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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, so how successful are programs like "Reading Rainbow" or "Sesame Street" in helping kids learn to read?

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports their impact is mixed.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Of the nearly eight million children entering kindergarten and first grade this fall, up to a third will arrive with little or no familiarity with the written word. For these kids even learning the alphabet is a daunting task.

(Soundbite of music)

SANCHEZ: But that's where educational television has stepped in.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

Unidentified Man #1: Ernie presents the letter A.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as Ernie) One word that begins with A is apple, and this is an apple.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as Cookie Monster) And this is Cookie Monster.

SANCHEZ: We know exactly what happens to that apple once Cookie Monster gets a hold of it, but what happens when you sit children in front of the TV to watch? Well, for one, it exposes them to books and the importance of reading.

Mr. RICHARD LONG (Director, International Reading Association): But setting the table is different than the actual act of learning how to read.

SANCHEZ: Richard Long heads the International Reading Association, which represents reading teachers and researchers. He is a fan of children's programs that promote reading, but says TV is not a tool to teach explicit reading skills. That's a job for schools with parents doing their part too. If they're not, says Long, children's programs are better than nothing.

Mr. LONG: Parents who are using television shows are using them because they have to. You know, if a parent is working two or three jobs, and they have a choice between putting a kid in front of a show that will help with vocabulary, that's a plus, because the alternative is zero.

SANCHEZ: Is it enough? No. The data is clear. Most low-income children don't know very many words when they start school, so they struggle to catch up to read at grade level. Children's educational programs, of course, never set out to solve this problem on their own. And as Richard Long points out, there's only so much children's television can do for kids who don't attend good schools, seldom get a good reading teacher, and have no one at home to read to them.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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