Big Bird, Meet Dick and Jane

A critique of Sesame Street

I have watched Sesame Street, perhaps a dozen or more times, off and on since it began, most recently a number of times in succession. I love Ernie, Bert, the monsters, and indeed all the puppets. The animated cartoons are done with great style, verve, and wit. The music is very good; some of the tunes, like the theme, or the one for counting from 1 to 10, really stick in the mind. Most of all, I enjoy the humor of the program—dry, deadpan, ironic.

The show is much better than most of what has been offered to children on TV, and it seems to be an unqualified success. Children watch it, like it, and according to tests, are learning much of what it is trying to teach. Nonetheless, and in spite of all its successes, I feel very strongly that Sesame Street has aimed too low, has misunderstood the problem it is trying to cure, and will be a disappointment in the long run. I also feel that it has misunderstood the nature and underestimated the opportunities of its chief subject, the three R’s, and its medium, television; and therefore, that even what it sets out to do in the short run it does not do nearly as well as it might.

The operating assumption of the program is probably something like this: poor kids do badly in school because they have a “learning deficit." Schools, and school people, all assume that when kids come to the first grade they will know certain things, be used to thinking and talking in a certain way, and be able to respond to certain kinds ul questions and demands. Rich kids on the whole know all this; poor kids on the whole do not. Therefore, if we can just make sure that the poor kids know what the rich kids know by the time they get to school, they will do just as well there as the rich kids. So goes the argument. I don’t believe it. Poor kids and rich kids are more alike when they come to school than is commonly believed, and the difference is not the main reason poor kids do badly when they get there. In most ways, schools are rigged against the poor; curing “learning deficits,” by Head Start, Sesame Street , or any other means, is not going to change that.

The program asks, “How can we get children ready to learn what the schools are going to teach them?", instead of “How can we help them learn what the schools may never teach them?” This is the first of its lost, or not yet seen, opportunities—to be very different from school. Instead, it is like a conventional school run by supergifted teachers. It is full of little invisible lesson plans, complete with behavioral objectives and motivating devices. It assumes, like most schools, that nobody ever learns anything by himself, naturally, incidentally, as a byproduct of doing or attending to something important to him; that on the contrary, everything, however trivial, must be deliberately taught, and will be thought best if it is taught all by itself, cut off from all connections with the rest of life. Sesame Street schedules a couple of minutes to “teach” the difference between the words “more” and “less,” or between the words “think,” “hope,” “imagine"; to teach that the corners of a square are all alike, that the numeral 7 has the name “seven,” that people don’t change just because they put on different clothes, or whatever it may be. The continuum of, life, or experience, is everywhere destroyed; the separate bits of one Sesame Street program can be interchanged with the separate bits of any other.

Learning on Sesame Street, as in school, means learning Right Answers, and as in school, Right Answers come from grown-ups. We see children figuring things out. As in school, we hear children responding, without much animation or imagination, to leading questions put by adults. But we rarely see them figuring things out; in fact, we rarely see children doing anything. On two recent programs, children did a dance shown them by a grown-up, followed grown-ups in bringing cardboard hoxes so that Big Bird could make a tower of eleven of them, played a dull same-difference game with shoes, and sat mute while the grocery-store keeper asked them a question that none of them could answer. In one episode, two children played a game with a jigsaw puzzle as big as they were. But most of the time when we see children on the program, they are standing around, often looking uneasy, while an adult shows or tells them things, or asks school-style questions to which he obviously already has the answer

In spite of its visual medium, Sesame Street is still strangely aural. To be sure, there are plenty of images, film clips, animated cartoons, dramatized stuff with the Muppets, and so on, and some of the time the pictures do carry the meaning. On one recent show, there was a film clip of young animals and children learning new and difficult skills, with a sound track of children’s voices shouting encouragement. On another, there was a good clip about the postal service showing what happens to the mail which is picked up, taken to the post office, sorted, canceled, sent to where it is going, and so on. But most of the time, what is on the screen seems to be there only to catch hold the child’s attention, to sweeten the learning pill. A child listening to the program but unable to see it would get 90 percent of what he was supposed to learn. The screen is almost never used, as it might be, convey ideas, information, relationships that cannot be conveyed with words—ideas that would be of far greater subtlety, complexity, and power. Caleb Gattegno, in Towards a Visual Culture, has suggested what some of these might be, and many of the ones I propose here draw on his thought. From the point of view of education, learning, instruction, much of what is done on Sesame Street and in the Sesame Street Learning Kit* seems to me to be clumsy, misleading, and just plain wrong, typical of the worst things done in schools. This is a great pity. Sesame Street , for example, puts great stress on the alphabet and on learning to count to ten, or more recently, twenty.

What we must do in helping anyone learn to read is to make very clear that writing is an extension of speech, that behind every written word there is a human voice speaking, and that reading is the way to hear what those voices are saying. Like the schools, Sesame Street far too often blurs and hides these truths. That is all the more unfortunate, because TV can make the point more clearly and vividly than a teacher in a classroom. Suppose that children were to hear a voice speaking and at the same time see the words, as they are spoken, appearing in print. Cartoon figures and the Muppets could have word balloons over their heads, as in comic strips, a convention which many children already know; even when live figures are speaking, the TV screen could be split, with the words appearing at the side—a TelePrompTer in reverse.

From a recent program comes an example of something done extremely badly that might have been done well. Big Bird was standing by a wall on which he had put the letters OVEL. An adult came up, and Big Bird began to rhapsodize about the word he had put up, which he meant to be “love." The adult told him that he did not have the word "love” on the wall, and as they discussed this, said that Big Bird’s OVEL “did not spell anything.” This statement could not be more false, or misleading, or damaging. The letters OVEL do spell something. They spell a word that anyone who can read can pronounce. The word doesn’t happen to mean anything, but that is something else. Surely we have got past the Dick and Jane idea that you aren’t reading a word unless you know its meaning. But then followed something worse. The adult began to say, in that typical teacher condescending, explaining, how- could-you-be-so-stupid voice, “But Big Bird, you’ve put the L after the word, and you should have put it before it.” She said this several times, as if it were self-evident that “before” meant “on the left side" and “after” meant “on the right side,” and as if all she needed to do to make this clear was to say it often enough. In fact, there is nothing self-evident or natural or reasonable about it at all. We just do it that way. But nothing makes school more mysterious, meaningless, baffling, and terrifying to a child than tonstantly hearing adults tell him things as if they were simple, self-evident, natural, and logical, when in fact they are quite the reverse—arbitrary, contradictory, obscure, and often absurd, flying directly in the face of a child’s common sense.

What might have been done instead? Here is one scenario. The adult reads OVEL aloud, “oh-vell, oh-vell.” He says, “What does that mean, Big Bird?” Big Bird says the word says “love.” The adult insists it says “oh-vell.” As other people come up, Big Bird appeals to each of them. They all read “oh-vell,” From this we see what is very important, that one of the advantages of written speech is that it says the same thing to everyone who can read it. (This vital point was made very clear on the Misterogers’ show immediately following this one, in which a printed sign—GET THE PET TO THE VET—was shown to a number of people, all of whom read it aloud the same way.)

Anyway, after a number of people, adults and children, have told Big Bird that his word says “ohveil,” he says sadly that he wanted it to say “love." Then someone, preferably a child, says to him, “If you want it to say ‘love,’ all you have to do is put this L here.” No nonsense about “before” and “after.” Just move the letter. Then perhaps the child might say the word “love” slowly, moving his fingers under the letters matching the sounds. Big Bird might then say, “Oh, I see, the letters go that way.” Note that even Big Bird’s mistake, unlike most of the mistakes of children, was nonsensical. There would have been some reason to put EVOL on the wall, but not OVEL.

What is vital here, and in all reading, is the connection between the order in time of the sounds of the spoken word and the order in space of the letters of the written one. If so many children have trouble discovering this connection, it is because in most reading instruction we do so much to hide it—and this is no less true of the methods that, like Sesame Street, make a big thing out of “what letter does the word begin with?"

On a program presented one day by the letter X, another opportunity was lost. An animated-cartoon narrator was trying to think of words that ended with X. First a fox went by, and the voice said “fox"—but the letters FOX did not appear on the screen. Then other words—box, ox, ax, with appropriate and clever pictures to match, but still no letters. Instead, we might have shown what Gattegno calls “transformations,” the way the sound of a word changes when we change a letter in it—and it is making such transformations, not sounding out a word letter by letter, that good readers do when they meet words they don’t know. Thus, beginning with FOX, we might have moved away the F and brought in a B to make BOX, then removed the B to leave OX, then changed that to AX, and from there to TAX. We might then have brought in an O to make TOX. Here the cartoon narrator could have looked puzzled. “Tox? Tox?” he might have said. “I don’t think there is any such word as TOX. It’s a nonsense word. Some words you can say and write don’t mean anything.” Perhaps, then, a few more nonsense words. Perhaps a bit of business of looking up a word in a dictionary to see whether it has a meaning. Then perhaps back to FOX and from there to FIX.

As opposed to “capital letters,” and in place of the exact words “lower case,” the show follows school in talking about “small” letters. This is nonsense. Whether a letter is a capital or not has nothing to do with size, but with shape. Indeed, the point should be made that a letter, capital or lower case, can be as small or large as we care to make it. We might show writing on the head of a pin, big letters on a blackboard, children writing letters in the snow, skywriting.

A capital A is shown. A voice says that it is like an upside-down V with a line across. So far, so good. But why not show all the ways in which we can deform or change an A without losing its A-ness—make it taller, shorter, thicker, or more slender in the strokes, slanting left or right, and so on. Why not, with film clips, show children many different shapes of A’s in real life? Why spread the false and absurd notion that there is only one way to make an A? Why not show children making many different shapes of A’s?

The kindly grocer puts on the counter three groups of three objects each and one group of four objects. Then he asks, “Which group doesn’t belong here?” He sings a little song while the baffled anxious children look dumbly at the problem. Naturally they are confused. The group of four objects “belongs” on the counter just as much as the others. This is standard school business: ask an easy question, and then make it harder by putting it in ambiguous language, so that the point of school becomes figuring out what the teachers really want.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In