THE READING wars are over, or so we're told by all but a few rabid partisans on both sides. What ended them was consensus - based on a good deal of research - that the systematic teaching of phonics can be incorporated in the joyful, free-wheeling romp of "whole language."
Where better to test that consensus than the medium that has done so much harm to reading: television.
You can see for yourself by tuning in Maryland Public Television any weekday morning at 11 for "Between the Lions," a sort of "Sesame Street" for beginning readers.
Indeed, many of the creators of "Between the Lions" are veterans of the 33-year-old "Sesame," which precedes it in the MPT schedule. You'll see many familiar techniques - the fast-paced puppets interacting with humans, lots of singing, and wonderful puns and other wordplay.
The series, which will be a year old in early April, is named for a family of lions, Theo, Cleo, Lionel and Leona, that runs an unusual library, a magical place where a gaggle of idiosyncratic supporting characters transform the process of reading into one flight of fancy after another.
I watched the program Wednesday and Thursday, laughing all the way.
There are the Vowelles, candy-colored lips that sing, Motown-style, about vowels and their function; Cliff Hanger, whose adventures with words begin and end in the same predicament; Sam Spud, a word detective whose head is a parboiled potato; Tiger Words, a master of spelling strokes; Arty Smartypants, a k a The Great Smartini, who performs fantastic feats such as reading four words without assistance; and Dr. Nit- white, director of the Dunderhead (pronounced Dunderheed) Laboratory, which spends huge amounts of government money on word research that's invariably flawed.
Among human characters, my favorite is Dr. Ruth Wordheimer, the word doctor, played with her usual exuberance by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a sex therapist on her day job. On Thursday, she treated the word "sad" on her analyst's couch, suggesting that it drop the "s" and replace it with a "g" and an "l."
"I am glad," says sad-turned-glad as it skips off happily, and Dr. Ruth turns triumphantly to the camera, as she always does after a successful treatment, and declares, "I am good!"
But "Between the Lions" isn't a bunch of entertaining skits patched together in the style of "Saturday Night Live." There's serious method behind the madness, says Christopher Cerf, the award-winning songwriter and humorist who is the series' creative producer.
"Sure, it's entertainment," he says. "No one would watch it if it weren't. But it has a very serious purpose."
Internationally known experts on reading have advised in the development of the program's curriculum, people such as the late Jeanne Chall, Marilyn J. Adams, Robert Slavin, Dorothy Strickland, Catherine Snow and a recent addition, G. Reid Lyon, who directs reading research for the National Institutes of Health. ("I love his name," Cerf says.)
The program uses a "whole-part-whole" approach, which combines whole language and phonics-based reading strategies. Each episode opens in the library with the "whole," a story, fable, folktale or poem. Viewers can read along as the words on the featured pages are read aloud by the characters.
In the middle of the half-hour program, the whole gives way to "parts," as key words and sounds are examined in all sorts of imaginative ways. But they're not examined at random, as is the case in many whole-language classrooms. There's always a key word containing a "target vowel." In Thursday's program, the key word was "ship," a word used often in an original story in which characters Lionel Lion and Walter Pigeon think all pirates were men, so they don't let Leona Lion and Clay Pigeon join their pirate game.
Targeting "ship" in the middle of the program allows "Between the Lions" to introduce the short vowel "i" in its many permutations. "Ship" is rhymed with "hip," "lip," "rip" and so on. There's alliteration - "seven selfish shellfish" - designed to teach the youngest children about the sounds of the language, known as "phonemic awareness." Tiger Words wins the National Word Club Masters by correctly spelling "trip." His prize, of course, is a trip to Tripoli.
Then the program moves back to the "whole." The story concludes when Lionel and Walter learn that there was a female pirate in the 18th century, Ann Bonney. (Jane Yolen's classic "Ballad of the Pirate Queens" is one of the recommended books for this episode.) And even if there weren't an Ann Bonney, can't Leona and Clay pretend to be anything they want to? Of course.
Linda K. Rath, the program's content director, says that though it is aimed at children between ages 4 and 7, the curriculum is designed to cover what goes on in most schools during the first half of the first grade. "The program alone isn't going to teach any child to read," she says, "but we're hoping it will become a model for teachers and parents."