If you were a kid in the ’80’s, ’90’s, and ’00’s (I’m told that’s pronounced ‘aughts’), you’ve probably seen at least one episode of Reading Rainbow. I was one of those kids. As I get older and accumulate enough years in my life to look back at the earlier ones with fond nostalgia, I’ve spent more and more time talking with friends about the old TV shows we used to watch. Not an ridiculous amount of time, mind you, but we’ve talked about how the TV programs we grew up with seem to be of a different caliber than what’s available today. Programs like Reading Rainbow, as well as Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (He was my neighbor.), Seasame Street (which is actually still on, last time I checked!), and Hey! Arnold. Yeah, I know that last one isn’t educational, but I freakin’ loved Hey! Arnold. It’s basically amazing.
Thankfully, with the internet these old TV shows are becoming accessible to kids even if they’re no longer on the air. Yesterday, I stumbled onto LeVar Burton’s Kickstarter campaign to bring Reading Rainbow to all web-connected children. I loved this idea and being a former reading teacher/ bibliophile/ future school psychologist I had to support it. Admittedly, it’s not perfect. Bringing the program to only web-connected kids leaves out a lot of children living in poverty, including the 1.6 who experience homelessness each year. It potentially leaves out children in many rural communities where it’s difficult to lay the internet infrastructure. Ideally this program would have a component to bring books and the Reading Rainbow video library to communities in a physical form. But one step at a time. Even if this campaign only benefits web-connected children in schools, that’s still a big deal!
The campaign cites a statistic that 1 in 4 American children are illiterate. Literacy is crucial to success in our world. I have worked with middle and high schoolers who, through various reasons other than their own lack of motivation, have not mastered the basic phonics skills needed to read even elementary school texts. This is a frustrating experience, for the kids who just want to be able to read and for the adults who by that grade level aren’t given the training or resources to provide illiterate students the intensive help they need. I’ve generally seen 4th grade as sort of a cut-off statistic (see my previous hyperlink). If kids aren’t reading on-grade level at 4th grade, their chances of having what we’d generally consider a bright future diminish significantly.
[Editing note: I realized after posting I should explain the 4th grade cut-off for those not familiar with modern, American reading education. Reading is broken down into two skills: decoding and comprehension. Every reading skill falls under one of the those two categories. Comprehension, or understanding what you’re reading, is encouraged at every level. Decoding, or being able to recognize letters, letter-sounds, whole words, etc. is only emphasized in the early grades. By 4th grade, if kids haven’t mastered their decoding skills, they’re likely not being taught these skills in the classroom and not receiving enough outside the classroom help to make up for their skill deficits. And if you can’t decode, you can’t comprehend…or read. Okay, lecture over.]
Now Reading Rainbow doesn’t claim to be a literacy program, per se. It’s a TV show to get kids hooked on books, to help them appreciate reading and the adventures that they can have with books and their imagination. That’s the first step toward literacy. If kids don’t like to read, they won’t pay attention when people read to them, they won’t try their hardest when they’re asked to read, they won’t put forth the effort needed to master this critical but sometimes challenging skill. And it’s not because they’re lazy. Everyone is like that. If you don’t enjoy doing something and don’t find it at least somewhat rewarding, you don’t do it.
Before we teach kids to read, we have to make sure we’re teaching them to enjoy reading in and of itself. It’s not the external demands of their teachers or class curricula that gets kids to be life-long readers. That kind of motivation can only be gotten through a passion for the written word. We need to teach our young children to have a passion for reading. Once they have that tool, they can expose themselves to any topic under the sun that sparks their interest.
But you don’t have to take my word for it!