Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Editor’s note: While learning at home, children can make progress toward grade-level reading and writing standards. This post is part of an ongoing series designed to help caregivers support children’s and teens’ literacy learning at home.

With the challenges of trying to keep children focused on learning during an extended break from the classroom, it is not uncommon for caregivers to look to educational videos and programs on television or online to add a little diversity to the daily home learning activities. Although reading educational books has a more reliably positive impact on children’s vocabulary development (Alloway et al., 2014), digital and television programming is not inherently detrimental to literacy development. However, there are three important tips to keep in mind.

1. Have Children Watch the Right Kinds of Programs

Even among the programs labeled by broadcasters as educational, some are better than others. For example, programs that involve simply reading storybooks to viewers do not lead to improved literacy performance (Uchikoshi, 2006). But research by Yuuko Uchikoshi found that when programs explicitly highlighted reading skills (e.g., word reading, print features), they had a significantly positive influence on children’s language and literacy development. One explanation for this is that books read on television may not be perceived by children as any different than cartoons, programs, or movies that tell a story. There likely needs to be an intentional connection to print, what we do with the words that appear on the page, and how meaning is created from the printed words.

Examples of educational programs that overtly teach literacy skills are Sesame Street and Between the Lions. Both programs have been studied by multiple researchers and have demonstrated positive effects on children’s literacy development—including children who are bilingual (Jensen et al., 2016; Linebarger et al., 2004; Mares & Pan, 2013; Uchikoshi, 2006).

Programs to avoid are those that are fast-paced or based on impossible events such as superheroes, magical swords, living under the ocean, or fitting large objects in small spaces. These types of programs can exhaust children’s mental processing and make it harder for them to retain information, control their impulses, sustain concentration and attention, or shift from one set of rules to another (Ennemoser & Schneider, 2007; Lilliard et al., 2015). In research by Angeline Lilliard and colleagues, the negative effect on children’s self-control was evident regardless of whether the fast-paced or fantastical show they viewed was designed to be entertaining or educational. Moreover, that effect happened in only 10-20 minutes of viewing time. It would be difficult for a child to transition from watching that kind of program to doing schoolwork or reading quietly.

2. Provide Support While Children Watch the Programs.

The literacy benefit of educational programs can be enhanced by caregivers viewing the programs with their children. Children’s story comprehension and vocabulary improved when caregivers were taught to pause the program they were viewing and ask questions or have their children retell what was happening (Strouse et al., 2013). Relying on the program’s host or another recorded individual to pause the story and ask questions was not as beneficial as when caregivers could listen to and comment on children’s responses. The two-way communication, or dialogic reading (see previous blog post on dialogic reading), provided more opportunities for children to practice their language and literacy skills with immediate guidance. However, researchers Gabriel Strouse and colleagues found that a recorded questioner was better than not having anyone pose questions about the story at all. Simply directing a child to pay attention to an educational program does not guarantee that all children will benefit from it.

In addition to asking children questions during an educational program, caregivers can take the simple step of turning on closed captioning for all television and digital viewing. The presence of the print on the screen has helped people of different ages learn a new language (Yeldham, 2018) and improved the word recognition, vocabulary, and inference making abilities of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (Linebarger et al., 2010). For older children, caregivers can access the transcript of an informational program (e.g., online videos from NOVA and Teachers Domain) for children to follow along while viewing and refer to later while writing about what they watched (Strassman et al., 2010).

3. Limit the Amount of Time All Family Members Spend Viewing Programs   

Viewing programs for 117 minutes or more per day in early childhood can have long-term negative effects on reading achievement, especially when the programs are for entertainment (Ennemoser & Schneider, 2007). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants and toddlers not use screen media other than for video chatting. From ages 2-5, children should be limited to viewing 1 hour of educational programming per day but with a caregiver who can support them. Children who are six and older need restrictions on the type of media they use and the amount of time they spend viewing it.

Caregivers play an important role in modeling appropriate behavior and fostering reading habits. Not surprisingly, children who spend more time reading with a caregiver also spend less time viewing programs (Ennemoser & Schneider, 2007). In addition, having caregivers who enjoy reading increases the likelihood that children will spend their own leisure time reading and writing (Jensen et al., 2016). However, the reading attitudes and behaviors of caregivers cannot overcome the negative consequences of extended entertainment viewing. Instead of watching a fast-paced or fantasy program for fun, caregivers and children should read action adventure, fantasy, and science fiction books together.

Overall Features of Beneficial Home Educational Television Watching

Educational viewing can be beneficial in moderation when the programs are slow-paced, realistic, and designed to teach skills. Caregivers should carefully select programs for their children and capitalize on the opportunity to have a dialogue about the story and the language used. Whenever children are viewing programs, turn on the closed captioning to keep print present. Most importantly, become a household of readers who spend leisure time reading books.


Alloway, T. P., Williams, S., Jones, B., & Cochrane, F. (2014). Exploring the impact of television watching on vocabulary skills in toddlers. Early Childhood Education Journal42, 343-349. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-013-0618-1

Ennemoser, M., & Schneider, W. (2007). Relations of television viewing and reading: Findings from a 4-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology99, 349-368. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.349

Jensen, J. D., Martins, N., Weaver, J. & Ratcliff, C. (2016). Educational TV consumption and children’s interest in leisure reading and writing: A test of the validated curriculum hypothesis. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media60, 213-230. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2016.1164161

Lilliard, A. S., Drell, M. B., Richey, E. M., Boguszewski, K., & Smith, E. D. (2015). Further examination of the immediate impact of television on children’s executive function. Developmental Psychology51, 792-805. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0039097

Linebarger, D. L., Kosanic, A. Z., Greenwood, C. R., & Doku, N. S. (2004). Effects of viewing the television program Between the Lions on the emergent literacy skills of young children. Journal of Educational Psychology96, 297-308. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.96.2.297

Linebarger, D. L., Piotrowski, J. T., & Greenwood, C. R. (2010). On-screen print: The role of captions as a supplemental literacy tool. Journal of Research in Reading33, 148-167. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9817.2009.01407.x

Mares, M. -L., & Pan, Z. (2013). Effects of “Sesame Street”: A meta-analysis of children’s learning in 15 countries. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology34, 140–151.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2013.01.001 

Strassman, B. K., MacDonald, H., & Wanko, L. (2010). Using captioned media as mentor expository texts. The Reading Teacher64, 197-201. https://doi.org/10.1598/rt.64.3.5 

Strouse, G. A., O’Doherty, K., & Troseth, G. L. (2013). Effective coviewing: Preschoolers’ learning from video after a dialogic questioning intervention. Developmental Psychology49, 2368-2382. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032463 

Uchikoshi, Y. (2006). Early reading in bilingual kindergartners: Can educational television help? Scientific Studies of Reading10, 89-120. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532799xssr1001_5 ​​​​​​​

Yeldham, M. (2018). Viewing L2 captioned videos: What’s in it for the listener? Computer Assisted Language Learning31, 367-389. https://doi.org/10.1080/09588221.2017.1406956