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Embiggening Literacy Levels: 4 Things ‘The Simpsons’ Taught Us About Helping Children Learn To Read

by Akash Nikolas || 9 April 2018

It may seem unlikely, but we think all educators can learn a thing or two from The Simpsons about how to help a child develop their reading skills. Below are the four ways it resonates with the Easyread System.

When Merriam Webster recently added “embiggen” to its dictionary (“to make bigger or more expansive”), it not only legitimized a word that had been coined in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, but it also showed the cultural resonance of the long-running series. Indeed Simpsons fans are known to endlessly repeat jokes and quotes from the show (much to the annoyance of some non-fans) to the point where such references have become common knowledge. Moreover, this example covers some learning tools that we subscribe to here at Easyread, and demonstrates some of the difficulties in learning to read in English.

1. Cartoon characters make memory retention and learning easier.

Everyone knows the benefits of making learning fun and academics have specifically honed in on cartoon characters. For example, Eker and Karadeniz have found that teaching with cartoons positively affects students’ knowledge retention and achievement; McVicker advocates for the use of comic strips in reading instruction; Pressley contends that constructing mental images boosts memory and comprehension; and Dalacosta maintains that cartoons can be used to teach scientific concepts to children. Certainly one can see anecdotal evidence of this with a show like The Simpsons, where fans can recall dialogue and storylines, and the colorful characters have taught viewers some important life lessons and even predicted the future. Here at Easyread we also make good use of cartoons with our trainertext method, which helps kids learn to decode words by using the images placed above the word to work out the sounds in the word if it is not obvious from the letters. Each character corresponds to a sound in the English language (generally the first sound of the character) and their name includes a pneumonic device to help the child remember the character. We gamify the early introductions of the characters and parents are also able to print out the entire character card set. Understandably, it is much easier for a child to recognize cartoon characters than it is for him/her to remember language rules.

2. The malleability of the English language makes it difficult to learn.

That a TV show can create a word that seeps into pop-culture and then becomes a real word proves that English is constantly evolving. For example, Durkin traces how English has historically appropriated loanwords from other languages; Rickford et al have called for ebonics to be accepted on par with standard English; and Crystal argues that we need a frame of reference in the technological age for “internet linguistics.” Yet as good as all of this is for the health and longevity of the language, it also makes English difficult to learn and that extends to children learning to read as well. Because there are so many exceptions in English, the conventional phonics rules do not always work, and especially not for children who have primarily been sight-reading words and who need to switch to decoding. The only consistent rule in English is that rules are meant to be broken. Yet as The Simpsons showed with “embiggen”, new words can easily be added to the language and we submit that new ways of learning to read can also be applied. The trick with “embiggen” is that it sounds exactly like what it means to mean, and here at Easyread we apply a similarly implicit instruction approach, whereby we use the natural strengths of the child to make learning to read easy and stress free. Think of it this way: teaching the rules of language first before trying to read is like explaining the rules of engineering and physics before trying to ride a bike.

3. Nonsense words are a useful tool in learning to read.

In the above Simpsons episode, “embiggens” and “cromulent” are nonsense words used to mock the denizens of Springfield (“cromulent” may be a potential future addition to Merriam Webster as well). But nonsense words can also be quite helpful both in terms of teaching children to read and in conducting reading-related research. For example, Au and Lovegrove found that nonsense-word readers demonstrate better auditory temporal resolution than sight-readers; Hay, Drager and Thomas have used nonsense words to investigate vowel mergers; Gross-Glenn et al have shown that nonsense-passage reading can be used to study inherited dyslexia; and Roy simply argues that sense cannot exist without nonsense. Children’s literature is populated by nonsense words — Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss are two prominent examples — perhaps because children respond to the inherent humor. Here at Easyread, we make use of children’s affinity for such words as one of the ways to have some fun in the system.

4. Popular references are another useful tool in learning to read.

Fans of The Simpsons often apply references from the show to everyday situations but this phenomenon is not limited to The Simpsons. Famous quotes and iconic images supply a reservoir of references that we use all the time to make a point or crack a joke. And children have their own reservoir. For example, every child has a teddy bear, every child knows what a duck is on old Mcdonald’s farm, and every child can sing twinkle twinkle little star. It is no coincidence that the bear, the duck and the star are three of our trainertext characters because such characters are iconic for children and therefore easier to remember. Once the child becomes familiar with all the characters and their sounds, the trainertext can be a reservoir that Easyread children draw from and use to decode words just as fans of a TV show draw from their favorite quotes and use them in various situations. We even make it possible for the trainertext to be used outside the system via the Trainertext Creator (which you can find in the Extra Games section of your account) which allows users to input words and the system will generate the trainertext characters for those words. This is especially helpful when children get spelling lists from school or if they need help with tricky or unfamiliar words from outside sources.

These are just a few of the tools that we use here at Easyread and they work especially well with children. If Maggie Simpson ever learns to speak, we have just the program to help her learn to read.