Can a TV show really help children develop their reading skills? What a new study says

For decades, TV shows have helped young children practice their ABCs and 1-2-3s. From “The Electric Company” to “Sesame Street” to “Between the Lions”, research has shown that educational programs can effectively teach children the basics of literacy and numeracy, such as letter and number recognition. sounds and how numbers represent quantity.

Now, a new study reveals that educational television can also teach young children more complex reading skills, skills that could help them do better in school.

The paper, researchers from SRI Education and the Education Development Center, examines the effectiveness of a television program in teaching children about informational text. The term refers to non-fiction books and articles, but also to a host of other sources with distinct purposes and text characteristics, such as reference books, recipes, or lectures.

The particular show studied in the newspaper, a show on PBS called “Molly of Denaliwas designed to teach children to understand and use these types of informational texts.

And the researchers found that it was effective: first-graders who were instructed to watch the show and play related digital games were better able to use informative texts to answer questions and solve what the researchers call students in a control group “real world problems”. band.

Developing information literacy early can help lay the foundation for the work students do in school, but also the skills they’ll eventually use throughout their lives, said Shelley Pasnik, senior vice president. of the Education Development Center and co-author. on the study.

“When students don’t have a good foundation in informational text, they are less likely to succeed academically and also to be able to engage in those very practical ways – knowing how a caption conveys information or reading a map “, she said. “Just all the ways one could navigate life – it’s missed.”

The study also suggests the potential for educational media to teach beyond foundational skills, as many school systems have turned to shows, games, and apps as lifelines during COVID-related school disruptions.

Why Reading Informational Text Requires Different Skills Than Fiction

Over the past decade, schools have faced pressure to increase the amount of informational texts included in the curriculum, a trend that dates back to the introduction of Common State Standards in 2010.

The common standards, adopted at one point by 46 states and the District of Columbia, called for elementary students to read a consistent mix of fiction and informational texts in all subjects, and high school students to read 70% of non-fiction. -fiction. As reported by Education Week in 2012the common core authors made this recommendation in response to employers’ and universities’ concerns that students lacked the skills or knowledge to analyze arguments or analyze complex information.

More recently, informative text has become a key part of what has come to be known as the “science of reading”. In response to research showing that students can understand text better when they have basic knowledge of the subject, some advocates have pushed for knowledge-building programs.: English/Language Arts programs that aim to help students gain an in-depth understanding of certain topics, such as ancient cultures, body systems, or the civil rights movement, while teaching literacy skills .

But reading a nonfiction book or researching information from reference materials is different from reading a narrative story. Informational text has different features, such as topic titles, indexes, and graphics. Language can also be more technical and topic-specific. Students need to learn how to navigate these features and derive insights from them, Pasnik said.

That’s what the study’s TV show, “Molly of Denali,” aims to do. The show is about Molly, a 10-year-old Alaska Native girl, who goes on adventures and tries to solve problems in her community. Along the way, she uses different types of informative texts, such as field guides, maps and informative websites.

The show, developed under a federal Ready to Learn grant, is designed to achieve learning goals aligned with the state’s Common Core Standards.

In the two studies described in this article, 263 first-graders from low-income families were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In the treatment group, parents received a tablet loaded with “Molly of Denali” episodes and educational games. They were told to have their children use these materials for at least one hour a week.

Parents in the control group also received an internet-connected tablet, but instead were told to have their children use it for “educational purposes” for at least one hour a week. (On these tablets, access to “Molly of Denali” was blocked.)

After nine weeks, students were assessed on their ability to use informative text to answer questions or solve problems. The students in the group who watched “Molly of Denali” outperformed the students in the control group. The difference was equivalent to the amount of reading skills a typical 1st grader develops in three months, Pasnik said.

These effects held regardless of student gender, parental income, parental education, or ethnicity, although older first-grade students benefited less from the intervention than first-grade students. younger years. The second study replicated these same conditions with a larger geographic sample and came to the same results.

The children varied in the extent to which they used the tablets at home and how often they watched the show and played the games. Researchers found a correlation between time spent on videos, in particular, and assessment pass scores: Students in the treatment group who spent more time watching the show had post-test scores higher.

Districts should develop educational media ‘preservation list’, expert says

The study doesn’t examine exactly what made “Molly of Denali” effective. But there are general best practices for educational media, Pasnik said.

For starters, a show needs to have characters and a plot that are genuinely engaging for kids — a story based on “imagination and authenticity,” Pasnik said. In the case of “Molly of Denali,” the story is also culturally rich: Molly is originally from Alaska, and her heritage and traditions are woven throughout the show. (More than 60 Native, First Nations, and Alaska Native consultants worked on its production.)

Then the learning needs to be embedded in that story. You shouldn’t feel like the action stops for a lesson. Educational media producers call it “learning on the plot line,” Pasnik said.

Schools and districts can use these types of high-quality educational materials to support classroom work, Pasnik said, something many school systems have attempted as they seek solutions during remote learning.

In spring 2020 and through the 2020-2021 school year, many states and some school districts partnered with local public media stations to expand children’s programming time slots throughout the day. A few have created their own shows: New York City schools have developed Let’s Learn NYC!, extra math, literacy, science and social studies lessons for kids in the Kindergarten to Grade 2 aired on public television. The State of Tennessee did something similar with Teaching Tennessee, its video series for students in pre-K-3 grades.

Going forward, districts that want to encourage teachers or parents to continue using public television or other educational media would benefit from providing a “curator list” or investing in curators, Pasnik said.

“There are highly regarded programs, many of which are backed by research,” she said. “Who has time to examine them, to verify them, to determine what is possible?

“It’s not unlike what media scholars and librarians have done,” she added. “But it could happen on a larger scale.”