There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back. Sadly, it’s not. Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms. Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.
For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers. Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.
There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post). In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important. Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.
In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so. Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read. PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.
However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.
Reading is stories. Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time. Reading is poetry. Reading is escape. Reading is finding yourself in a book. Reading is learning. Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are. Reading is inspiration. Reading is fun. Reading is meaning.
Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning. It’s just mechanics. It’s the notes, not the song. Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.
When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do. Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics. However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives. In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important. That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.
So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words. Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light. Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out. Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go. Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.