Learning From Television: A Research Review

October 1, 1996

Traditionally, educators have perceived television as not particularly beneficial to literacy development. Concerns were fueled by findings suggesting that with the introduction of television people spend less time reading books and reading scores decline (e.g., Corteen, 1986; Robinson, 1972; Werner, 1971). However, as our society is striving to make adjustments to the decline in literacy skills and new ways of learning and teaching are being explored, educators are becoming interested in exploring the educational potential of television and video for teaching basic literacy skills such as reading, writing, and math.

The interest in television as an educational medium has increased for several reasons. First, existing educational television programs that were developed to enhance the literacy development of both children (e.g., The Electric Company, Sesame Street, Ghostwriter) and adults (e.g., television supported distance learning programs from the Open University in Great Britain, second language programs produced by TV Ontario) have been quite successful in achieving their intended outcomes (e.g., Bates, 1983; Bryant, Alexander, & Brown, 1983; Soudack, 1990). Second, because television is a very accessible medium, it has the potential to reach learners that have not been able to participate in traditional adult literacy programs. Television is accessible both in terms of its technology and in terms of its content. By 1985, 99% of all US households had a least one television set (Nielson Reports, 1986). Moreover, viewers are intimately familiar with the content of television and tend to associate it with pleasurable experience because of its power to entertain (Bates, 1983). Finally, the development of new visual technologies, (e.g., video recording and playback, CD-ROM and videodisk technology, multimedia computer technology) makes it possible to provide users with more control and interactivity and thus to adapt televised instruction to the needs of a variety of learners and learning styles.

A question of central concern to educators interested in using television for literacy education is 'what do people learn from television?' This paper reviews existing research on learning from television in an attempt to address this question, and to assist in the planning for the development of television programming and curricula for adult literacy education.

The materials upon which this review is based include books, chapters, journal articles and published and non published reports from the academic disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and from applied multidisciplinary fields such as education, communication, distance learning, and advertising research. On-line literature searches were conducted using the following research databases:

  • ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) Resources in Education (RIE) and Current Index to Journals in Education(CIJE) (1980-present);
  • PsychLit (1974-current);
  • RLIN/Eureka Anthropological Literature (1984-present);
  • Sociofile (1974-current).

These databases were queried using combinations of one or more of the following keywords: Television, literacy, language learning, adult education, adult learning, and learning. The bibliographic information obtained through these searches was inspected and articles were selected for inclusion in this review if they reported empirical work on adults' learning from television and video (including but not limited to literacy and second language learning). Articles about children and instructional television were reviewed also, especially if they touched on literacy and language learning.

The research literature suggests that the content of television can have four broad types of effects on people. They include behavior, attitudes, beliefs and values, knowledge, and cognitive skills. Each of these areas is discussed in the report. Following this, Babette summarizes the potential impact of television on literacy learning that has been documented by research on existing literacy programs.