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Reading TV: Simple techniques parents can use to make TV time with kids almost as beneficial as story time

Author: Gloria DeGaetano

Five-year-old Sally snuggles into her Mom's lap as Mom begins to read her a story. It's a moment of togetherness that parent and child both cherish. But while Sally may be sitting quietly, her brain is very busy--sorting, categorizing, guessing, analyzing and synthesizing, exploring, and assessing a wide range of information, character traits, and emotions. In fact, Sally's brain is getting a good workout, although she never even notices the mental sweat.

Reading aloud can seem like magic, especially as children get older and parents begin to see the profound effects of such a humble activity. Three decades of scientific research confirm the benefits of this family habit. Children up to fourteen years old who regularly listen to stories for 20-30 minutes as a time are more likely to be successful in school. They are also more likely to be creative problem solvers, self-confident writers and speakers, and lifelong readers themselves.

The benefits of reading to children are well established, but did you know that with a little guidance, children can get similar benefits from watching television? That may seem like a lot to ask from TV viewing, but when children are stimulated to think, as opposed to watching passively, their minds are very busy. According to children's television researcher Dr. Edward Palmer, watching television is "a remarkable intellectual act. All the while kids are watching, they are making hypotheses, anticipating, generalizing, remembering, and actively relating what they see to their own lives."

While TV viewing should never replace reading to children, parents can make TV time more productive and educational. By asking the same questions they ask when reading aloud, parents can help children develop mental skills that will help them in school and for the rest of their lives. Below are seven simple techniques you can use as you watch TV with your family.

  1. Make predictions. How many times do we pick a book off the library shelf and ask our child, "What do you think this will be about?" Kids love guessing games and their brains are primed for the mental activity needed to figure out possible answers. So before watching a movies, or as you look through a program will be about. Over time, you will notice your child's answers getting more sophisticated. Emphasize the fun of using imagination rather than getting the right answers. For instance, after reading the program description from the guide or actually watching the show, confirm which parts of the prediction occurred and which parts didn't but could have.

  2. Help children concentrate and sustain attention. When we read to children, we often help them focus on what's important. We'll say, "Now this is interesting." "I didn't know that," or "Look at how the artist drew that." Helping children pay closer attention while viewing TV can also build important concentration skills.

    With preschoolers, you could suggest looking for the arrival of a favorite character or listening for a favorite song. "Do you think Tigger will "bounce' Rabbit today?" "Let's cheer when Madeline spells her word in the spelling bee." "If Barney sings "The Wheel on the Bus,' let's sing it together."

    Elementary-school children can focus on both the content of the show and how it is made. You can help them along by asking, "Do think they'll tell us what whales eat?" or saying, "I wonder if the person holding the camera got wet when the whale jumped." When there is dramatic background music or camera angles that indicate an upcoming significant scene, cue your child by saying, "I think something important is about to happen; let's pay close attention here." Later ask your child to cue you when something important is about to happen.

  3. Retell the story. If you child has heard a story in child care or your spouse has read them a story, you've probably asked, "What was this story about?" This simple question not only shows you are interested in what your child does, it is also an extremely reliable way to help with many thinking skills, including sequencing events and recalling details. Ask the same question after your child has watched a favorite TV program. It works best if you turn off the TV afterwards and ask them to tell you what the show was about. Let your child say as much as he or she remembers. With preschool children, you might want to interrupt to help--but don't!

    Just keep asking, "Is there anything else?" until your child completes retelling the story. You can also prompt children to explain who did what, or how a character felt, or what color something was. If the answers to your questions indicate that they are confused by something in the story, explain it to them in a way they can understand.

  4. Discuss moods and emotions. As we read aloud, we often discuss characters' feelings to help children see the relationship between inner motives and outward actions. This connection is not always obvious to preschoolers since their ability to understand cause and effect is still very limited. When a young child is watching, Babar, for instance, you can point out how Babar might feel at a certain point in the story. Then you can link actions with feelings by asking such questions as "When Babar was upset, what did he do?"

    Before they watch a program, have kids in elementary or middle school list as many emotions---love, anger, compassion, jealousy--as they can on a sheet of paper. While watching they can write the name of a character on the show who is expressing that particular emotion. When the program ends, talk about the results. Did one character show more emotions than another? What were the actions of the characters of the character who o was jealous? The one who was kind?

  5. Point out context clues. Context clues help children understand what they read. For example, a child learning to read looks for context clues in the illustrations to help understand the text. If the boy in the picture is frowning, that shows what the word "scowl" means. As children gain reading experience, they can spot context clues from key words, tone, or sentence structure. Children can also find visual context clues in TV shows, which will lead them to higher-level thinking as they watch. For children younger than eight, point out: when a movie or TV program begins (with title and theme music) when a movie of TV program ends (with credits) predictable actions or mannerisms of favorite characters (Winnie the Pooh likes honey)

    With older elementary or middle-school children discuss: body language that cues the viewer to anticipate identifiable behaviors (clenched fists can indicate anger or frustration) basic cues in celebrity-endorsement commercials (special effects that convey a celebrity's "star power") news anchor's body language and mannerisms that bias reporting (facial expressions, tone of voice, and comments which seem out of place in relation to the topic at hand)

  6. Focus on personal relevance. A good book hold a child's attention because it is personally meaningful to them. Children have favorite programs for the same reason. Does your daughter want to be smart and brave like Madeline? Does your son like the music on Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child because he wants to sing? Perhaps your daughter wants to be an airplane pilot like Amelia Earhart or a scientist like Marie Curie. By simply asking a child why they like a program, or what they liked best about something they just watched, you can help children make a personal connection to programs and develop interests.

  7. Lead from your own curiosity. Reading aloud works best for children if you are interested in and excited about the books you are reading. It's easier to spark a child's curiosity when you're fired up, too. The joy for discovery is contagious! When you choose television programs with educational potential, it's easier for you to get excited and encourage your kids with statements like: "I didn't know that, did you?" "What do you think of that?" Programs that are book-based give parents ways to tie in reading along with viewing. Also, for 7 to 12-year-olds, programs featuring biographies or historical figures lead naturally to reading about these individuals.

As you try out these TV-viewing strategies adapted from reading aloud, think of television as a "visual book." And like a good book, the home screen is rife with possibilities for enriching your child's language and thinking abilities. So snuggle up and...have fun!

Copyright. Gloria DeGaetano, 1998. All rights reserved. Gloria DeGaetano, a national speaker and consultant on issues related to children and media, is the author of Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy, Houghton Mifflin, 1996. For ways to raise children optimally in a media age, visit her website

For reprint permissions contact Gloria DeGaetano, phone: 425-883-1544

This article was first published in Better Viewing Magazine, September/October, 1998. Parents can subscribe to Better Viewing with a credit card by calling 1-800-216-2225 (Six issues per year, $9.97)