finnish Children to Read," Reading TODAY (IRA bimonthly), October/November 1993, p. 31.
Rosemarie Truglio, Aletha Huston, John Wright, "The Relation Between Children's Print and Television Use to Early Reading Skills," Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children, Department of Human Development, University of Kansas, 1988.
John C. Wright and Aletha C. Huston , "Effects of educational TV Viewing of Lower Income Preschoolers on Academic Skills, School Readiness, and School Adjustment one to three Years Later," Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children, June 1995, report can be obtained from: Children's Television Workshop, 1 Lincoln Plaza, NY, NY, 10023, 212/ 595-3456; also www.cyfc.umn.edu/television.html; see also Mark Walsh, "Study Links Television Viewing, School Readiness," Education Week, June 7, 1995, p. 5.
Barbara Fowles Mates and Linda Strommen, TITLE, The Reading Teacher, January 1996.
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