Why Today's Children Need the Electric Company

Q & A with Scott Cameron, Director of Education and Research and Randell Bynum, Director of Outreach, The Electric Company

1. Why is launching The Electric Company so important right now?

bullet Scott Cameron: Unfortunately, there are still millions of kids ages 6-9 who are not able to read at their grade level. All the research shows that if we don’t try to help these children before they hit fourth grade, they’re at risk of never becoming fluent readers.

2. How is this Electric Company different from the original Electric Company?

bulletCameron: One major difference is the fact that the new The Electric Company will be a 360 degree experience, with a robust broadband component as well as a 20 city outreach program. Today we have the ability to reach kids in a lot of different ways; TV, of course, but also comic books, online games, local activities and afterschool programs. We want to reach 6-9 year olds at every touch-point in their lives and get them dancing and drawing and singing and participating in all things “Electric”—and, in the process, improve their literacy skills.

In terms of the TV show, we have created new songs, animations and comedic sketches that teach phonics and other literacy goals in the same way that the original show did. We know from extensive research that kids are very drawn to a narrative—and to compelling characters—now the show has a narrative threaded throughout the entire half-hour. Each episode follows the adventures of four friends who have literacy superpowers, such as the ability to create and manipulate text on any surface. They’re defenders of the spoken and written word, and they often have to foil the mischievous efforts of some neighborhood pranksters who wreak havoc with their own word skills. These stories always revolve around one of our curriculum’s “conceptual domains,” including The Body, Animals, Games, and Space. By rooting each story in one of these domains, we can teach new vocabulary in a highly contextualized way.

As for the curriculum of the show, the biggest difference between this The Electric Company and the original is that we’ve added two main educational objectives: vocabulary and motivation.

bulletRandell Bynum: The original show did eventually reach classrooms and made a huge impact. 35% of elementary schools used The Electric Company in the classroom.  With the new version we are reaching children everywhere they are from the beginning.  The outreach content is designed for children to be able to participate in in-school and out-of-school time experiences. The content is very modular and takes into consideration different types of educators, learning environments and learners. What outreach intends to do is create a seamless experience for kids between what they are seeing on the television show and what is happening at home and in their communities – giving them the motivation to try new things and expand their learning.

3. What are the curriculum goals of the initiative?

bulletCameron: The four core goals are phonics, vocabulary, connected text, and motivation. Vocabulary development wasn’t part of the original The Electric Company, but in the last 30 years, a great deal of research has shown that a rich vocabulary is essential to reading success. When you’re working on a literacy project, you encounter a lot of really sad statistics, but for me the most heart-breaking statistic showed that children in low-income families enter kindergarten having heard up to 30 million fewer words than their peers in working-class and professional families. These children aren’t in language-rich environments, so teaching them how to sound out words isn’t enough. It seems obvious, but if you teach a child how to sound out the word cope, it won’t get them very far if they don’t know what the word cope means. 

Phonics, which was such a huge part of the original The Electric Company, and connected text, which was what classic sketches like “Fargo North Decoder” and “Easy Reader” were all about, remain crucial to our mission today. We’ve added motivation because getting kids excited about reading is as important as helping them learn the skills themselves.

bulletBynum: Outreach addresses the curriculum goals in a variety of ways. There are several games and activities that can be done in small group setting and activity sheets that are goal specific that can be done individually or with a partner. The community events are designed for families to participate together and experience the show and the literacy activities in a fun way.

4. What is the role of Education & Research (E & R) and Outreach in The Electric Company initiative?

bulletCameron: Everything we create, whether it’s for the TV show, the broadband activities or the print materials, grows out of our curriculum. I’ve spent many nights on the phone with the music composers and the TV writers to help them refine their work so that it’s educationally rigorous. However, if we do our job well, kids won’t have a clue that so much went into it; they’ll just have a great time.

Here’s a perfect example of how the E&R team collaborates with the broader The Electric Company team: When we were developing the “literacy superpowers” for our core cast, all of us—the producers, the head writer, the educational team—talked about what kinds of powers would give us the most “educational mileage.” Rande suggested that we base the powers on the different skills children need to succeed as communicators. So, for example, one of our characters has the power of total aural recall, which allows us to highlight the importance of listening and model how to apply listening skills to one’s everyday life.

bulletBynum: The role of Outreach is to work closely with Education & Research and Production department to inform, support and expand the efforts of the project. Outreach takes the show content and puts it in the hands of educators, children, families and communities.

5. What sort of research has been conducted by Sesame Workshop?

bulletCameron: For the past two years, we’ve conducted a number of Electric Company studies with kids in our target audience, as well as teachers and community leaders. One of the first things we did was test the original The Electric Company with six - nine year olds in Newark, New Jersey. Sesame Workshop’s research team also conducted a detailed study on media use among children up to age nine, because we wanted to see exactly how children across different demographics use TV, print and broadband media.

Last fall, we tested a 22 minute proof of concept video with children in Baltimore, San Antonio, New York, and southern Illinois. This proof of concept was kind of a rough draft of the TV show we wanted to make, and it was our way of seeing how the new narrative concept would work with the type of shorter, self-contained segments that were part of the original The Electric Company.

After we completed the research, we applied what we learned and developed prototypes of our short-form segments, including a sketch in which comics explain some of the trickier phonics goals. We’ve also been testing three broadband games.
bulletBynum: Participating in all of the formative research for this project has helped inform the material development immensely.  Watching children and adults view the show or try out activities helps us with the little things – like coding activities for easier use. Research has also helped us see the communities we are trying to target and what challenges the families in these communities may face. Each research phase leaves us more informed and more connected to the children most in need.

6. What are the next steps in research?

bulletCameron: We will continue to conduct formative research right up through the project’s launch. About once a month, our research team will be traveling to different regions around the country to test our songs, animations and comedic sketches. As soon as our first full episodes are completed, we’ll test the rough cuts with kids to make sure that they’re learning what we want them to learn. This applies to our broadband games and our printed materials, too. And after the project launches, the Department of Education/Corporation for Public Broadcasting will commission an independent summative evaluation to measure the effectiveness of our 360 degree intervention. It’s an extremely rigorous process.

7. How long before this kind of initiative works its way into the day-to-day lives of parents and kids?

bulletCameron: The project will launch in January 2009. The shows will be broadcast on PBS KIDS GO!sm and our website will, of course, be available to everyone. Right now, we’re funded to do extensive outreach activities in 19 target regions around the country, as identified by the Ready To Learn initiative. Sesame Workshop’s goal, of course, is to reach as many children and their families as possible.

bulletBynum: By January 2009 the all access pass to The Electric Company will be activated. PBS member stations will be partnering with schools and community organizations. Materials will be distributed and available to download at pbskidsgo.org/electriccompany. And promotion for community events will begin. We hope The Electric Company is ubiquitous and will attract the attention of today’s children.

8. How has your personal background helped in developing The Electric Company?

bulletCarmeon: When I taught English as a Second Language, I used a lot of videos and songs to teach vocabulary and pronunciation. Without fail, the most effective materials were ones that were funny, structured and age-appropriate. I’m a big believer in making materials that feel age-appropriate. For a struggling reader who feels self-conscious about his abilities, there’s nothing worse than being handed a book that’s at the right reading level, but looks embarrassingly “babyish.” So we’ve tried very hard to make The Electric Company something that any self-respecting nine-year-old – or 15-year-old, for that matter – would feel excited to engage in with friends.

My work as “the education guy” on international versions of Sesame Street has also been very helpful. I worked on co-productions in places as diverse as Japan, Israeli and Palestinian Territories and Mexico, and it was astonishing to me how similar kids are, no matter what language they speak. Funny is funny, regardless of nationality—or, in the case of The Electric Company, regardless of whether you come from the inner-city or the suburbs.
bulletBynum: I come from the world of youth development. I started my career working with youth in foster care as I achieved my Masters in Social Work. I later worked with homeless and runaway youth, people with HIV/AIDS and victims of domestic violence. I didn’t feel like I was making enough of a difference so I began working in program development. I spent 10 years working with the Girl Scouts both locally in Nassau County, Long Island and later with the national office doing program development and research and impacting hundreds of thousands of girls. I became a big advocate of youth participation – giving young people an opportunity to have ownership of the programs being created for them.  Before coming to Sesame Workshop, I managed a corporate partnership for Girl Scouts focusing on self-esteem.  My work with youth in various communities and situations has prepared me to take on the community implementation of The Electric Company.

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