Woman with dog

Puppets & Entertainment: Connecting the Dots in Reading Lessons

Giving Voice Spring 2021: Grantee Story

Dott and her canine puppet pal Dusty headline 20 episodes of The Reading League’s “Reading Buddies.” The television show targets students in populations that face poverty whose foundational reading instruction was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I picture kids sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, just enjoying the show and learning,” said Maria Murray, CEO and president of The Reading League, a national organization based in Syracuse. “I want the show to be aligned with the loving, warm education of Mister Rogers.”

The Reading League trains and supports kindergarten through 12th-grade educators in reading instruction. When schools closed in March 2020, the organization partnered with WCNY, the Syracuse City School District and others to provide lessons on public television during the pandemic.

Television programming – rather than Zoom or other computer-based platforms – allowed families with limited access to broadband or technology to participate.

WCNY’s TV Classroom broadcasted 45 hours of programming a week to 19 counties for 9 weeks. The Reading League collaborated on 30 reading lessons for the TV Classroom. When school reopening was uncertain, parents and educators worried about the long-term effects of missed classroom time.

“This was a very terrifying moment in education,” Murray said. “The cost of learning loss could be catastrophic. It could impact all future learning. Literacy is the foundation of all reading. Low literacy can lead to an increase in crime and poverty.”

The Reading League connected last summer with Dusty and Dott, characters portrayed by Andrea Dotto and Brendan Malafronte, and the show’s concept evolved. The couple, COVID-displaced Broadway actors, live in Manlius. Another character, Alphabott, sports an iPad-like head and a magnetic whiteboard that displays word exercises. We supported the production of “Reading Buddies” with a community grant.

The show focuses on three components of skillful word reading: phonological awareness, letter names/sounds and blending sounds to decode words accurately. The content comes from curricula used by Syracuse schools and other local districts.

Filming at WCNY’s studio – following COVID social distancing guidelines – started March 8, 2020. The show airs on The Reading League’s YouTube channel and WCNY’s Global Connect.
“Like Mister Rogers is loved in Pittsburgh, we want Reading Buddies to be loved in Central New York,” Murray said. “We’re going to make kids into little readers, and they’ll love it.”

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