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The Clearing of a Rainbow

Published: September 4, 2009
Section: Opinions


<i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

For 26 years, host LeVar Burton of PBS’s “Reading Rainbow” used his show to do what some would consider difficult, if not downright impossible in this increasingly technology-soaked world—teach children the joy of reading.

First aired in 1983, the show’s episodes had a simple, but reliable pattern. Each one featured a children’s book chosen in accordance with a certain theme, which was then narrated by a celebrity guest and accompanied by animations. After the story was finished, Burton would embark on a journey of his own, introducing the viewer to real people whose stories and occupations corresponded with the show’s theme. Then, at the end of the show, Burton would have several children appear and recommend related books to the audience.

The show was beloved by children, parents, and teachers alike, and I’m willing to bet that many of you watched it when you were younger. I know I did. Unfortunately, it will no longer be available to today’s youth. Filming of new episodes ceased in 2006, and last Friday, PBS stopped airing re-runs for good.

In an interview with NPR, John Grant, Chief Program and Production Officer for “Reading Rainbow’s” home station (WNED Buffalo), said that the show had to end for cost reasons. The cost of renewing the show’s broadcasting rights, he said, had been estimated to be “several hundred thousand dollars”—a price that neither PBS nor its owner, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, were willing to pay.

Grant claimed that part of the problem had to do with funding. In recent days, some of PBS’s stations have faced a drop in private donations and corporate underwriting (together, these sources contribute just over half of public television revenue). This has left PBS with a budget shortfall in the ballpark of about $3.4 million, which has in turn forced the network to cut its staff by ten percent and employee salaries by almost four percent. Needless to say, it doesn’t have a lot of money lying around.

The other part of the problem, however, is more intriguing. PBS is partially funded by the federal and state governments. Grant claimed that during the Bush administration, the Department of Education worked with PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and adjusted their funding, taking money away from “Reading Rainbow.” Apparently, the Department of Education wanted to see more federal money spent on programs that teach children how to read, instead of a program like “Reading Rainbow,” which assumed that its viewers already knew how to read and simply encouraged them to read more. Grant said that a new program would likely include a stronger focus on “the basic tools of reading,” such as phonics.

This approach concerns me, and not just because I have nostalgic memories of a television show that has been taken away. I believe encouraging a child to read from a young age is one of the most important ways to help that child succeed later in life. The best way to do this is to teach a child to love reading, and to give them a reason to pick up a book. “Reading Rainbow” did this, by presenting stories in a pleasing manner, giving real-life meaning to those stories, and then suggesting even more stories for viewers to peruse on their own time.

Phonics lessons are certainly important, but there is a difference between teaching children how to read and teaching them why. Teaching children how to read by emphasizing the alphabet or spelling may very well help to facilitate the act of reading, but this doesn’t mean they will actually want to read (let’s face it, phonics can be boring). On the other hand, teaching children why to read by introducing them to the pleasure of written stories will keep them coming back for more. And since reading, as any reader will tell you, is one of the greatest methods of self-teaching available to any person, a child who reads not only enjoys a good story, but also learns “the basic tools of reading” by example. This isn’t just speculation; studies have shown it to be true. Basically, consistent reading eventually defeats the purpose of phonics lessons.

To be fair to the new show being encouraged by the Department of Education, I won’t pass judgment on something that hasn’t aired yet. But unless the show will teach viewers more than just the basics, I don’t see how it could ever be considered a worthy successor to the Peabody Award-winning, 26 time Emmy Award-winning, third-longest running children’s television series in PBS history. And that is terribly unfortunate, especially now, when so many books are being left on the shelves to collect dust by owners who think reading is a chore.