PASADENA, Calif. — Want to teach your kids to read? Make them watch TV.
Not just any TV, of course. But if you've got 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds, sit them down in front of PBS's "Between the Lions," and then give them a book.
"Many education experts, I'm afraid, are quick, to blame television for contributing to illiteracy in this country," said John F. Wilson, PBS's senior vice president of programming services. "It's true that kids who watch the most television tend to become the poorest readers. And therein lies the genius of WGBH's 'Between the Lions.' Why not teach kids to read while they're watching television?"
This is not just a matter of opinion on the part of the folks at PBS. They've got the results of a University of Kansas study indicating that "Lions" helped kindergartners and first-graders improve their reading skills.
Kids in classrooms around the greater Kansas City area were shown episodes of the show — a half-hour a day for 17 consecutive school days — in a study commissioned by the producers of "Between the Lions." Actually, one group watched the show and a second group did not, but viewing "Between the Lions" was the only supplemental instruction the first group received.
"We did commission the study, because we needed to know whether or not what we were doing was working," said PBS's Judy Stoia. "We had to know if we were actually teaching kids early reading skills. But one of the requirements of a professional study is that there be absolute independence in terms of the way it's conducted and the research results.
"So even though we commissioned it, the University of Kansas had complete editorial control over it."
And what the Kansas researchers discovered was more than encouraging to the producers of the PBS show.
On a test of the kids' knowledge of word sounds — an indicator of later reading ability — kindergartners who watched "Between the Lions" scored 64 percent higher, as opposed to 25 percent higher for the kids who didn't watch the show. In standardized reading tests, the kids who watched improved 26 percent, compared to a 5 percent gain for those who did not watch.
And, as far as the kids were concerned, "Between the Lions" wasn't just good for them, it was good. Four out of five of the youngsters in the story said they liked the show as much or more than their favorite programs.
"This is the part I like," Wilson said. "Not only is it nutritious, it's delicious. What's great about this is that the kids who learn so much also really like the series. Ninety-five percent like 'Between the Lions,' with one in six claiming it was their favorite show, besting their second-most favorite show — 'Pokemon.' "