Category Archives: Super Why

Change the story

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.

Brain candy

At a recent fifth birthday party, I told Benjamin that he would not be having a piece of candy as a chaser to the giant globs of icing he had just licked off his slice of cake, which were themselves a follow-up to the ice cream he had eaten with his lunch.  Our host, a good friend and a mother of three kids of similar ages to my own, laughed and turned to her mother.  “Oh, God, candy is my savior.  ‘You want some more candy?  Here, take some more candy.’”  She shrugged self-deprecatingly.  “Candy is my babysitter.”

We know each other too well to judge on another at this point and mostly lament our own parenting foibles.  “Of course you need to use candy as a babysitter,” I smiled.  “Your kids don’t watch TV.”

“That’s true.  I’m beginning to think I made the wrong choice.”

I had to concur.  “A TV show lasts a lot longer than a piece of candy.”

In this analogy, then, candy and television are both acknowledged junk, but we indulge our kids because we can only hover over them and prevent their access for so long.  Candy rots the teeth and we all know television rots the brain.

Or does it?

On Monday, I had the privilege of attending a lunch discussion at our local PBS station, one that was conveniently scheduled so I could leave immediately after Lilah’s mid-morning feeding and arrive home ten minutes before her afternoon one.   The nice thing about this event, unlike other things bloggers get invited to, was that it was not about getting me to sell a product but rather about actually discussing how best to help children.

It was a small group of parent bloggers (OK, mothers) and a panel of three women who design children’s programming for PBS.  Joyce Campbell, the VP of Education and Children’s Programming and producer of Sid, the Science Kid, didn’t do a whole lot of talking, as she was clearly there just to hear what we had to say.  The other two women on the panel, however, had some fascinating things to say.

One was Lesli Rotenberg, the Senior VP of Children’s Media and the other was Angela Santomero, the creator and  executive producer of Super Why, which makes her a freakin’ hero in my book.   Super Why is my kids’ new favorite show, and it is the first program they have really loved that I have felt the same way about.  Not that I watch with them, because that would defeat the whole purpose of scheduling TV time right before dinner…  But, I have watched an episode or two, and this show rocks the house.  It is a television show designed to – wait for it – promote reading.  Yes, reading.

Now, here’s a little fun fact about me.  I don’t really watch TV.  I used to watch a little each day, but about a year ago, I realized I was going to have to choose between reading and television, and I decided to stop watching in order to get some reading time.  I went about three months never turning the thing on, but then the presidential conventions turned me into a short-term couch potato.  Nonetheless, my heavy-television weeks involve watching two shows (over the course of the week) and my light ones involve no TV at all.  Come to think of it, other than an episode of Super Why, I haven’t watched TV in at least three weeks, and we never have the TV on during the day.

Yet, I am not against TV.  I am just pro-reading.  So, you can imagine my delight that there is a television program all about these four little kids who, when faced with a problem, go diving into books together to find a solution.

Rock the house.

The subject matter is good, as are the reading skills they teach.  This show happens to be designed to cover Benjamin – who at almost three years old still cannot identify any letter other than “O” and the occasional “S” – and Zachary – who at almost five is sounding out phonics and has probably fifty sight words.  See, there is this pig who is in charge of letters, two girls who are all about reading words, and then a boy who pulls it all together.

OK, you get it – good show, educational, blah, blah, blah.  This is not a review blog and you would probably have stopped reading this post already if you weren’t hoping there would eventually be a point to the whole thing.  There is.

See, apparently, the people over at PBS Kids did not go into their line of work for the fabulous remuneration of public television.  They actually, um, care about providing quality, educational programming to children.  Especially lower-income children.  You know, the kids who may not have Tivo, Cable, and 473 kids’ books.  (I haven’t actually counted, so we may have more.  Those paperbacks are deceptive.)  The kids whose parents may not have the luxury of time to sit down and read with their children every day.  The kids who don’t attend preschools that cost (cough, cough) a year.  They want to reach those children and help them learn to read, love reading, and read well.

Perforce, the folks at PBS Kids have designed a Super Why camp for underprivileged kids, utilizing established camps but bringing in their own curriculum for a week.  They administer a simple “pretest,” and then they use one episode of the show and build five days of reading skills activities around the episode, with each day focusing on the “power” of one of the characters.  At the end of the program, they administered a “post-test”, and saw an 18% increase in letter sounds skills, a 29% increase in reading words, an 84% increase in encoding skills, and a whopping 139% increase in word decoding.

Praise the lord and pass the television.  The fact is, not everyone can afford childcare help.  Some people are working two and three jobs, if they can get them, just to get by.  And, in those families, TV is going to be a cheap alternative to having Super Nanny living in the guest wing.  Those are the kids who most need someone who can spare the time to teach them reading skills.  This show tries to fill the gap.  Is it as good as a parent sitting down for an hour working on reading every afternoon?  No, of course not.  But, that cannot always happen.  And even when it does, there is no earthly reason that media like television can’t be seen as a part of multifaceted approach to getting kids excited about reading.

It turns out there is a do-it-yourself version of this camp.  We were all given a nifty little backpack with activities to do with our kids.  Now, I’ve already screwed up because, although I did the pretest, there was no time to do the next day’s activities and of course the kids wanted to watch the same episode again the next night, in part because Zach was afraid of a different episode called “Thumbelina” for fear the mole might make an appearance.

I am going to be doing all these cool little activities with the kids, similar to some of what the trained professionals do at the camp, although I must say this flies in the face of my “television as a babysitter” technique.  I’ll report back on my family experiment and let you know how it goes, and the good people of PBS Kids will be checking our blogs for feedback.  You can get in on the action, too, because there is a huge trove of activities on the PBS Kids website that can help you use the show to augment your kids’ learning.  They’ll be reading comments and would be happy to hear what people have to say.

Well, slap my thigh and call me “Matilda.”  Who knew television might just have more in common with carrots than with candy?