ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For 39 years, "Sesame Street" has been the foundation of the PBS lineup of kids' shows teaching letters and numbers, a few words of Spanish and American Sign Language. In the last couple of years, PBS has been developing a whole new slate of shows designed to help kids prepare to read. There's a new one starting on September 1st. It's called "Martha Speaks."

And NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains what all the new PBS shows are trying to do.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Not too long ago, I picked up my three-year-old at day care. They were handing out free DVDs of a show I'd never heard of called "Super WHY."

(Soundbite of TV show "Super WHY")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) We've got the power, the power to be.

BLAIR: My son loved it. The animated characters on "Super WHY" have special powers. They spell, sound out words, read simple sentences…

Ms. ANGELA SANTOMERO (Executive Producer, "Super WHY"): And they jump inside books and look for answers to questions that they have.

BLAIR: Executive producer, Angela Santomero.

Ms. SANTOMERO: We're also modeling that, you know, using books as a resource for life.

(Soundbite of TV show "Super WHY")

Unidentified Woman #2: What can we do so Joy stops crying?

Unidentified Man #2: Good question.

Unidentified Woman #3: And when we have a question, we look in a book.

Unidentified Group: In a book.

BLAIR: Turns out that free DVD was part of a major initiative by the Department of Education. In 2005, it gave PBS a multimillion-dollar grant to produce shows that would help teach pre-reading skills to children from low-income families. My son was going to a YMCA day care in downtown Washington, D.C., one of 20 cities targeted for outreach.

So now, when you turn on PBS, there's a whole lineup of literacy shows like "Word World," "Between the Lions" and "Word Girl." The new show this fall is "Martha Speaks," based on the books by Susan Meddaugh. Martha is a dog who eats some alphabet soup and…

(Soundbite of TV show "Martha Speaks")

Unidentified Man #3: Instead of going to her stomach, the letters in the soup went to Martha's brain. That's why Martha is the only dog who can communicate using words.

Ms. CAROL GREENWALD (Executive producer, "Martha Speaks"): Educationally, our goal is to help encourage kids' vocabulary development.

BLAIR: Carol Greenwald is the executive producer of "Martha Speaks."

Ms. GREENWALD: A typical middle-class kid enters first grade knowing about 20,000 words, give or take. But kids from lower socioeconomic groups and kids who are English language learners have about 5,000 words, so there's a giant gap there which just continues to grow.

BLAIR: So, on each episode of "Martha Speaks," Greenwald says five words will be explicitly defined.

(Soundbite of TV show "Martha Speaks")

Unidentified Woman #4: Why do you have to jabber on about burglars, anyway?

Unidentified Man #4: I'm just expressing my thoughts.

Unidentified Woman #4: Expressing? You mean your mouth is like the express bus? It hardly ever stops?

Unidentified Man #4: No.

Ms. GREENWALD: And these definitions are all scrutinized by an expert in vocabulary learning who helps us to make sure that the definition is really clear to our target audience.

BLAIR: That's a very difficult skill to teach. Susan Neuman teaches education at the University of Michigan. She was at the Department of Education when the decision was made to focus on literacy. Neuman is very supportive of these shows, but she says not enough kids are watching them.

Professor SUSAN NEUMAN (Education, University of Michigan): Some of the programs are a little bit too didactic and don't have the charm and the interaction and the excitement that some of the other programs have.

(Soundbite of TV show "Between the Lions")

Unidentified Man #5: Noodle. Noodle. Noodle.

BLAIR: Take the Emmy Award-winning show "Between the Lions."

Ms. NEUMAN: It is a bit didactic. It focuses very much on phonological awareness, a key skill that is important to literacy development, but at the same time, phonological awareness, which is a, a, a, e, e, is not terribly fun for young children.

BLAIR: In other words, kids would rather watch "Curious George" or "Blue's Clues." And that could explain why the literacy shows don't get great ratings. Only one, "Super WHY," is in the top 10.

Under the terms of the grant from the Department of Education, the PBS producers must use the latest research on childhood literacy development at every stage in the process. But no matter how scientifically sound they are, the shows will have a hard time preparing young children to read if the kids aren't watching.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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