Reading Rainbow: TV Good Enough to Read!
At its inception, the goal of Reading Rainbow was to encourage independent reading among home viewers by featuring quality literature for children. Through the use of fascinating and often exotic segments, its intent was to send children to libraries looking for information about the high interest topics presented. In its 20-plus years of existence and 150 programs, Reading Rainbow has managed to maintain these goals yet become one of the top-rated television programs in classrooms for instructional purposes.
The appeal of Reading Rainbow for teachers lies in its natural ties to curriculum. Program topics fuel the curiosity of children in areas of science and social studies. With host LeVar Burton as their guide, viewers investigate space technology and earth forms, visit diverse habitats, observe animal characteristics and behaviors, and engage in a wealth of other scientific explorations. Nutrition and healthy lifestyles are endorsed in several episodes. In social studies, the "media visits" introduce children to world cultures and careers, provide a glimpse into places and events in American history, and examine aspects of economics, geography, and transportation. Mathematical concepts, such as measurement, money, understanding large numbers, and geometry, are demonstrated in meaningful ways. Reading Rainbow taps into the creativity and imagination of its viewers as well. Numerous programs highlight the accomplishments of artists, musicians, dancers, and dramatic performers.
Program themes are relevant to the lives of children. They have a wise and empathetic friend in LeVar who helps them consider family issues, friendships, and the people who live and work in all kinds of communities. Although the original intended audience for the show was early childhood, many topics and program segments appeal to older students as well as younger. As a result, students across the elementary grades are invited to think critically about actions of heroes and themes of world peace in response to the events of September 11, 2001, and about difficult social issues such as homelessness, racism, violence, and incarceration of a family member. Underlying all of the program's topics and themes is a commitment to a diverse society, in which ethnicity, disabling conditions, and positive images of gender are represented.
Perhaps most importantly, Reading Rainbow promotes the joy of reading a good book. Feature books exemplify high quality literature in both text and illustration. All book selections, feature and review books, include a variety of literary genre, including fantasy, historical fiction, realistic fiction, nonfiction and biography, folk tales, and poetry. Many different types of stories (e.g., adventure, humor, mystery, family stories, animal stories, and others) are represented as well. The use of celebrity readers and the retention of the books' original artwork involve listeners in a pleasurable book experience. School and public librarians report that children recognize Reading Rainbow books on the shelves and frequently request them by title.
With its child-centered format, Reading Rainbow respects the intelligence of children. In addition to providing extensive experiences, the programs actively engage viewers, allowing opportunities for them to reflect upon what they have seen and to develop questions of their own. LeVar Burton is a role model as a learner. His sense of inquiry is demonstrated by his ability to pose questions, provide explanations, and connect ideas. The high interest content and LeVar's interactions with it result in children's wanting more information, which, in turn, leads them to the library for books.
Using Reading Rainbow Episodes in the Classroom
Reading Rainbow content is matched with national curriculum standards and supports the individual standards of most states. As teachers connect episodes with appropriate curriculum objectives, there are a number of possibilities for fitting programs into lessons. To spark interest in a particular topic in science or social studies, teachers might use a program to introduce a unit of study. An episode might provide additional information during a unit, as well. A media "field trip" to see monarch butterflies clustered on trees in Mexico, for example, provides an experience that can be achieved in few other ways. A program might also culminate a unit by reviewing important concepts. Because Reading Rainbow programs are structured so that most individual segments can stand alone, teachers may use parts of episodes more than one time for different purposes.
A Reading Rainbow program provides children with a common set of experiences on a topic. Teachers may preview an episode before students watch it, identifying key concepts and vocabulary. This offers an opportunity for them to teach specific terms that will enhance understanding of the content and to ask questions for students to consider as they watch. Any type of television or media experience is more effective when children have a purpose for watching. During post-viewing discussion, teachers can evaluate the students' grasp of the episode's concepts and revisit a segment for clarification, if needed. At this time, students may formulate new questions and thus, are motivated to read to find the answers. Teachers are encouraged to have a copy of the feature book available, if possible, for children to read independently. Some feature books have been slightly abridged to fit the video storytelling format, so having the book at hand enables students to enjoy additional story details. When the programs are used as resources in units of study, it is helpful to obtain copies of the review books for display in the classroom. The review books are closely tied to the program's content, and students are generally quite interested in reading books recommended by their "peers" from the media episode.
Using the Reading Rainbow Web Site in the Classroom
In addition to its use as a key instructional tool, Reading Rainbow is a valuable supplement to the curriculum, as well. The annual "Young Writers and Illustrators Contest" provides the opportunity for students in kindergarten through third grade to connect literature and writing by composing and illustrating original stories. An entry form and contest guidelines are available on the pbskids.org Reading Rainbow contest page.
The activities provided at pbskids.org/readingrainbow allow students to apply information from the programs, use their imaginations, and extend their learning. Art projects, cooking, making books, and the other creative activities described in the Parents and Teachers Area of the website engage children in active learning. Doing projects during unit study helps students acquire understandings of unfamiliar or abstract concepts that may be difficult through reading and discussion. Activities of this type at the conclusion of a unit help students synthesize the concepts presented, add to their experiential background, and provide enjoyment. The recommended activities have value for independent as well as group work. Playing the online games associated with popular Reading Rainbow themes, listening to book reviews from the programs, accessing the theme song for singing along, and watching video clips enhance students' computer literacy skills. The printable pages offer children's literature-related activities they can do on their own. All of these projects are organized in a child-friendly format that students can utilize with little teacher direction or assistance. The online activities add one more piece to the total learning experience provided by Reading Rainbow, which is, as it claims, "TV Good Enough to Read."
Published: February 2005