Can TV Teach Reading to Kids 4 to 7? Tune In and See

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

There is a notion out there that television--with its bag of fast-paced tricks making today's children virtual junkies for overstimulation--will be the death of reading, if it hasn't already done the deed.

But it's also been clear--for the last three decades, at least--that television's formidable powers can serve the cause of literacy as well.

So PBS stations nationwide today will launch a series that may be the medium's most ambitious effort ever to help children learn to read. Four years in the making and costing $30 million, "Between the Lions" will pick up where the 32-year-old "Sesame Street" leaves off: targeting slightly older kids--4 to 7--and taking them the crucial steps beyond the alphabet skills driven home by Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

Named for the marble lions that guard the famous 42nd Street library here--and for a family of lions that are the central characters--the 30-episode series is designed to immerse youngsters in such concepts as vowel sounds, verbal blending and prefixes, that whole genre known as phonics.

There are puppet animals and animated figures and even flesh-and-blood humans (would you believe Dr. Ruth Westheimer?), a computer mouse named Click, a soul-singing Martha Reader and the Vowelles and Gawain's Word knights who crash together (with word fragments) Monty Python style; there are evil "Un" people, who attach themselves to the beginning of words, and rival "Re" people, who undo their damage.

There are stories and songs galore and fables, puns and one-liners. "She was cool as a cucumber," says Sam Spud, the vegetable detective. "As a matter of fact, she is a cucumber."

The people behind "Between the Lions" are veterans of "Sesame Street," the Children's Theater Workshop, "The Muppet Show" and National Lampoon.

Organizations such as the American Library Assn. and the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals have signed on as "founding partners." An advisory board of 11 leading reading experts was drawn from both camps in the so-called reading wars--phonics and whole language--to scrutinize the series.

Funding is from the U.S. Department of Education's Corp. for Public Broadcasting and charities such as the Carnegie Foundation, which has a project researching how early brain patterns are formed.

PBS' new bid to help kids learn to read comes at a time when 40% of America's fourth-graders can't do so at basic levels, 68% in schools serving poor children.

"This is not going to solve the nation's literacy crisis; it's a half-hour TV show," said Michael Levine, deputy director of the Carnegie Foundation's education division. "But, yes, you can build the skills of children with a half an hour a day. This is one of the most important efforts we've ever seen."

For "Between the Lions" to have a chance of raising reading scores, it will have to pass a test itself.

"The show has to be entertaining enough to get the kids to watch," agreed its creative producer, Christopher Cerf. The award-winning songwriter, author and humorist helped launch both National Lampoon magazine and the Children's Television Workshop's Products Group, whose merchandising has helped support "Sesame Street." For the new venture, he has written a song about the letter W.

Solid Credentials in Children's Shows

Cerf and three other alumni of "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" in 1996 formed a New York-based children's educational entertainment company, Sirius Thinking Ltd., and proposed "Between the Lions" in partnership with WGBH-TV, Boston's PBS station. That same year, the venture got $4.2 million in initial funding from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.

The executive producer is Judith Stoia, a WGBH documentary and newsmagazine specialist who raised her own children on "Sesame Street" when it was "the only game in town." There wasn't the competition for children's attention that there is in this era of video games, the Internet and a growing number of cable channels--such as Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel--devoted to children's programming.

Her crews produced two 30-minute episodes to start, then tested them by having kids watch in a glass-walled room and by hiring an outside researcher to screen shows at six sites across the country.

Only after seeing what worked did they film the rest of the 30 shows, which will air daily for six weeks, then be repeated over the summer and in the fall. The plan is to churn out 25 more for next spring.

PBS affiliates can air the episodes when they want, 2 p.m. in the case of Los Angeles' KCET-TV, the only station in the area to now carry the series.

Even before "Between the Lions" aired, a University of Kansas study was underway to gauge its impact on the reading skills of youngsters in that area.

"Between the Lions" is being launched after a century that saw a lively--sometimes ugly--debate over what was most important in learning to read: acquiring adequate motivation or the right skills. Should the fun of reading be stressed? Or the effort?

Fun was the backbone of the whole-language approach, which peaked in California in the mid-1990s. It theorized that good stories and pictures would so engage children that they would spend enough time with books to absorb--almost naturally--the structure and sense of the language. Advocates feared that too much emphasis on words would get in the way of absorbing their meaning.

Phonics, in contrast, emphasizes skills, pushing drills on letters and their sounds, then gradually building them up into words, then stories. Its advocates said that whole language wasn't working, that poor kids, especially, were not picking up the basics of reading.

Today, the consensus is that aspects of both methods are essential. Whole-language programs are adding skills lessons and phonics programs are playing up entertainment as the spoonful of sugar to help phonics go down.

"Between the Lions" offers such a blend. From the opening seconds of the series, even before viewers meet the star family of lions or the unusual library they run, viewers are signaled that what's important in reading is . . . the words. And the letters within words. And the sounds of those letters.

In the opening credits, when the narrator sings "Now!" the word is on the screen. That morphs into "Wow!" and finally into "How." The point is to show that changing the first letter changes not merely the sound but the whole word.

Later, "wet" becomes "pet" and then "pen." The short E sound, clearly, will be a star of this episode.

That's driven home when Martha Reader and the Vowelles appear. The disembodied set of candy-colored lips sings soulfully about vowels and their sounds, featuring one per program.

Using Stories to Teach

Whole-language enthusiasts may complain that such an exercise has nothing to do with real reading. But there's plenty of whole-language spirit as well, as the mother and father lion (Cleo and Theo) gather their son and daughter (Lionel and Leona) to read an imaginative story at the start of each show.

The first episode's "Pecos Bill Cleans Up the West" ensnares the family right in the story when its tornado comes to life in their library and Pecos Bill has to save the day. In the fifth episode, "Shooting Stars," Leona is convinced that a meteor shower is a meat shower, setting off a funky "meat shower" song with falling pork chops.

It is almost MTV-paced entertainment, aimed at children who have been watching television since they were toddlers. It tries to slip in enough cultural puns (Westheimer as Dr. Ruth Wordheimer, for instance) to amuse adults.

But while a number of television shows seek to impart a love of reading--like "Reading Rainbow," produced locally by KCET--"Between the Lions" clearly aims to help its viewers learn to read.

That's why an administrator in one suburban New York school district was eager recently to show a preview cassette of the first show to her kindergartners. Teachers had been debating how much reading instruction 5- and 6-year-olds can absorb; several were skeptical that they could manage phonics lessons, however packaged.

Wrong.

Six classes of 18 students each sat in an auditorium. The first laugh came in the credits when they saw Arty Smartypants, who hides words in his baggy trousers. The lead Vowelle got applause for her E song, and the boys liked the colliding knights. When one group squealed as the animated tornado went wild in the library, others shushed them; they wanted to hear the story.

By the end, many read along as the screen showed how chest could become chess, then mess.

After the children returned to class, the administrator found some still singing the Pecos Bill song. Several kids easily went back through the E sounds.

Not that they got everything quite right. One tiny girl said, "I liked all that 'Lions in the Middle.' "

Despite such excitement, "You can't actually teach people to read through television," cautioned Marilyn J. Adams, a project consultant now at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "But it's a wonderful way to get them to think."

In part because TV can't do the job alone, "Lions" has a Web site (http://www.pbskids.org/lions) and is developing Book Cub clubs and curriculum guides. There are negotiations for a textbook deal, Cerf said, and plans for merchandising.

As with "Sesame Street," he anticipates a need for funding if the time comes that "foundations don't find it as exciting." So, there should be a beanbag toy of Leona by fall and a doll version of Click the computer mouse.

"When you roll her around," he said, "she will sing the 'Ten Small Words Song.' The tiny Click comes with a little toy computer."

And when you stick a flashcard in the computer, showing a word on the screen?

"Click will actually read the word or use the word in context."

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BETWEEN THE LIONS

Reviewer places the new PBS basic reading series among "the best of the best." F11

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