When my oldest was six, he came to me with a cape and a picture book. “Come on, Mama,” he said. “Let’s read like SuperWhy!” And that day like so many days, we plunged into a story to “zap” words like Whyatt, the leader of the Super Readers team. We rhymed simple words like hop and pop, spelled them out loud, and put them into sentences. The more educational shows we watched, the more reading he craved. Characters were his hook. And the educational resources offered by WHRO and PBS Kids were mine.
Studies show our country still struggles with poor literacy rates. In fact, many of America’s children do not have the foundation to succeed in kindergarten. More than half of Virginia children ages 3 and 4 don’t participate in any form of preschool. In our region only 1 in 10 children is adequately prepared for kindergarten.
There is a bright spot on the horizon. Tidewater’s local public television station, WHRO, broadcasts educational programming daily and focuses on improving literacy. Angie Callahan, director of children’s services at WHRO, is a champion of educational programming and works hard to improve early literacy rates in our area.
“We use media across all platforms to bridge success,” Angie explained in WHRO’s Norfolk studios. “We create solutions to help children learn their alphabet, spell, build comprehension, and gain numerical sense.”
Around Angie’s office, I see evidence of PBS KIDS’ Raising Readers Initiative scattered about: boxes filled with free books and activity kits for distribution; posters and photographs of outreach efforts; computer games; and the beloved PBS characters, whose colorful personalities and antics help teach new generations how to read, count, and think.
Children love television, and most parents welcome quality, educational programming as an addition to school, playtime, and family fun. “Our programs have specific, educational key points that are chosen and designed into the programs. They are research-based to fit needs for school readiness and maintenance,” Angie explained.
For example, Peg + Cat focuses on teaching math. Children can learn number recognition and counting through song. The Electric Company teaches literacy skills such as decoding and comprehension. Word World takes sounds and combines them into words. “I am inspired to know the shows help them learn what they need to know to be successful in life, ” Angie said.
Angie shows me examples of PBS Kids’ characters and how they are incorporated into multiple online games, which offer skills practice for children. “We like games and music because they help children remember,” said Angie as she clicked on her favorite songs and characters on the PBS Kids’ website. Child-friendly games are easy to find and simple to use online. And studies confirm that combining educational shows with online games can improve skills when used regularly.
EMBRACING THE COMMUNITY
Since 2008, when WHRO was selected to bring this literacy initiative to our viewing area, the station has moved beyond television and into our community. Together with PBS Kids, WHRO brings resources to children while spreading excitement about learning.
“We want our feet on the ground in community outreach, especially in low income areas, because education is a foundation for achievement,” Angie said.
Martha Razor, WHRO’s Early Childhood Coordinator, implements the Raising Readers Van program. “It is so exciting to go out and reinforce the importance of reading,” she said. The van is packed with carefully selected books and games to cover specific standards of learning for language arts and comprehension. “It feels like a field trip at school, yet children are learning the whole time,” Martha explained. “And everyone gets a great feeling about being a reader.”
Another initiative is the Reading Buddies partnership. First graders (“Little Buddies”) are paired with fifth graders (“Big Buddies”) and meet for eight weeks for 45-minute sessions. They read stories, write in journals, and play learning games together. Little Buddies gain vocabulary and sight word practice. Big Buddies improve reading fluency and comprehension. “The program really cuts down on discipline problems, too, because the older children have to show the younger children how grown up they are,” said Frank Seemar, a reading specialist for Norfolk Public School.
WHRO also offers programs for parents. The Anytime is Learning Time Training classes take place multiple times a year. Parents who attend learn to identify teachable moments that can boost literacy skills. They get tip sheets and free books for their children. They also learn about PBS KIDS Raising Readers Library Corners, sponsored by WHRO, at eight local libraries. These cozy havens are decorated with familiar characters from PBS Kids and filled with books, games, and educational activities.
Through these outreach services and more, WHRO actively sends the messages that learning is fun and that we can work together to solve problems and raise successful learners.
Parents play a major role in preparing their preschoolers for kindergarten, and WHRO makes it easy to do. We can visit Library Corners for effective learning time. We can go to PBS’ website for educational articles that help at-home instruction. We can assist our own children in navigating through the PBS Kids’ website and choose games they need.
It is also important to select the right shows for our kids to watch and watch with them. “Our shows provide fabulous opportunities for parents to ask children questions about what they view,” says Angie.
Reinforcement and extra practice is key to helping our children master school skills. Lauren, a mother of three in Virginia Beach, said, “PBS television gives my husband and me game ideas to bring to the dinner table. We rhyme. We count. We play the Start Game: naming the first sound we hear in a word like cat. We see the difference.”
Here are a few tips to help you and your children get the most benefit from educational television:
- Watch programs with your child.
- Draw special attention to key concepts and key behaviors while watching.
- Visit www.pbskids.org to enhance skills for added practice.
- Find PBS Kids apps.
- Learn about WHRO outreach programs. Visit www.education.whro.org/regional-services.
- Balance program viewing with physical activity and interaction with family and friends.
- Keep asking questions and playing educational games off screen.
- Read together daily.
- Be patient. Be consistent. Be repetitive. Learning takes time.
Just as we teach a child to build with one block at a time, we teach them to learn one skill at a time. Then we build from there. WHRO knows that developing and sharing resources not only makes learning fun, it makes learning possible. And when parents see their children identify with an educational character that makes them want to learn, snuggling together by the television has a whole new meaning.
Jennifer Avis has a M.Ed from Old Dominion University, and is a post graduate from the Institute of Children’s Literature. She is the author of Morty the Meerkat Has Autism and spends much time writing articles for women, children, and families.