Benjamin, although almost three, has hitherto shown absolutely no interest in those squiggly little lines that his elders keep referring to as “letters.” He is far too busy leaping off of the furniture to pay attention to something the grown-ups deem important. So, when we did the Super Why pretest, predictably the only letter he knew was “O.”
With Zachary, on the other hand, I did not even bother with the letter activities. He is working on reading, and the skills presented by Alpha Pig are far beneath his notice. He was able to identify all the words in the activities because he figures them out from initial sounds, a practice that works very well for him until he needs to differentiate between the words “candy” and “colonoscopy.”
The program is designed to progress through a series of skills, but the fact is that watching a show and doing a few activities is not going to get a kid who doesn’t even notice letters suddenly to read words. Benjamin needed to stay at the Alpha Pig level, while Zachary was hanging with Princess Presto and Super Why. Wonder Red was very lonely.
We adapted the activities, as one always has to with these things. Zachary was all about roaming the house putting letters on the appropriate objects. Benjamin just wanted to jump from the couch shouting “I’m Super Why. With the powertoread I can changethestory and SAVE THE DAY!” Not so much interest in acquiring the power to read, unfortunately.
“Come play Super Why with me!” he commands, 73 times a day. So, one day after lunch, I acquiesced. I made Super Letters from the boys’ names and went out to hang them around the back yard, which is not very big so it was pretty easy to find them. Not the point, however, as Zachary helped his brother find and identify the letters in his name.
Later, when he told me I was the princess locked in the castle by the evil dragon (played by his nine-month-old sister, who obliviously sat there eating a fireman) and he was Super Why, I suggested that, instead of dragging me from the castle, perhaps he could change the story and make his sister a nice dragon. Or perhaps lock me in an ice cream shop. He did change the story, but he still kept trying to rescue me from the ice cream store, despite my protestations that I’d prefer to be left there for a few days.
Benjamin is a rather imaginative child.
Meanwhile, Zachary was tearing through the activities, learning his “-ALL words” from the worksheets and the show. Benjamin? Still cannot identify any letter other than an O and the first letter of his brother’s name.
However, a few days into the Super Why obsession, I noticed something: suddenly, the boy was asking about letters. “Look! Super Letters!” he exclaims. “Mommy, what that Super Letter?” He hasn’t quite learned to tell them apart, but for the first time he actually has decided learning the alphabet is worth his time.
That is what I define as success. Each child learned according to his own age and ability.
The problems with the program of activities came from the fact that Super Why is the leader of the pack. Both boys always want to play him. No one wants to be Alpha Pig, which means we didn’t bother trying to “become” the characters, as that would just lead to fisticuffs over who gets to be Super Why, leaving all thought of actual words far behind.
It seems that a disproportionate number of the lead characters on these kids’ shows are male. Yes, they are usually ensemble casts, but everyone knows that Super Why is where it’s at – not Wonder Red – just as the kids all know Leo from Little Einsteins is in charge of Rocket. Yes, some girls probably identify with Wonder Red or Princess Presto, but that doesn’t make them the leaders.
Of all the shows my kids like, I can only think of one where the lead character is female: Charlie and Lola. The boys like her, despite her being a different gender, which leads me to think that kids probably just prefer whomever is the lead character of a show. We don’t watch Dora because Zachary finds the Map scary, so we’re left with Lola and a whole passel of male leads.
This reminds me of conversations we used to have in Ed School about the books we read in English classes, a disproportionate number of which have male protagonists. There seems to be an implicit belief that girls will relate fine to male protagonists but boys need males to draw them in.
Because I know the folks at PBS Kids are eager to create quality programming, I am betting they have a show with a female lead in the works. A show that can teach my sons and my daughter that females can run the show. After all, that’s the best way to change the story and save the day.
In the meantime, we’ll keep playing Super Why. Zach’s word recognition is growing daily due to the show, as is his willingness to sound out words. Ben is finally showing some interest in letters. Just last night, after the baby’s evening activity of pulling all our cookbooks off the shelves, Benjamin sat at the kitchen table with River Road Recipes.
“Mommy! Super letters!” he cried.