Cubs Lionel and Leona, at seven and four, span the target audience. (Photo: John E. Barnett.)

These lions 'pick up where Sesame Street leaves off'

Originally published in Current, March 6, 2000

By Karen Everhart Bedford

There's a library that's a magical place, where a curmudgeonly statue talks, a hen runs the reference department, vowels sing, and a cyborg mouse drops venturesome readers into books for on-the-scene adventures. It's run by a pair of lions, Theo, who likes to tell stories, and Cleo, who relishes these adventures, investigating what happens between the covers and why.

Theo is a laid-back sort of guy, hip-looking, with beaded braids in his mane. Cleo, a lioness regally adorned with a golden African necklace, is a distinguished hunter who relentlessly tracks down books, reference materials, and even missing words and letters. Their children, Lionel and Leona, are ages seven and four. Lionel can read independently; Leona is just beginning to learn.

These are the principal characters of Between the Lions, an ambitious new daily PBS series that, starting April 3, aims to help four-to-seven-year-olds learn to read. The supporting cast of characters are invented creatures who embody specific literacy-related concepts. Heath the Thesaurus, for instance, is an old dinosaur who always comes up with different words that mean the same thing.

The series—five years and $18 million in the making with extensive outreach and web-based components—is infused with early literacy curriculum, and clever in ways that parents and kids can both appreciate. It's both irreverent and immediately identifiable as the kind of educational show with which PBS earned its reputation for quality children's television.

In its approach and sensibilities, Between the Lions has much in common with Sesame Street. The library is the setting for character-driven narratives to play out between animated and live-action segments. The series benefits from high-end production values in its set, music, puppetry and writing. Its creators at Sirius Thinking Ltd. are longtime leading contributors to Children's Television Workshop and Jim Henson Productions.

And its educational objective is related to CTW's, in a way. As those involved with the series like to say, "Between the Lions picks up where Sesame Street leaves off." Lots of letters appear on the screen, but they spell words, fragments of words or sentences.

Between the Lions assumes that kids recognize these letters. It teaches how to decipher the letter combinations that make up words, and the usefulness and joys of acquiring that skill.

Most importantly, Between the Lions was created through a curriculum-first process modeled on the one pioneered by CTW with Sesame Street and Electric Company. A top-notch panel of reading experts advised producers on the literacy needs of early readers, and what might work on television. The creative elements grew from the curriculum created in those discussions, not the other way around.

"Only public television would launch a series like this, and it's increasingly getting harder even for public television," comments Brigid Sullivan, executive in charge at WGBH in Boston. "It's expensive and it really does not lead with merchandise."

"We've spent four years developing it and getting it on the air, working with leading reading experts in the country and reading and outreach organizations. We were really struggling with the problem of how to use television—the medium most loved by children—to help children learn to read."

"Sesame Street is curriculum-driven, and a lot of other children's programs have different goals," comments Judy Stoia, WGBH executive producer. "It might be social skills or issues about growing up or appreciation of reading. We're the first program in a long time that really is based on a strong and thorough curriculum, and that really is our compass. Even though it's entertaining, there's nothing random in our program."

Cerf, above, cofounded Sirius Thinking with like-minded friends and colleagues with experience at CTW and Henson. (Photo: Chrystie Sherman.)


WGBH is co-producing the series with Sirius Thinking, Ltd., a private New York-based company run by CTW veterans Christopher Cerf and Norman Stiles, and Michael Frith, former No. 2 and creative director at Jim Henson Productions. Cerf wrote Grammy- and Emmy-winning music and lyrics for CTW's Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and was founding director of CTW's merchandising division. His longtime friend Stiles was head writer of Sesame Street for 17 years, and won 11 Emmys in that role. John Sculley, former c.e.o. of Apple Computer, is the business mind of the company, which is developing educational and entertaining media products for kids. Between the Lions is Sirius Thinking's first major project.

Sirius Thinking's decision to take their first project to WGBH, rather than CTW, was motivated by the cofounders' desire for creative control, says Stiles. "We reached a point in our careers where we wanted to be in charge of the creative vision," he explains.

Books and words come to life

Running counter to abundant skepticism that television can actually help children learn to read, Between the Lions reminds you that there's a lot of good that can be done on TV, even in something as complex as conveying early reading concepts. Unlike a book, the basic tool for learning to read, television allows you to highlight text as it's read, use funny animation to bring book characters to life, and move text around, says Cerf, coexecutive producer and music director for Sirius Thinking. "We're not trying to replace anything. We're adding something."

"There are unfortunately something like 20 percent of the kids in this country getting into school without a single book in their homes," he told television critics during the PBS press tour in January. "We hope we can provide some kind of reading experience and motivate these kids to go out to the library or have books in their house. If we've done that, we've helped."

"No television program should be seen as the teacher of reading, but as a tool that supports the teaching of reading," comments Jean Chase, director of PBS's Ready to Learn service.

Words and word fragments appear all over the screen in an early episode of Between the Lions titled "Shooting Stars." The book on which the episode is based comes to life through animation as the original poem is read. The constellation Leo takes full shape as a majestic lion, stars glow and burst across the screen, and words appear as they are spoken in narration.

The key word of the program is the word "star"—or, more specifically, the family of "—ar" words. In an animated segment that follows, sea creatures remove and replace letters to make different "—ar" words, such as park and shark. A white-haired entertainer with a warm, friendly smile and amazing versatility, sounds out individual letters and brings them together to spell "bark." He then delightfully acts out the word with puppy-like panting and an enthusiastic "bow wow wow."

"Blend on, dudes!" calls sportscaster Gawain, and Sir "w" and Sir "et" charge together to make the word "wet." Then the knights demonstrate the word's meaning by pouring buckets of water over each other. (Images courtesy of Sirius Thinking.)

"Gawain's Word," a verbal blending segment that combines the awesome dudeness of "Wayne's World" with the zany spoofdom of Monty Python, recreates a medieval tournament with a sportscaster in armor introducing two opponents on hobby horses, "Sir Sh-" and "Sir -ark. "Blend on dudes!," the sportscaster commands, and the knights rush towards each other alternately shouting "sh-" and "-ark." Word fragments appear in cartoon bubbles above their heads. The knights collide in midfield, and "sh-" and "-ark" blend together to make "shark." A cheesy-looking rubber shark then races after the knights, and they run off shrieking.

The program includes many other clever elements: a detective drama starring a talking potato with no mouth who misspells "hamburger"; the serial "Cliff Hanger," whose cleft-chinned, brawny hero repeatedly consults a handbook in attempting to rescue himself. At the end of the show, the drama being played out in the lion family—a nearly unsuccessful attempt to stay awake all night to view a meteor shower—inspires another reading of "Shooting Stars," this time set to music.

"Learning phonics in a reading context"

The pattern of each Between the Lions episode follows a reading curriculum known as "whole-part-whole." It's a teaching method that bridges the once-vast divide between proponents of "whole language" curricula and those who advocate the more traditional phonics-focused teaching. In the mid-1990s, at the same time that Sirius Thinking and WGBH jointly proposed a new public TV series to teach reading, a debate was raging over which approach taught most effectively.

The original proposal for RTL funding for Between the Lions made it "very clear" that the creative team found value in both teaching methods, recalls Peggy O'Brien, CPB v.p. of education. "That was very courageous then. At the time, people planted their stakes in one camp or the other."

"We took a chance and had advisors from both camps come talk to us," explains Cerf. "Obviously, the extremists in both camps didn't want to come, but we were amazed at the agreement between these people when you got down to practical matters."

"Obviously, it's important to appreciate books, to know that reading is important, to have some idea why you want to do it, where you wouldn't have any motivation to learn it," he continues. On the other hand, research shows that many kids need phonics to learn how to decode the words that make up language. "Unless they learn to decode, they may never learn to read, and they won't learn to recognize new words."

The whole-part-whole approach incorporates both methods. In a classroom, a teacher starts such a lesson by reading from a very large book from which the students could see the words. Like the "Shooting Stars" story, the teacher takes a key word from the story, and uses it "as a jumping-off point for a phonics lesson," explains Norman Stiles, co-executive producer and head writer of Between the Lions. The teacher introduces other similar words, "playing with it and talking about the construction of words and creating sentences." The lesson ends with another reading of the story.

Children taught this way are "learning phonics in a reading context," he comments. They have "the experience of reading within a meaningful context; phonics instruction, but not in the abstract."

"It gives them something to hold on to while they're learning about it."

A formative evaluation of program segments from Between the Lions last year showed promising results on the series' educational effectiveness. A small sample of 111 kindergarteners and first graders from seven sites around the country participated in the assessment. Above-average readers were excluded from the sample.

In a word-reading test, administered before and after the children viewed the program, 64 percent of kindergartners performed better on the post-test. The viewers understood the storylines, and 88 percent gave the show the highest possible rating as something they would like to see again. Sixty-five percent of all the participants responded positively to the print on the screen, although the older children were consistently more positive. Viewers in both grades attempted to read words aloud when they were showcased on screen.

"We really were worried because there was so much print all over the place," confesses Sullivan, "but the results were astonishingly good." She even called the researcher after reviewing the results to make sure she hadn't exaggerated her findings in any way. "She said 'no'—even she was surprised."

"It's definitely very successful in teaching reading, which gave us a boost of energy just when we needed it."

Summative research on the educational effectiveness is underway now with children of the same age, and will inform the production of season two, which launches shortly. "We're basically committed to producing a second season of 25 episodes," says Sullivan.

And after that? "This is intended to be an evergreen project," says Stiles. "We'd like it to have life that's even half as long as Sesame Street's life. There are always stories to tell and books coming out, and we can constantly be refreshing."

Between the Lions will be backed by an extensive outreach project, which was presented to Ready to Learn coordinators during a the annual RTL conference last month. The web site will offer a comprehensive curriculum of interactive literacy activities.


To Current's home page

Earlier news: PBS's last big kidvid announcement was a number of children's programs based on books.

Outside link: Web site of Between the Lions on PBS Online.


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