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Tips for Growing Bookworms: #8 Be Selective in Television Watching

Posted by Jen Robinson on February 8, 2010 at 6:00 AM in Literacy NewsRecommendations
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This is Part 8 of a continuing series on encouraging young readers. These ideas were originally captured in a post that I did on my blog in 2007, 10 Tips for Growing Bookworms. Here at Booklights I'll be expanding upon and updating each idea, and adding links for more information.

Tip #8: Be selective in television watching, and limit total time spent. There has been various studies that suggest that children under the age of two should not be allowed to watch any television. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommends that television viewing for children under the age of two should be avoided. The PBS Parents website has an excellent FAQ on TV and kids under age 3), compiled by children's media expert Shelley Pasnik. It includes links to the full AAP policy statement on young children and television.

For older kids, as reported in an article by Annie M. Moss in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy (Vol. 8, No. 1, 67-102, 2008), an examination of various studies concluded that "(1) moderate amounts of television viewing were found to be beneficial for reading; (2) the content of programs viewed by children matters; (3) programs that aim to promote literacy in young children have been found to positively impact specific early literacy skills; and finally, (4) there are limitations to the existing literature".

The message that I take from this, and other reading that I've done, is that it's a good idea a) to limit the amount of time that kids spend watching television, and b) to be selective about what your kids (especially younger kids) watch.

Limiting Television Time:
Here's one simple fact, in the context of growing bookworms: time spent watching TV is time NOT spent reading books. In general, allowing hours and hours of television watching per day is not going to help you to raise readers. When kids watch stories on TV, everything is spelled out for them. When they read stories in books, they use their imaginations more. They picture the characters. They can imagine that the characters look like them. They become accustomed to filling in some of the details in their own minds. They see the words printed on the page, and learn what they mean.

I also think that books are better in general than television shows in terms of helping kids to expand their vocabularies. Kids who are read to from birth will hear many more different words over the course of their preschool days than kids who spend most of their free time in front of the TV. Especially if those television shows primarily use words like "bam".

WG-LOGO.gifUsing Television Wisely:
Of course television is quite enticing for kids. If you're going to allow your preschoolers to watch television, there are a couple of things that you can do to make TV work in favor of, instead of against, literacy skills. The first is obvious. Pick television shows that are educational and help your child's development, instead of violent or mindless cartoons. There are a number of educational shows that focus on vocabulary, but also strive to make reading fun. I've heard particularly good things about WordGirl and Super WHY!, for example.

rah-cov06.jpgAnother tip is one I learned from Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook (a book that every new parent should have a chance to read). Jim suggests that if you are going to have the television on, you can turn it into a "mechanical reading tutor" by the simple act of turning on the closed captioning. He cites examples of children in Finland who don't start school until age 7, watch a lot of television, and yet have high reading levels, explaining that they typically watch quite a bit of non-Finnish television, and make heavy use of closed captioning. It's like an interactive reading tutor, with the televised characters acting out the words. Closed captioning provides a steady stream of words across the bottom of screen, words that your child will notice and, eventually, decode.

Jim concludes: "It stands to reason that reasonable doses of captioned television can do no harm and most likely help greatly with reading. There is enough research to indicate significant gains in comprehension and vocabulary development (especially among bilingual students) when receiving instruction with educational television that is captioned." You can read more details here.

If you want your kids to love books, you have to give them time to love books. And that means quiet time, when the television isn't blaring in the background. Time to immerse themselves in other worlds, worlds that will build their imaginations. Time to just read.

But variety is important, too. If your kids are going to spend time watching television, the best ways that I know of to make TV work in favor of literacy are to select television shows carefully, and to turn on the closed captioning.

How have you balanced television and books in your house, in your quest to grow bookworms?


Jim writes...

The limiting advice is good and through surveys I've found as long as there are limits, it doesn't really matter the details. I know students who aren't allowed to watch TV during the school week and others who can but not on weekends. I know some who have time limits per day of number of shows a day. Or the ever-popular, "Not until your homework is done." They were all good students. The ones with no limits--and especially ones w/TVs in their bedrooms--were not. Simple as that. And the best way we grow our little bookworm is having plenty of her magazines and books in the backseat, by the bed and in the bathroom. Totally works.


Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for sharing your experience on this, Jim. Seems like a pretty strong argument for TV limits to me.

And tip #9 of this series is going to talk about keeping books handy everywhere. So glad to hear that it's working for your little bookworm.

Terry D writes...

We have bundled TV into "screen time" so that there is an umbrella limit and the 8YO has to negotiate if/how she wants to spend that time.

To Jim's point ... we are already hearing requests for a TV in her room. That is a NO brainer! The great thing about Closed Caption is it's FREE and its on every TV.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I know that you'll resist the TV in the bedroom temptation, Terry. Glad to hear that bundling TV time into screen time is working for you, too. I could see that getting a little tricky when she's older, and might really need internet time for some of her schoolwork. But I know that you'll figure it out.

And yes, I should have mentioned that beautiful thing about closed captioning. You can't get much better than free!

Briar writes...

I grew up with televisions on in almost all rooms of my house at all times, and I was always a voracious reader (and am now a librarian!). So I definitely believe you can be both a TV watcher and a reader! My parents simply read a lot and read to me a lot and made sure I had lots of access to books - I was always allowed to read anything I wanted to read. With my toddler, we carefully pick the shows he watches on the DVR (Sesame Street, SuperWhy (LOVE it!), Between the Lions, Yo Gabba Gabba, Jack's Big Music Show) and we pretty much always watch with him, but he is allowed to watch pretty much whenever he wants - usually comes out to 1-2 hours total, maybe? He has never been a TV zombie, preferring to interact and act out what he sees. We encourage that behavior and constantly discuss and extend what he views. I truly believe that the shows he watches have contributed to his alphabet and phonetic knowledge - at 2.5, he is sounding out words and "reading" some by sight. Oh, and we owe some of that to, which has fabulous toddler/early reader games to play together!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Well, Briar, clearly it's not impossible for kids who watch lots of TV to grow up as voracious readers (especially when the TV that they watch includes carefully selected shows that engage literacy skills - glad that is helping!). I actually watched quite a bit of TV myself, when I was a kid. But I still think that for the majority of kids, as they get older, having some limits on how much TV they watch, and what they watch, is going to leave more time for reading. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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