‘Reading Rainbow’ Hits the Jackpot, but We Need to Go Twice as High to Fix Illiteracy

It’s a great start, but America’s kids need more help falling in love with books.

(Photo: Kickstarter)

May 29, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

Many kids of different generations—namely those in PBS-watching households anytime from the early 1980s through the late 2000s—gleefully sang along to the dreamy theme song for the beloved children’s literacy television show Reading Rainbow. Many of us, including me, know every word to that tune.

All those decades of gentle indoctrination paid off big for host LeVar Burton this week, who felt the need to remind people that he was also on Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation on the page for his Kickstarter campaign, which hopes to bring back the show in new iterations.

Years after the show’s run on PBS (1983 to 2009), and two years after releasing a top-selling Reading Rainbow tablet app, it took one day to smash through the campaign goal of $1 million by July 2. Backers want Reading Rainbow to come back as both a Web-based program costing subscribers $5 a month and as a free format for use in more than 1,500 schools in need.

To say Burton was touched by the campaign’s success is an understatement.

More than 44,000 donors pledged more than $2 million by Thursday afternoon.

The nostalgia-filled rush to support Burton’s campaign highlights just one response to a critical need to support children’s literacy programs and teach kids to enjoy reading when young. But the problem is far from fixed.

Fourth grade is known as a benchmark in schooling, a time when lifelong readers are won or lost by the educational system. Only a third of America’s fourth graders can read at a level that’s proficient or better, according to a 2011 report from the National Governors Association. That same year, more than 80 percent of low-income students qualifying for free lunch programs scored below proficiency on a fourth-grade reading assessment test.

What happens when all those kids grow up? A staggering 32 million adults in the United States can’t read—about 14 percent of the population, according to federal statistics.

“It is part of everybody’s job to support families and kids in any way we can, to show that kids need to learn to love to read. The awareness that reading is enjoyable and isn’t just a task or a skill is so important,” said longtime librarian Starr LaTronica, president of the Association for Library Service to Children and youth services coordinator for 42 libraries in upstate New York.

LaTronica praised Peabody Award–winning Reading Rainbow, which her now 21-year-old daughter adored growing up, for promoting literacy by discussing a variety of books and including capsule reviews by kids, who can influence their same-age peers.

The show has carried cultural sway long after ending, from late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon’s hilarious version of the theme song in 2011 as a warbling Jim Morrison to the Reading Rainbow iPad app, complete with video field trips and access to more than 700,000 books. It became the No. 1 educational app on iTunes soon after launching in 2012.

Other programs, such as Reading Is Fundamental, the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the United States, have also had a continuing effect on literacy, LaTronica said.

Aided by more than 400,000 volunteers and corporate sponsors such as Macy’s, Reading Is Fundamental has given 400 million books to more than 35 million children since its founding in 1966. The program operates in 17,000 locations, including schools, community centers, and hospitals across the country.

“Reading Is Fundamental is great about getting those physical books in the house so people are comfortable with reading,” said LaTronica. “It comes back to building that relationship with reading. If you don’t have that, why do you want to read? If you don’t have a strong relationship with books, why would you go to the library? It’s such an important bonding experience between parent and child, a caretaker and child.”

Still, the divide between a nonprofit such as Reading Is Fundamental and a for-profit endeavor such as the newly reimagined Reading Rainbow has irked some critics of Burton’s Kickstarter quest. After the show’s cancellation in 2006—it aired as reruns until 2009—Burton cofounded the company RRKidz, Inc., which incorporated in 2011, and then launched the Reading Rainbow iPad app. Burton and his RRKidz cofounder hold the global rights to Reading Rainbow in partnership with Buffalo, New York, public TV station WNED, which coproduced the show.

The Washington Post noted that while the longtime PBS show was free and fairly accessible, the new subscription-based online version won’t reach enough kids who don’t have access to home computers and high-speed Internet access. The newspaper cites 2012 research by the Pew Research Center that lower-income households are more likely than other groups to say their cell phone is their main source of Web access.

But for literacy experts like LaTronica, Burton’s heart is in the right place when it comes to influencing kids to soak up words and books, regardless of Reading Rainbow’s now for-profit status.

“There’s something that comes through—his honest enjoyment for what he’s doing,” she said. “We couldn’t ask for a better representative for reading for kids. I’m so grateful he’s committed his life to this.”