Dull tricks from Down Under
Great claims are made for The Magic Box, a television series from New Zealand, which has already been shown on cable TV across America. Since its producer Wendy Pye has quite a track record in educational publishing (including Storychest and Heinemann's Sunshine series) and can produce swathes of impressive-looking statistics to show how her electronic media package can "teach the world to read", it sounds an exciting prospect.
So it's rather a let-down to find The Magic Box is essentially a televised reading scheme, based on the first four levels of the Sunshine Spiral books. Traditional reading schemes may have their use in classrooms, but they wouldn't be my first choice of material for introducing pre-school children to the joy and excitement of books.
The Balloons, for instance, eight bright illustrations with brief captions ("The red balloon. The white balloon. The green balloon. The blue balloon. The orange balloon. The yellow balloon. BANG!") is one "story" on the sample video and, despite the narrator's efforts to convince us otherwise, it isn't a thrilling yarn.
It also seems strange to use television, not renowned as an interactive medium, for the entirely interactive business of shared reading. While the narrator (young, female, jolly) asks lots of questions, encourages children to read along, and dispenses immoderate amounts of praise, even the youngest viewers must nowadays be media-wise enough to realise she can't really hear their contributions.
Apparently in the US the series is piped into classrooms as well as homes - but it's difficult to imagine what it does for shared reading that a parent or teacher couldn't do much better in person.
What television can do, however - and books and people can't - is combine clever animation with voice-overs to draw attention to specific features of text (words, letters, punctuation marks). There are some tantalising glimpses of how The Magic Box might really help with early reading skills when it briefly turns its attention to the word "BANG!", the exclamation mark, and the letter b.
But then, no sooner have we met b than another "story" called "The Dinosaur" focuses on the letter d. I don't know about New Zealand and the US, but to a British teacher, tackling b and d together looks like inviting children to develop letter-reversal problems.
The Magic Box takes some - but not enough - account of research into the part played by phonological awareness in learning to read. There are a couple of songs and a humorously memorable alphabet rhyme. But it's all offset by persistent and highly intrusive background music which accompanies the whole programme. Many young children will be hard put to pick out the important sounds of language from the general melee.
There's a video to come, and a CD-Rom, and of course the reading scheme books are all available, so The Magic Box can claim to be a truly multimedia (and highly commercial) package. However, despite Ms Pye's statistics, as a teacher of reading I remain unimpressed.
My advice to parents is that they'd do better to switch the television off for half-an-hour a day, put their little one on their knee and share a couple of picture books and a few nursery rhymes and songs. To make a real contribution to literacy learning, the electronic media are going to have to come up with something much more magical than this.