Reading Rainbow Reboot: Caitlin Dewey Missed the Mark

Reading Rainbow


By now I am sure you have already seen the storm of support out there for the Reading Rainbow reboot that has started sourcing its funding through Kickstarter. Reading Rainbow, and iconic show featuring LeVar Burton that aired on PBS from 1983-2009, is seeking to have its same impact on the lives of children everywhere, by adapting to the new digital ways of life. The campaign explains that Reading Rainbow wants to expand beyond the current tablet app available, and bring the contents to the web, and make it available to every child in every classroom. For schools that cannot afford the subscription fee, Reading Rainbow wants to provide its content, reading library, as well as supplementary materials for teachers for free.

Caitlin Dewey, writer at the Washington Post, quickly shared her thoughts in an article yesterday entitled “You Might Want to Reconsider that Donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter“. To paraphrase it (and maybe misquote as she did throughout her article), Dewey believes that in some ways, the RR Kickstarter and project idea is not what it seems, could be a slight scam, and that Reading Rainbow doesn’t hold the value it once did. Placing a large emphasis on how the Department of Education shifted its focus from the love of reading to a focus on the core fundamentals of learning how to read, and largely suggesting that Reading Rainbow won’t help kids learn to read, and the money could be spent well elsewhere. 

Screenshot of Reading Rainbow Kickstarter as of 1pm EST, May 29.

Screenshot of Reading Rainbow Kickstarter as of 1pm EST, May 29.

But Caitlin, I do believe you missed the mark on this. Maybe it was just link bait, or maybe you are a little disconnected from the purpose of Reading Rainbow and the importance not just of learning how to read, but learning to love to read.

Allow me to explain. Reading Rainbow was not a show designed to teach kids how to read. It was created to foster a love of reading in children, to get them just as excited about picking up a book, being anyone and anything, as they were excited about TV shows and cartoons. Based on the assumption that kids viewing the show already knew the core fundamentals such as phonics and spelling. You said in your article “In other words, when Reading Rainbow began in 1983, the big question was, ‘how do we get kids interested in reading?’ By 2009, that question had become, ‘how do we teach kids to read, period?’ Unfortunately, it’s unclear how the new, digital Reading Rainbow will address that disparity — if it chooses to at all.” The fact is, it doesn’t have to choose to do so. While that would be stellar, that’s not the point.

You also go on time and time again to point out the Reading Rainbow is a for-profit company and not a charity. Which takes away from anything relevant to the subject. Your claim that crowdfunding isn’t supposed to be for companies with a profit motive is one of the most misguided things I’ve ever heard. Whole companies that are aiming to make a profit off of a product us crowdfunding. So what’s your beef? The fact that it’s LeVar Burton? The fact that Reading Rainbow has some financial backing already? So they turn to others. No big deal. If it helps them succeed, then so be it. What’s wrong with that?

Here’s the thing: Despite your pointing to Pew studies about how people access the internet, pointing to the fact it was free on PBS but not free anymore, or saying it’s not relevant anymore, is misguiding, and detracts from the importance of the program as a whole Plenty of kids pass their testing on phonics and spelling, but later on, read well below their level. Even as adults. Part of this can be traced to the fact that over the years, the enjoyment of reading has not taken a high enough priority. People know how to spell but don’t know current events, historical figures, and great literature because they were never pushed to learn to love reading.

Fellow contributor to Dad’s Round Table and former teacher David Stanley had this to say:

Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of kids who loved books and reading. Some read well, and some struggled, but all of them, when asked, shared that they had been read to as young children. Reading Rainbow did a stellar job of “reading” to young kids. I have not read the WaPo piece, but if it says we need to focus more on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of reading, rather than the creation of a love for books and words, I’d say she has it ass-backwards.

Another contributor, and an employee of a PBS affiliate, The Rookie Dad, said of the reboot:

Things have changed in the Public Broadcasting world now since Reading Rainbow was taken off the air. However the Kickstarter is not meant to get it back on PBS, it is just to get it to every child everywhere, mostly in the classroom. I think it is a great idea personally. I grew up on RR.

Caitlin, the main point you have to see in this is far outside of your Pew articles, misguided attempts at making Reading Rainbow look like a money pot company, and your obvious personal beliefs that a love of reading is not as important as the knowledge of how to read. The campaign makes it obvious that Reading Rainbow knows its demographics and knows where to go to reach more children. Is it so hard to believe that to adapt to your research about how people access the internet, they may take those same statistics into consideration for improving the existing app? It’s not hard to make a tablet app available on a smart phone. And I have faith this will be done.

Is it wrong for a company to make money when the will more than likely be the best company out there for teaching kids to love to read again? Is it so concerning that there is a subscription fee to schools that can afford it in the budget when they same materials will make it to less fortunate schools for free? These things take money to do. And a lot of it. It’s not just a push play and go kind of endeavor.

Most importantly, what good is teaching how to read without fostering the importance of reading outside of the school? What good is it to push testing on phonics and spelling in the early years if a child doesn’t put it to use by actually reading regularly? There is so much knowledge in the world to be gained that isn’t worth a damn if we don’t read about it. Reading is more than pronunciation and vowel sounds. Contractions, plots, and proper paragraph structure. Can we really rejoice over test scores when a large percentage can’t even read a restaurant menu correctly, let alone something of higher intellect?  Reading Rainbow isn’t here to teach those things, rather, to bring back the love of reading to generations who are being left behind. Learning to read, and loving to read go hand in hand.

In closing Caitlin, I honestly hope that this article sits in the archives one day, reeking of wrongful predictions and assumptions. I hope that one day you’ll think “Yup, I missed that one by a mile”. But more importantly, I hope that thousands and millions of kids in the US and beyond, will know the joy of Reading Rainbow, the love of reading, and that we can regain a world full of children inspired by literature, aspiring to dreams that can only be fostered by picking up a book.




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