I am so sad to learn that, after a 26-year run, PBS's wonderful show Reading Rainbow is going off the air. The decision was made simply because of funding issues. According to NPR's recent story, the show is ending "because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show's broadcast rights."
Also influencing the decision is the fact that there has been a shift in the philosophy behind educational programming in the United States. Again, from the NPR story: "The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration...which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling."
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it stars Levar Burton (also known as Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and involved actual picture books that inspired all kinds of entertaining adventures, and also included book reviews by children. As the show debuted when I was in college, I never had the pleasure of watching it as one of the members of the target audience - but I have watched it with my own girls for years, and it is an excellent program that is sure to get children fired up about reading. In my job as a children's librarian, children have often asked me to find them books they heard about on the show, and were always very enthusiastic to get them in their hot little hands.
It is true that phonics and spelling are incredibly important, as are shows that introduce these concepts to children - particularly those children whose parents are unable to do so themselves, or are unaware of the importance of doing so. But what a shame that a show like Reading Rainbow should fall by the wayside because of an emphasis on the nuts and bolts of literacy. Reading Rainbow not only shows children the magic of books as a vehicle for the imagination (as the show's theme song says, "I can go anywhere! Friends to know and ways to grow - Reading Rainbow. I can be anything!"), but it shows preliterate children the goal that they are working toward, the whole exciting and alluring reason why they want to learn to read in the first place.
There is a wonderful book by Stephen Krashen called The Power of Reading, which I highly recommend to parents, educators, and librarians. The research on reading and literacy discussed in that book is fascinating. One of the things it boils down to is that if you give books to children that they want to read and time to read those books, their reading scores will go up. It's as simple as that. Reading Rainbow is important because it make kids want to read, and it showcases a wide variety of books that young readers are sure to find appealing. Nuts and bolts are important, but so are flights of imagination.