‘Kids these days’ are constantly getting derided for spending more time in front of screens than they are behind the covers of books, in the same way that they have been since the Farnsworth Invention. It might’ve been true at one point that there was no educational value in television, but those days are generations past. We’ve been gifted with plenty of wonderful shows over the past 50 years that have traded specifically in keeping little tikes reading, not just ‘glued to the idiot tube’, as my grandmother would say. Here are some of the high-water marks for reading television:
Look and Read (1967 – 2004)
As the UK’s longest running television show, odds are you’ve at least crossed paths with some iteration of this show. Look and Read featured serial tellings of adventrous new tales, much like how classic novels were published. The show’s viewing was encouraged in classrooms as well, where teachers could drive home an episode’s vocabulary and story with ‘pupil pamphlets’. It certainly wasn’t dry, though: early episodes had a tinge of that bizzare cross of live-action and animation that only shows in the ’60s and ’70s can deliver.
The Electric Company (1971 – 1977, 2009 – 2011)
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It was groovy. It had funky musical numbers. It had a pre-God Morgan Freeman! The Electric Company was so enduring, it still has a cult following in the adults who watched it growing up. Geared as the next step forward after Sesame Street (the Children’s Television Workshop produced both shows), the show employed sketch comedy, brought on celebrity cameos and took a cheekier tone to engage the late-elementary school crowd. A short-lived revival for a new generation was staged a few years ago, but admit it, this is a hard act to follow:
Reading Rainbow (1983 – 2006)
(GPN/Nebraska ETV Network)
Reading Rainbow is the Harry Potter of children’s shows. LeVar Burton, who already was making a name for himself in Star Trek and Roots, did a full 180 with this show and turned him into a full-on celebrity of sorts. Each episode put the spotlight on a new children’s book, read to viewers by a celebrity. After a pun-tastic little interlude (see below), they’d throw to real children talking about their favorite parts of the book. The format was a spiraling success, leading to the creation of a branded reading app, in-class services, and some decently weird tattoos. The show is being revived via a record-busting Kickstarter, so we presumably can catch some more soon. But don’t take my word for it!
Ghostwriter (1992 – 1995)
(Image: Wikia Entertainment)
One part Goosebumps, one part Wishbone, Ghostwriter is the type of ’90s kid nostalgia we can get behind. In it, a youthful crime-solving gang, getting to the bottom of their Brooklyn neighborhood’s cases with the help of a haunting ghost. The convenient, edu-tainment twist? The ghost can only communicate to the gang using whatever words and text nearby into words and sentences, giving them clues they need to solve the case. The show challenged kids to solve reading and writing problems through realistic situations diverse characters, which is always something to celebrate.
Between the Lions (2000 – 2010)
(Image: Mississippi Public Broadcasting)
Between the Lions is a defining PBS show for many and, as it has been noted in the office, a personal obsession of mine. The premise – lions running a library – was the lively, fast-paced core of the show, but the real learning came in the form of shorts that taught children grammar literary terms, such as cliffhangers (“The Adventures of Cliff Hanger”) and compound words (jousting knights that collide to make the word). It had the book-presentation of Reading Rainbow, the sketch-like mini-series and vignettes of The Electric Company, and the madcap puppeteering of Sesame Street.
WordGirl (2007 – 2015)
If there such a thing as alt-rock for children’s television, WordGirl would be the leader of the scene. The mission of the show’s creative team was to deliver verbal education without compromising the humor or understimating children’s intelligence. Instead of the usual suspects, the show’s writers had some serious comedy backgrounds, including employees for Family Guy and The Onion. Padding onto that was some of the best voice talents in the world, including Tom Kenny (Spongebob), Patton Oswalt (Remy from Rattatouie) and Chris Parnell (from SNL and Rick and Morty). The product, which entertained adult me, speaks for itself:
Super Why! (2007 – present)
In a world where Reading Rainbow is off the air and Sesame Street is forced to move to HBO, Super Why! is the standard-bearer for new-era PBS. In each episode, superhero kid Wyatt literally answers the call to tackle a “super big problem”, solving it the way all problems are solved: by assembling a team of Super Readers to help. Although the Super Readers live in a world of books, the squad embraces computers to research the information they need fully, reminding kids that technology and books are not mutually exclusive. The best aspect of the show is not just that the children are engaged with language, but that they are encouraged to be inquisitive until the right answer is found.
Did we miss any? Let us know what TV shows encouraged you to be an avid reader growing up!
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