For decades, television shows have helped young children practice their ABCs and 1-2-3s. From “The Electric Company” to “Sesame Street” to “Between the Lions,” research has shown that educational programs can effectively teach kids the foundations of literacy and numeracy, like recognizing letters and sounds and how numbers represent quantity.
Now, a new study finds that educational television can teach young children more complex reading skills, too—skills that could help set them up for greater success in a school setting.
The paper, from researchers at SRI Education and the Education Development Center, examines one TV program’s effectiveness at teaching children about informational text. The term refers to nonfiction books and articles, but also a host of other sources with distinct purposes and text features—like reference books, recipes, or lectures.
The particular show studied in the paper, a program on PBS called “Molly of Denali,” was designed to teach children how to understand and use these kinds of informational texts.
And the researchers found that it was effective: 1st graders who were assigned to watch the show and play related digital games were better able to use informational text to answer questions and solve what the researchers call “real-world problems” than students in a control group.
Building information literacy early can help lay the foundation for work that students do in school—but also, for skills they’ll eventually use throughout their life, said Shelley Pasnik, a senior vice president at the Education Development Center, and a co-author on the study.
“When students do not have a good foundation in informational text, they are less likely to succeed academically and also to be able to engage in these very practical ways—to know how a caption conveys information, or map reading,” she said. “Just all the ways that one might navigate in life—that’s missed.”
The study also suggests the potential for educational media to teach beyond foundational skills, as many school systems have turned to shows, games, and apps as lifelines during COVID-related school disruptions.
Over the past decade, schools faced pressure to ramp up the amount of informational text included in the curriculum—a trend that can be traced back to the introduction of the Common Core State Standards in 2010.
The shared standards, at one point adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, called for elementary students to read an even mix of fiction and informational texts across subjects, and for high schoolers to read 70 percent nonfiction. As Education Week reported in 2012, the Common Core’s authors shaped this recommendation in response to concerns from employers and universities that students didn’t have the skills or knowledge to analyze arguments or parse complex information.
More recently, informational text has become a key component of what has come to be known as the “science of reading.” In response to research showing that students can understand text better when they have background knowledge about the subject, some advocates have pushed for knowledge-building curricula: English/language arts programs that aim to help students develop a deep understanding of certain topics—like ancient cultures, the systems of the body, or the Civil Rights Movement—while also teaching literacy skills.
But reading a nonfiction book, or looking up information in reference material, is different from reading a narrative story. Informational text has different features, like topic headings, indices, and graphs. The language can also be more technical and subject-specific. Students have to be taught how to navigate these features and how to gain information from them, said Pasnik.
That’s what the TV show in the study, “Molly of Denali,” aims to do. The program is about Molly, a 10-year-old Alaskan Native girl, who goes on adventures and tries to solve problems in her community. Along the way, she uses different kinds of informational text, like field guides, maps, and informational websites.
The show, developed under a federal Ready to Learn grant, is designed to meet learning goals that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
In the two studies described in this paper, 263 1st grade children from low-income families were randomly assigned to one of two groups. In the treatment group, parents were given a tablet loaded with “Molly of Denali” episodes and educational games. They were told to have their children use these materials at least one hour per week.
Parents in the control group were also given an internet-enabled tablet, but instead were told to have their children use it for “educational purposes” for at least one hour per week. (On these tablets, access to “Molly of Denali” was blocked.)
After nine weeks, students were assessed on their ability to use informational text to answer questions or solve problems. Students in the group that watched “Molly of Denali” outperformed students in the control group. The difference was equivalent to the amount of reading skill a typical 1st grade student develops over three months, said Pasnik.
These effects held regardless of students’ gender, parent income, parent education, or ethnicity, though older 1st graders benefitted less from the intervention than younger 1st graders. The second study replicated these same conditions with a broader geographic sample, and saw the same findings.
Children varied in how much they used the tablets at home, and how often they watched the show and played the games. The researchers found a correlation between time spent on the videos, specifically, and achievement scores on the assessment: Students in the treatment group that spent more time watching the show had higher post-test scores.
The study doesn’t examine what, exactly, made “Molly of Denali” effective. But there are general best practices for educational media, Pasnik said.
To start with, a show needs to have characters and a plot that are actually engaging for children—a story built on “imagination and authenticity,” Pasnik said. In the case of “Molly of Denali,” the story is also culturally rich: Molly is Native Alaskan, and her heritage and traditions are woven throughout the show. (More than 60 Alaska Native, First Nations, and Indigenous consultants worked on its production.)
Then, the learning needs to be integrated into that story. It shouldn’t feel like the action stops for a lesson. Educational media producers call this “learning on the plot line,” said Pasnik.
Schools and districts can use this kind of high-quality educational media to support classwork, Pasnik said—something that many school systems attempted as they searched for solutions during remote learning.
In spring 2020 and into the 2020-21 school year, many states and some school districts partnered with local public media stations to expand children’s programming time slots throughout the day. A few created their own shows: New York City schools developed Let’s Learn NYC!—supplemental lessons in math, literacy, science, and social studies for kids in grades pre-K-2 that air on public television. The state of Tennessee did something similar with Teaching Tennessee, its video series for students in grades pre-K-3.
Going forward, districts that want to encourage teachers or parents to continue using public television or other educational media would benefit from providing a “curatorial list” or investing in curators, Pasnik said.
“There are highly regarded programs, many with research backing,” she said. “Who has the time to review them, vet them, figure out what’s possible?
“It’s not unlike what media specialists and librarians have done,” she added. “But it could happen on a bigger scale.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2022 edition of Education Week as Can a TV Show Really Help Kids Develop Reading Skills? What a New Study Says