Between the Lions: Learn to Read, Watch TV!
Between the Lions is named for a family of lions Theo, Cleo, Lionel, and Leona who run a library like no other on earth. The doors "between the lions" swing open to reveal a magical place where characters pop off the pages of books, vowels sing, and words take on a life of their own. The series combines innovative puppetry, animation, live action, and music to achieve its educational mission of helping young children learn to read.
The backbone of the series is a comprehensive literacy curriculum geared to beginning readers ages 4 to 7. Developed with literacy experts from across the country, the curriculum emphasizes both the pleasures and value of reading, as well as the skills needed for learning how to read. Each episode uses the curriculum to teach children while it entertains.
Since its premiere in April 2000 on PBS, Between the Lions has quickly become a favorite of kids, parents, caregivers, and teachers. The National Education Association (NEA) endorsed the series. According to Bob Chase, NEA President, "We strongly urge parents and caregivers to guide young children to Between the Lions and invite teachers to take advantage of the program and Web site for top-notch [resources] that extend learning."
In addition to enthusiastic anecdotes from parents and teachers across the country who have used Between the Lions at home and in the classroom, a recent research study at the University of Kansas showed that watching Between the Lions improved children's reading skills significantly. Students who watched only 8.5 hours of the show raised their test scores 65% in many early reading skills, while those who did not watch over the same period raised their scores by only 35%.
Between the Lions is a fun, innovative, and creative way to enhance any literacy program. Its lively songs, humor, and unforgettable characters are a valuable aid for helping children to learn-and love-reading.
Between the Lions and Evidence-Based Practices
When the producers of Between the Lions set out to create the series, they consulted early literacy experts from across the country, including Marilyn Adams, Gerald Lesser, Robert Slavin, Catherine Snow, Dorothy Strickland, and the late Jeanne Chall. These experts debated the value of various practices and recommended a balanced approach-one that would feature meaningful reading events as well as phonics lessons delivered in an organized, systematic way. Three of these same experts (Snow, Adams, and Strickland) were serving on the National Research Council's committee, conducting a review of the reading research field. Their study, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, published in 1998, describes the environments, critical skills, and developmental processes that are instrumental in the acquisition of early literacy. The recommendations of this committee - which formed the foundation for the work of the National Reading Panel also became the framework for the curriculum content of Between the Lions.
Based on the recommendations of the National Reading Panel Report, the Between the Lions team considers five categories of reading skills-phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension-and designs segments to address each one. The series' songs, poems, skits, and recurring segments reflect evidence-based recommendations for phonemic awareness and phonics. Its treatment of text on screen encourages fluency, and its Lion family interactions model proven strategies for vocabulary learning and text comprehension.
Using the Between the Lions Program and Website in the Classroom
Before using Between the Lions programs in the classroom, you may want to familiarize yourself with the series and preview several episodes. Teachers have one-year educational taping rights, so feel free to tape the programs and preview them before showing them in class. You can find out which episodes are airing on your public television station by checking the Web site or by calling your local public television station. You can review the curriculum content of each episode on the Web site to help you choose the episodes that best support your goals.
Think about whether you want to show your students an entire episode or focus on shorter segments - e.g., the read-aloud story, the songs, or specific segments that support the development of phonemic awareness. You should also think about follow-up activities to emphasize the skills presented in the program, as well as read-aloud books to share in class based on a similar theme.
Before viewing in class, introduce the show by asking if any of your students have ever seen an episode of Between the Lions. If so, invite them to share what they know about the show. You may want to ask them questions specific to the content of the episode before starting the tape in order to encourage active viewing. Pause the tape to ask children to predict what will happen next in the story, to draw their attention to specific details, or to encourage them to play or sing along. After viewing, ask open-ended questions that invite your students to share their thoughts and opinions about the show, in order to develop their oral language and help them better understand the story. Then read a book that is related to the episode and do a hands-on activity that extends the theme of the episode and book, and gives students opportunities to practice self-expression, literacy, and listening skills. You can provide additional opportunities for your students to practice what they have learned by visiting the Between the Lions Web site.
Your students can also use the Between the Lions segments as inspiration for classroom activities. For example, you can create your own version of "Blending Bowl" to explore the sounds of words. Choose a short key word from a book your class has read, and help children break it into parts. Then using knight puppets, write the beginning or ending word part of the key word on each knight's shield. Children can take turns "galloping" the puppets toward each other in their own Blending Fields, saying the word parts. When the puppets come together, children can say the whole word and act it out. For a more physical experience, have children take turns acting two word-part knights coming together to form words, using props such as hobby horses or mops to ride and helmets made of buckets or costume supplies.
Other ideas inspired by the show include having children practice saying a target vowel sound by singing it Ã la Martha Reader and the Vowelles. Or highlight a target vowel sound in a big book you are reading, the way words are highlighted on the show, by taping transparent film over words that contain your target vowel sound or just over the vowels. As you read aloud and track the print, children can see which words contain a particular sound. Or create a Dr. Ruth Wordheimer office for treating "Long Word Freakout" or simply "Word Freakout," depending upon the severity of the case. You or a volunteer can play the part of Dr. Ruth and help patients figure out a word "one part at a time." For a challenge, write out an especially long word and have children use the good doctor's technique to figure it out.
To support your students' creative writing, show several segments of "The Adventures of Cliff Hanger." Point out how the adventures always begin and end the same but the middle is different. Then invite children to write and illustrate their own Cliff Hanger adventure, featuring a new middle that will yet again leave him stranded on the cliff. In another segment, the character Sam Spud shows children that making mistakes while writing is okay, and shows how writers need to revise their work. Write some sentences, each with one error, and place them in the writing center. Invite children to work alone or with a partner to sleuth out the problem and correct it. Encouraging your children to engage with or act out the segments they see on the video will both motivate them to practice their skill development in new ways and also ensure that they are more active viewers when they watch the program.
The Between the Lions Web site is a rich source of interactive games, information, printables, and more for children, caregivers, parents, and teachers. Like the TV series, the Web site is designed to help kids learn to read (with some help from teachers like you!). The Parents and Teachers area is a good place for you to start getting familiar with the site.
While the Between the Lions series and Web site will never replace your literacy curriculum or your daily read-aloud experiences, these resources can provide a valuable supplement to your classroom activities, giving your students new ways to think about and practice reading and writing. You can also encourage your students' parents to watch Between the Lions with their children, in addition to reading aloud to them, as a way to support their literacy development at home.
Published: February 2005
Updated: September 2007