Reading TV:
Simple techniques parents can use to make TV time thinking time

by Gloria DeGaetano

Seven-year-old Sally snuggles into her Mom's lap as Mom reads aloud. It's a moment of togetherness that parent and child both cherish. But while Sally may be sitting quietly, her brain is very busy—sorting, categorizing, guessing, analyzing and synthesizing, exploring, and assessing a wide range of information, character traits, and emotions. In fact, Sally's brain is getting a good workout, although she, nor her mother, never notice the mental sweat.

Reading aloud can seem like magic, especially as children get older and parents begin to see the profound effects of such a humble activity. Three decades of scientific research confirm the benefits of this family habit. Children up to fourteen years old who regularly listen to stories for 20-30 minutes at a time are more likely to be successful in school. They are also more likely to be creative problem solvers, self-confident writers and speakers, and lifelong readers themselves.

The benefits of reading to children are well established, but did you know that with a little guidance, children and teens receive similar benefits from watching television? That may seem like a lot to ask from a flat screen, but when children are stimulated to think, as opposed to watching passively, their minds are very busy.

Parents can make family TV time more productive and educational by asking the same questions they ask children when reading aloud to them. Here are seven simple techniques that develop important mental skills for school success—right in the middle of couch-comfort!

1. Make predictions. How many times do we pick a book off the library shelf and ask our kids, "What do you think this will be about?" Children of all ages love guessing games. Their brains are primed for the mental activity needed to figure out possible answers. So before watching a movie, or as you look through a TV guide, ask: "What do you think this will be about?" Over time, you will notice your child's answers getting more sophisticated. Emphasize the fun of using imagination rather than getting the right answers. For instance, after reading the program description from the guide or actually watching the movie, confirm which parts of the prediction occurred and which parts didn't, but could have. No big deal not to guess accurately. In fact, in many cases our kids' ideas improve on the scriptwriter's!

2. Help children concentrate and sustain attention . When we read to children, we often help them focus on what's important. We'll say, 'Now this is interesting." "I didn't know that," or "Look at how the artist drew that." Helping children pay closer attention while viewing TV can also build important concentration skills needed for classroom learning.

With younger children, you could suggest looking for the arrival of a favorite character or listening for a favorite song. "Do you think Tigger will 'bounce' Rabbit today?" "Let's cheer when Madeline spells her word in the spelling bee."

Older children can focus on both the content of the show and how it is made. You can help them along by asking, "Do think they'll tell us what whales eat?" or saying, "I wonder if the person holding the camera got wet when the whale jumped." When there is dramatic background music or camera angles that indicate an upcoming significant scene, cue your child by saying, "I think something important is about to happen; let's pay close attention here." Encourage what educators call, "selective attention" and then watch how your child starts to cue you when something important is about to happen.

3. Retell the story . How many times do we ask our kids while reading to them or while they are reading quietly to themselves: "What's the story about?" This simple question not only shows you are interested in what your child does, it is also an extremely reliable way to help with many thinking skills, including sequencing events and recalling details. Ask the same question after your child has watched a favorite TV program or when your middle-schooler comes back from a movie. Let your child say as much as he or she remembers. You might want to interrupt to help—but don't! Just keep asking, "Is there anything else?" until your child completes retelling the story. You can also prompt children to explain who did what or what details were remembered. If the answers to your questions indicate confusion by something in the story, explain it to them in a way they can understand—if you have watched with them. In the case of a young teen not quite getting a movie just seen with friends, this is your opportunity to suggest a theater outing with your child or put it on a list for future family video viewing. A second round won't hurt a child and will probably bring clarification and fun—for both of you! Afterwards, over a luscious treat, you can retell the movie to each other and discuss what each of you most value about the story—a wonderful way to open lines of communication about sensitive teen/parent issues.

4. Discuss moods and emotions. As we read aloud, we often discuss characters' feelings to help children see the relationship between inner motives and outward actions. This connection is not always obvious. When a young child is watching a favorite TV cartoon character, for instance, you can point out how this character might feel at a certain point in the story. Then you can link actions with feelings by asking your child such questions as "When s/he was upset, what did s/he do?"

Before they watch a program, have kids in elementary or middle school list as many emotions—love, anger, compassion, jealousy—as they can on a sheet of paper. While watching they can write the name of a character on the show who is expressing that particular emotion. When the program ends, talk about the results. Did one character show more emotions than another? What were the actions of the characters of the character who was jealous? The one who was kind?

5. Point out context clues. Context clues help children understand what they read. For example, a child learning to read looks for context clues in the illustrations to help understand the text. If the boy in the picture is frowning, that shows what the word "scowl" means. As children gain reading experience, they can spot context clues from key words, tone, or sentence structure. Children can also find visual context clues in TV shows, which will lead them to higher-level thinking as they watch. For children younger than eight, point out:

With older elementary or middle-school children discuss:

6. Focus on personal relevance. A good book holds a child's attention because it is personally meaningful. Children have favorite programs for the same reason. Does your daughter want to be smart and brave like Madeline? Does your son like the music on a favorite show because he wants to sing? Perhaps your daughter wants to be an airplane pilot like Amelia Earhart or a scientist like Marie Curie? By simply asking a child why they like a program, or what they enjoyed best about something they just watched, you can help children make a personal connection to screen content. Over time this practice amplifies child's individual skills and talents.

7. Lead from your own curiosity. It's easier to spark a child's curiosity when you're fired up, too. The joy for discovery is contagious! When you choose television programs with educational potential, it's easier for you to get excited and encourage your kids with statements like: "I didn't know that, did you?" "What do you think of that?" Programs that are book-based give parents ways to tie in reading along with viewing. Also, programs featuring biographies or historical figures lead naturally to reading about these individuals.

As you try out these TV-viewing strategies adapted from reading aloud, think of a TV program, or video as a "visual book." And like a good book, the home screen is filled with endless possibilities for enriching your child's language and thinking abilities. So snuggle up and…have fun!

Gloria DeGaetano, founder and director of the Parent Coaching Institute, is a nationally recognized educator, speaker, author, and parent coach.