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How Television Can Actually Help Learning

Jordan Catapano


According to the University of Michigan Health System’s study in 2010, children spend about 28 hours per week (four hours a day) watching television. Many households “usually” have the TV on, even during meals. Children often have televisions in their own bedrooms, and as they get older there are fewer and fewer rules about what they can and cannot watch. Television is traditionally thought of as the anti-education tool: after all, children mindlessly absorb television content and spend less time reading, doing homework, or interacting with others.

But is watching television all bad?

Although there are many, many reasons why television is detrimental to a child’s well-being, there actually may be a few redeeming factors as well. As educators, we generally want to be aware of these detriments, but also remain aware of the potential upsides of this enchanting medium as well.

Learning Narrative Structures

Remember those good old days with shows like “Full House,” “Family Matters” and “Saved by the Bell?” Even the eras of “Seinfeld” and “Friends” have waned. Americans in general spent more time watching sitcoms in the past than they do today. Although some sitcoms still reign in prime time (CBS, for example, has consistently hosted multiple hit sitcoms in recent years and is the most-viewed network), the true champion of television today is Reality TV (just look at the History Channel, for example, and note that the majority of its programming has nothing to do with history).

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One of the positives about watching television is that – when it comes to certain types of shows – it has the ability to continually reinforce the traditional narrative structure. As children watch sitcoms, they can see how exposition leads up to the challenges in the rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. They can potentially absorb this narrative structure thousands of times outside of their regular reading regime.

Improve Reading Speed and Comprehension

Yes, you read that correctly. Television can potentially improve reading skills and comprehension -- when used intentionally for this purpose. Children in Finland have reportedly scored higher than most of the rest of the world in their reading skills. One reason experts point to is that Finnish children watch imported American shows. And the only way they can understand the dialogue is by reading the captions in their language. The captions option is often ignored in households; however, the simple act of switching this on can expose children to viewing and reading simultaneously.

You can encourage children to watch channels in other languages with the translated captions turned on. Or in your own classroom you can show foreign films or even Shakespeare, compelling students to read at a fixed pace if they have any desire at all to know what’s going on.

Cultural Exposure

Television can expose children to some really horrible things. It’s ripe with poor examples, terrible morals, and enough sex and violence to make Quentin Tarantino blush. But this does not mean that these are the only things on television. When the right programs are viewed, television has an enormous potential for exposing children to aspects of the world they could never, ever access in their normal course of life. Background knowledge is essential – especially at early ages – for making sense of complex texts independently. And what better way to learn about the cultures, foods, customs, activities, histories, games, conflicts, current events, and so on throughout the world than to get regular doses of such knowledge through the visual and auditory means of the television?

Non-Fiction Educational Viewing

While there is countless “junk” television out there that offers no value to the progress of human society, there exists a great deal of programming specifically designed to teach. And lots of it is very well done. “Sesame Street” is a great example of non-fiction educational programming designed specifically to teach and entertain children. But students who regularly view age-appropriate content designed to teach them information related to any field of interest – like history, astronomy, biology, mathematics, humanities, mechanics, etc. – can easily access quality programming that will actually make them more knowledgeable, not dumber.

If you educate your students to be smart about how they consume content, then you’ll find that they may begin gravitating towards more useful programming on television. There are, in fact, many additional positives of television that we overlook when we’re raging about the sensationalism that most broadcasting has become. But our job as educators is not to automatically discredit anything: Instead, we are to show students how to think critically about any medium of communication and encourage them to make healthy, edifying decisions about what they choose to consume.

What do you tell students when you talk to them about television? How do you use videos, movies, shows, and clips in your classroom? Share your ideas with us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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