THE EFFICACY OF ‘SUPER WHY’ IN BUILDING PRESCHOOLERS’ EARLY READING SKILLS
The genesis of this proposed study comes from two converging trends that might initially seem to be unrelated. The first of these trends is the ever-increasing amount of time young children spend on “screen time” which is how many parents, teachers, and other people who work with young children refer to the cumulative looking at various types of screens from televisions and computers to tablets and smart phones. The second of these trends is the growing attention on the development of early reading skills with a specific focus on the preschool age through third grade.
First came movie screens and then television screens; but now, for most people, various types of screens permeate all of our lives. Many people have TVs, computers, tablet computers, video game systems, smart phones, or other type of screens that they use in their daily lives. This is also true for young children, who, recent studies have found, are spending more time than ever looking at various types of screens (Lewin, 2011). There has been much debate regarding whether or not young children should be looking at screens and for how long, but this study will not focus on that debate. There has been previous research on screen time in the past, but not enough about specific shows, games, or phone applications that children are viewing. There are large differences in the types of things children are viewing on these screens thus it is necessary that we look at specific shows and their effect on children because logically each show or game the children are experiencing most likely has different effects on the children who are viewing it.
Focus On Early Reading Skills
Moving on to the second trend mentioned above, we now have a large focus on early reading skills. It was Stanovich who first documented “Matthew Effects” in reading; His research showed that children who had early literacy skills on average improved their reading ability at an exponential rate as they progressed through their schooling but the children who entered school without strong early literacy skills only improved their reading ability slowly. Or to put it another way, taken from the “Matthew” section of the bible where the term gets its name, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer;” in this case, rich doesn’t mean wealthy but rich in terms of reading ability (Stanovich, K.E. 1986). Many other studies since then have found similar conclusions about the importance of early literacy skills. The issue has garnered so much attention that it has shaped public policy such as the piece of legislation known as H. 4243, “An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency” which has the goal of making every child in the state reading proficient by the end of third grade that was signed into law by Governor Patrick last year (Governor’s Press Office 2012).
The convergence of “screen time” and early reading occurred because there has been a trend of both non-profit and for-profit companies creating media for televisions, video games, computers, smart phones, and tablets that is specifically designed to teach young children early reading skills. The most prominent example of this may be Super Why. Super Why is a PBS Kids television show that has since expanded to DVDs, video games, and smart phone apps which have all been designed to teach children early reading skills (Public Broadcasting Service). The creators of the show no doubt have the best intentions, but are the show and the video games/phones apps effective in teaching children the types of early literacy skills that will help them in their education?
Purpose and Significance of Study
The purpose of this study is to determine if Super Why is effective in teaching early literacy skills. There has already been some research into Super Why, which we will be discussed in the literature review, but most of it has been done by the PBS Broadcasting Corporation; thus, part of the significance of this study would be to have outsiders who have no vested interest in the show look into its efficacy. There is no expectation that this study will offer any undisputed conclusions regarding the efficacy of Super Why, or similar shows, but it more likely will result in helping to create a starting point for future studies that look into the efficacy of Super Why in helping children learn literacy skills and other potential interventions to support literacy development. Furthermore, the study would hopefully provide information to teachers, parents, and anyone who cares for young children into how effective Super Why is at improving children’s early reading skills.
Another group that most likely will have a keen interest in this study is policy makers. Last year, in the debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the issue of funding for PBS was brought up on numerous occasions; moreover, Super Why is also partially funded by the Department of Education and thus policy makers no doubt will be interested if those funds are being used in an effective way to meet the goals of the show. At this point, there is not enough research to really know if Super Why is effective in its goal. Consequently, the goal of the study will be to both add to the research base surrounding the show and provide others with a jumping off point to do more specific research related to Super Why.
Review of Related Literature
This section will first look into prior research into Super Why efficacy in is various incarnations. (TV Show, computer/tablet/phone games). There will then be a critical review of these past studies to determine where the gaps of knowledge lie regarding the usefulness of Super Why in building children’s early literacy skills.
As previously noted, many of the studies into Super Why where commissioned by the Corporation For Public Broadcasting and the first study we will look into was done in correspondence with the “Ready To Learn Initiative. The “Ready To Learn Initiative” is a partnership between The Department of Education, Congress, and The Corporation For Public Broadcasting with the goal of helping “at risk” children who are more likely to struggle in school (Public Broadcasting Services). The study specifically looked at how effective it was to have children watch Super Why twice a week and play the Super Why games as part of a preschool’s curriculum. The study was conducted in low income preschools and involved a control group that received a different intervention related to science. It should also be noted that the preschools’ teachers were given professional development training in the realm of incorporating the Super Why media into the classroom. The study found statistically significant higher scores on post scores on literacy measures such as letter recognition, letter sound knowledge, and knowledge of concepts of print on post tests for the children who received the treatment vs. the children in the control group (Penuel, W. R., Pasnik, S., Bates, L., Townsend, E., Gallagher, L. P., Llorente, C., & Hupert, N. 2009).
There are factors in this study which could have possibly mitigated some of the strong results that showed Super Why to be effective. For example, every teacher who implemented the treatment was given professional development and coaching on how to implement the treatment effectively. The study authors concluded that “media rich curriculum with integrated professional development for teachers can prepare low income children for school success” (Penuel, W. R., Pasnik, S., Bates, L., Townsend, E., Gallagher, L. P., Llorente, C., & Hupert, N. 2009). While that is one possible conclusion of the study, it is also possible that it was the professional development and coaching the preschool teachers received and not the actual use of the Super Why media in the classroom that led to a positive and large effect size on posttests.
The above study focused on using Super Why in a preschool setting, but on average, children most likely would view or play the Super Why computer games at home. The Children’s Media Lab of The Annenburg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study that involved children watching Super Why at their homes. This study not only attempted to determine if the children learned literacy skills from Super Why, it also looked into how much of a “dose,” or watching of the program, it took to create any meaningful differences.
In this study, parents were asked to allow their child to view 20 episodes of Super Why two times each over the course of eight weeks and document if their child(ren) ended up watching the show more or less than what was recommended. The study found that the children who were in the experimental group that received the treatment outperformed those in the control group who did not watch the show (and who were given an alternative cartoon program to watch) on various early literacy tasks. The improvements where greatest for children of lower socioeconomic status (Linebarger, D., McMenamin, K., & Wainwright, D. K. 2009). Overall, this study seemed to have less possible problems that would affect outcomes than the previously discussed study; in addition, the researchers went out of their way to attempt to make it a true experimental design and match children in the treatment and control group by pre-tests scores as much as possible.
The last major study that has been conducted about the efficacy of Super Why revolved around what are known as Super Why Reading Camps. Super Why Reading Camps last anywhere from one to three weeks and involve watching the show and playing the Super Why computer games, but also feature a number of other literacy enriching activities related to the show. That last fact makes this last study the least relevant to this proposed research because it most likely will be difficult to parse out which aspect of the Super Why Reading Camps were having the most effect on the children; This difficulty arises because in the Super Why camps children supplemental enriching experiences from counselors and teachers that they would not normally get just by watching the show at home. Thus, there is the possibility that it is the experiences with the teachers and counselors that are causing the improvements and not the children’s experiences with the Super Why media. However, we will still review it as it is one of the three studies that specifically looked at interventions involving Super Why. As with the first study mentioned, this one was also commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; in this case they hired an outside consulting group to conduct the study. Similar to other studies related to Super Why, they reported strong gains on reading readiness skills for those who attended the camp (Meyer, S. E., &Sroka, I., 2013).
These three studies are the only major ones that have been conducted so far specifically relating to Super Why. It should be noted that all three studies showed statistically significant positive effects for the children who watched the Super Why show and/or interacted with other Super Why materials. Given this, there are still only these three studies which have been conducted by or sponsored by parties with a vested interested in Super Why. Thus, more research needs to be done (replication research of the previous studies would be useful in determining their reliability) by outside parties to confirm the positive results the previous studies have found.
While there is a need for more research, we must first acknowledge that there is a great difficulty in pursuing this type of research related to Super Why. In the aforementioned studies, there was an attempt to create a control group that did not receive the treatment of watching Super Why. Creating a control group, or even regulating the amount of treatment received by those being studied, is extremely difficult in this case. It is unlike, for example, testing a new cancer drug where the experimenters have complete control over the treatment (one can’t find new cancer drugs at every corner); the experimenters in many ways have no control over who watches Super Why or plays the corresponding games and for how long they do it for. In the aforementioned study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the researchers had parents have their children watch the show for a prescribed amount of time. This seems like a good way to control who receives the treatment and the amount they receive, but in a real world setting, this type of control is essentially impossible. Super Why is available to watch many times during the day on PBS as well as perpetually available online; children could be watching the show without their parent’s knowledge, so even relaying on the parents to control the amount of treatment may not be very reliable.
Another thing to consider when conducting a study regarding media is the possibility of diffusion, or the treatment of watching Super Why being experienced by children who are not even receiving the treatment. Often times when a show becomes popular, other children who never actually watch the show may possibly gain awareness and knowledge from their peers regarding the show . This if further compounded by the fact, as previously stated, that Super Why exists in multiple formats and not just a T.V. show. All this leads to the possibility that quantitative research would be very difficult to conduct regarding Super Why because it could be hard to set up an environment or situation that is controlled enough to produce statistically significant results that are not clouded by other factors. Despite these inherent difficulties, quantitative research regarding the effectiveness of Super Why in promoting early literacy skills is still possible and necessary.
It is necessary because Super Why is partially funded through the Department of Education and Corporation For Public Broadcasting; this means that Super Why is partially funded using our tax dollars and therefore there is a duty to the tax payer to determine if the show if effective. Moreover, quantitative research will provide data that is more relevant to policy makers—who must determine if funding for Super Why or similar shows is an effective use of money—than qualitative research would.
Hypothesis and Research Questions
Based on prior research and the fact that education experts were involved in its creation, Super Why is proven to have a positive impact on children’s early literacy skills. This leads to two research questions:
1. Are children in the target demographic (ages 3-6) watching Super Why? And, if so, how much?
2. Is there a correlation between watching Super Why and improvement in early literacy skills?
These studies will be a correlational research design. As stated previously, creating a more experimental study with a control group is fraught with too many difficulties in this case because it would be nearly impossible to make sure the control group is not receiving the treatment in some way. We will look to see if there is a correlation between the amount of time children are watching Super Why and their improvements on a variety of early literacy skills.
Super Why’s intended audience is children between the ages of 3-6; therefore, our population sample will consist of children in this age group. Since Super Why is publically funded and available to anyone with television or internet access, it is important to try to get a large of a sample as possible in the study and a sample that is representative of the country’s population as a whole in terms of residential locations, race, ethnicity, and other socioeconomic factors. Finding a large population to monitor and figuring out ways to monitor their viewing habits of the show seem like daunting tasks and in many ways are. For example, having parents report how often their child watches the show most likely can’t give reliable results because the parent(s) may not be home 24/7 to monitor what their child is watching and the child may watch the show when they are with other caregivers.
Fortunately, there is a way around this monitoring problem and problem of finding a sample that is representative of the nation. The current standard in measuring what people are watching is Neilson Television ratings. Neilson has a history of measuring what people watch on TV (and more recently, on their phones and computers as well). They use electronic set top boxes and other methods that measure what a representative cross section of the country is watching. In addition, they also collect demographic information about who watches television programs (The Nielsen Company 2013). Our goal would be to partner with Nielsen to find the sample for the study. The process would be to first use Nielsen’s daughter to determine which households have children ages 3-6 living in the home. The next step in finding a sample would be to send an invitation to as many of those homes as possible asking if they would be willing to participate in a study that involved their child taking an early literacy assessment test. From those families that responded that they would be okay with participating in the study, we would then again use Nielsen’s demographic information to create a representative sample of families in the United States who agreed to participate in our study. The goal is to get as large a representative sample as possible for the study, but obviously the amount of funding received to complete the study will be a constraint on the number of children that are participating.
Instruments and Data Collection
The instruments used to answer the first question of whether or not the target demographic of children are watching Super Why and if so, how much of it they are, will be the aforesaid Nielsen ratings for the show. We will then use the Pals Pre-K Assessment Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening to measure children’s literacy skills. The Pals Pre-K Assessment was developed and is used by the state of Virginia as an early literacy skills screening tool and it is used by 99% of the schools districts in the state. It measures literacy skills such as letter knowledge, beginning sound awareness, print word awareness, and rhyme awareness (.http://pals.virginia.edu/tools-prek.html) Since participants have already given Nielsen permission to monitor their viewing habits, this study would involve a supplementary consent form regarding allowing their child to be anonymously assessed using the Pals-Pre-K Assessment and matching that score up to their viewing habits of Super Why. (Consent for is in the appendix) It should be noted that this instrument was also used in the second study mentioned in the research review. Usually teachers administer the screening after receiving some training via a training booklet and training video; in the case of this study, we would hire and train people—most likely education grad students—to administer the assessment to the children in the study. The assessments would be conducted in small groups (10-20 children) in locations such schools or community centers.
We envision this study as a only a correlational study that could potentially guide policy and more likely be used as a jumping off point to conduct even more studies and research regarding the effectiveness of Super Why. In order to provide data that can be used by policy analysis and those who wish to conduct further research, we will use simple scattergrams to represent the correlations we find. On the X of the scattergram will be the amount of time children watch Super Why over the course of a year and on the Y axis will be those child’s scores on the Pals Pre-K Literacy Assessment; using the Nielsen demographic data, the goal would be to make these scattergrams interactive where people could break down the data in different ways by demographics. For example, they would be able to look at a scattergram of all the children in the study but then be able to manipulate that scatter gram and only see the results of certain demographics such as children who live in urban areas vs. rural areas or a scattergram with information of only children who speak a language other than English primarily in the home.
Governor's Press Office (2012). Governor Patrick signs legislation to help close achievement gaps in reading and get all students to proficiency by grade 3. Retrieved from website: http://www.mass.gov/governor/pressoffice/pressreleases/2012/2012926-close-achievement-gap.html
Lewin , T. (2011, October 25). Screen time higher than ever for children .New York Times . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/25/us/screen-time-higher-than-ever-for-children-study-finds.html?_r=0
Linebarger, D., McMenamin, K., & Wainwright, D. K. (2009).Summative evaluation of Super Why . Informally published manuscript, Children’s Media Lab, .
Meyer, S. E., &Sroka, I. (2013) A Summative Evaluation of the Impact and Appeal of Super Why! Reading Camp.
The Nielsen Company. (2013 ). Nielsen tv measurement. Retrieved from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/nielsen-solutions/nielsen-measurement/nielsen-tv-measurement.html
Pals pre-k assessment . (2007 ). Retrieved from http://pals.virginia.edu/tools-prek.html
Penuel, W. R., Pasnik, S., Bates, L., Townsend, E., Gallagher, L. P., Llorente, C., &Hupert, N. (2009).Preschool teachers can use a media rich curriculum to prepare low income children for school success: Results of a randomized controlled trial. New York and Menlo Park, CA: Education Development Center, Inc., andSRI International.
Public Broadcasting Service.(n.d.).Ready to learn . Retrieved from http://pbskids.org/readytolearn/
Super Why: about the program .(n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/superwhy/program/faq.html
Stanovich, K.E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407.
 For example, many children might be able to tell you all about Batman without having ever read a Batman Comic or seen a Batman movie because their friends talk about Batman.