Farewell, Reading Rainbow

I read a few days ago on the CHILD_LIT listserv that Reading Rainbow is ceasing production after 26 (!!) years on the air.  The NPR story is here and excerpted below:

[John, Grant, head of content at WNED Buffalo, RR's home station] 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 … “[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.

Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books . . .

Reading Rainbow‘s impending absence leaves many open questions about today’s literacy challenges, and what television’s role should be in addressing them.

Once I recuperated from the idea that Reading Rainbow was over a quarter of a century old and, by association, that made me, uh, OK, moving on … I started unpacking all that this decision means.

First, as a librarian in an upper middle-class district, the great majority of my students do read.  So how are my students benefiting from programming that focuses on phonics and mechanics? They need something else … an ongoing enthusiasm for reading, a community of readers, a gentle nudge to keep going … which is exactly what Reading Rainbow did, with a keen eye for great literature. (And yes, I know I’m one of the “lucky ones” and that many of you work in different situations where students do need much more reading support … though I wonder … do they look to PBS for it?)

Secondly, does reading stop at mechanics? No way! I talked with a librarian recently who loved Accelerated Reader.  Being a reluctant AR monitor myself, I asked why.  She pointed out that boys in 2nd or 3rd grade loved it, felt it was a challenge, etc.  But what about girls? Not so much, she said.  What about boys in 4th or 5th grade? Not so much.  So why put all the kids through AR if it was only working with a small group? And what about the 5th grade slump, especially among boys? It’s just a reminder to me that just going through the motions – be it sounding it out or sludging through book after book to earn points – is not how we define reading, much less a love for reading.  I want kids who will read without being rewarded in points for going through the motions.  And so do my colleagues in urban districts.

Next, what are the implications for libraries? We librarians have long been spokespeople for voluntary reading, for making a wide variety of choices available to kids (while admittedly seeding the collection with Great Books You Might Not Pick Out On Your Own But Will Enthusiastically Read If We “Sell” Them To You), and for fostering that RR-type love for books. Are we booklovin’ our way into extinction by not focusing on phonics? (Though most of us do find that we weave it in and out of the books we choose for Storytime, we surely don’t follow up with phonics worksheets.) This tension – do we self-label as book advocates? or is that setting ourselves up for obsolescence? – showed up on the AASL Forum listserv in response to an American School Board Journal advocating for school libraries. 

As we inch closer to the start of the school year (first day of school isn’t until 9/8, but we’re all hard at work anyway!), and as I think about how elementary school libraries, in particular, can be more responsive to the learning needs of students, moving beyond construction paper projects and into meaningful learning, I’m starting to feel like we’re at this Reading Rainbow crossroads.  I love books and stories and Storytime. I love community conversations focused around books and information.  I love the idea that we can extend those literary conversation into inquiry work. 

Like so many librarians, I don’t want to give up stories.  (And, luckily in my district, I don’t have to.)  Building a RR-style community of readers is something I’m proud of.  Yes, I’m high tech, and yes, I want to be academically rigorous.  But there’s just nothing that beats Storytime when the room is hushed with anticipation as we collectively inhale as the page turns …

There’s still room to love reading.  Really.

2 Responses to “Farewell, Reading Rainbow”

  1. Kelly Ahlfeld says:

    hear hear! I couldn’t agree more. I love my computers but I love my stories in a way that can never be duplicated!

  2. Wayne A. says:

    Reading Rainbow is one of the best television shows. I always felt like this was a nourishing program for my sons to watch. I think that the absolute best way for anyone to spend time reading is to read about what is of special interest. This show presented viewers with ideas for future reading. It is sad to think about how some people struggle with reading materials that are not of interest but are required just for the sake of working on reading skills. This seems like a real misplacement of time and energy. When someone reads about topics of interest, it may require virtually no energy on their part. The energy is attached to the topic of interest. With enjoyable reading, there is far less energy spent on trying to formulate meaning out of a sea of words. With enjoyable reading, the words are simply the vehicle to discover more about topics of interest. Interested readers can sail through the words like riding on a coasting bicycle. The topical interest is the momentum. It is certainly important to recognize that many readers do struggle with deciphering written language. For those readers, even materials with topics of interest may still be a great struggle. I would propose that Reading Rainbow could be alternated with another program that does focus on reading fundamentals. Perhaps the Reading Rainbow creators could simply modify their creative efforts to fulfill both needs.

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