Saying goodbye to Reading Rainbow

The news on the radio this morning told me that today is the final day for Reading Rainbow. This makes me incredibly sad. It is the 3rd longest running show on PBS, after only Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. I am only 3 years older than this show, so it has effectively been around for my entire life. I found myself spontaneously singing the theme song just this past weekend when I spotted a butterfly in the yard. In elementary school, when we were waiting for our parents to come pick us up, tapes of Reading Rainbow episodes were among the few approved things we could watch once outside time was over. (Episodes of Square One were also approved. Man, now I miss Mathnet.)

I loved Reading Rainbow. I loved the illustrations from the books. I loved hearing the new stories and seeing them present ones I’d already read. I loved Levar Burton and the strangeness of seeing him in both that show and Star Trek, which was, of course, another childhood television mainstay. But the show has been on for 26 years now, so I think I could more happily let it go, if it weren’t for this explanation of why the show is ending:

The show’s run is ending, Grant explains, because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show’s broadcast rights.

Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that’s not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read,” Grant says. “You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read.”

Linda Simensky, vice president for children’s programming at PBS, says that when Reading Rainbow was developed in the early 1980s, it was an era when the question was: “How do we get kids to read books?”

Since then, she explains, research has shown that teaching the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority.

Honestly, this bothers me. I get that teaching the foundations of reading is an important first step, but isn’t inspiring kids to want to take that step also important? I had a very heavily phonics-based approach to reading taught to me in 1st grade, and I really have to say, Reading Rainbow was a lot more fun. I love, love, love reading, but how much would I have gotten into it if everyone involved in teaching me to read insisted that I had to learn all of my ABCs and phonics basics before I could actually explore the power of books? Of course, I don’t watch a lot of PBS kids programming anymore, so I may be overly pessimistic about the future of their reading-oriented programs. But I do feel that Reading Rainbow deserves some defense from those who are trying to make it sound like it was educationally behind the times and unfit in the face of new literacy research.

Thoughts? Opinions? Nostalgic stories? Comment away.

-posted by Dana


7 Responses to Saying goodbye to Reading Rainbow

  1. guyintheblackhat says:

    Well, from an educational philosophy angle, this “research” which has strangled the life out of Reading Rainbow is just bogus, corporate-profiteering crap with an eye for economic and political bottom-lines over the promotion of reading as a life-long passion. The key advocate of this angle, among others, would be Frank Smith. In Insult to Intelligence – The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Schools, Smith outlines how the so-called “mastery approach” to education has propagated in American schools (but also in American media) to the point where hardly any actual reading or writing goes on the classrooms or at home. The “mastery approach” simply means that a teacher expects the students to develop each and every skill related to reading or writing in complete isolation from the others until they “master” those particular skills. This is based on 1950s “Let’s assemble a spaceship from its component parts rather than understanding how the whole darn thing works or *gasp* why we’d need a spaceship” logic, and it is unfortunately as firmly entrenched right now as it can be.

    • Dana says:

      Oh, ugh, it’s like “skills-based” language teaching all over again. I had naively hoped that was an isolated teaching philosophy issue, not endemic across the entire education profession.

  2. Jacob says:

    Shoot. I hope they at least do re-runs. I’m the same age as you and Reading Rainbow and Square One were my mainstays. I just had a daughter and was hoping to watching those with her.

    • That’s an important point about shows like Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Reading Rainbow: they can be engaging for adults, too, which means that parents and kids can watch together, and then talk about the show together later. I suspect that those are the kids who are ultimately better off. Who’s ever going to want to watch a phonics show with their kids?

  3. E. Twieg says:

    I’m hoping for DVDs. I don’t have any kids on the horizon, but this show for me, like posters above, was a childhood mainstay along with Square 1 and 3-2-1 Contact. I’m a little too young to remember the Electric Company. I strongly agree with the comments about education philosophy above. I learned how to read independently of phonics and was humiliated and angry when I was force marched through them by a teacher who felt I was doing everything wrong because I hadn’t learned the “right way”. My reading ability actually regressed some due to the conflict between what I knew worked (per bed time stories with my parents and Reading Rainbow) vs. the painfully artificial structure of phonics lessons. I’m sorry to find this particulate approach to education has so much traction still.

  4. Emily B. Anderson says:

    Phonics? Really? Losing reading rainbow for such a stupid reason makes me very sad.
    Evan, thanks for confirming what I always thought about that educational approach. It certainly didn’t work at all for me. I’m going to take a look at Smith’s work.

  5. Adeel Haider says:

    I agree with the comments about education philosophy above.

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