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Letters are the stars of PBS's 'Word World'

PBS has been using viral marketing wisely when it comes to "Word World," the new prechoolers' reading show that premieres today. Advance DVDs have trickled through a network of parenting bloggers, and many of them have been gushing online. One blogger raved that after watching the show, her young son proudly reported that he had pooped an "L."

That may not wind up on any press releases, but it probably counts as a victory in the pre-literacy circuit. PBS is in something of a literacy frenzy these days; the theme for this season's "Sesame Street" is vocabulary, and "Word Girl," a manic vocabulary-building show aimed at 4- to 9-year-olds, premieres Friday. "Super Why," which also premieres today, features fairy tale characters who turn into "Super Readers." Next fall, PBS will present "Martha Speaks," a literacy show produced by Boston's WGBH; it's the story of a dog who eats a bowl of alphabet soup and starts to talk.

"Word World," aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds, is the most literal of these shows when it comes to educational goals. Thanks to the wonders of 3-D animation, most of the characters and some of the objects are actually made up of letters. That means Dog (who looks disturbingly like that dog in the Microsoft "search" function) has an orange "D" for a head. His body is made of an "O" and a "G," so from the neck down, he looks a little like an ant. It gets more complicated when you have to make a sheep and a kangaroo, but the animators manage fairly nicely.

It looks impressive - you have to give the artists credit - but I couldn't help but wonder how hard it would be for a pre-reading kid to conceptualize letters that are sideways and upside down. (The show, based on a concept called "instant word recognition," does come with a panel of experts and a grant from the US Department of Education.) Letters also play a role in the episode plots; one focuses on a runaway "O" that blends in with inner tubes and hula hoops. And when the characters create a word, they break into an incongruous little new-wave dance: "Yah we just built a word! We built it! We built it!"

It's hard to fault TV for trying hard to educate as well as entertain, and it's clear - despite the recent debunking of those "Baby Einstein" videos - that a well-designed show can be effective for older kids. Studies have proven that WGBH's "Between the Lions," in which letters play a prominent role, helps 4- through 7-year-olds learn how to read. That's why the show has been used in outreach programs for high-risk rural kids.

But preschoolers with blogging parents are probably not the most in need of electronic assistance; you can also teach them about words by reading books, playing with alphabet puzzles, and using foam letters that stick to the side of the bathtub. There are far worse things than "Word World" that kids could be watching, and if the show prompts letter-recognition in unlikely places, all the better.

But there's something exhausting about the way this show relentlessly promotes itself as useful. It starts to sound a bit like snake oil, shaped like an attractive, brightly colored S-N-A-K-E.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net.

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Word World

On: Channel 2

Time: Today, 11:30 a.m.-noon, 2-2:30 p.m.

On: Channel 44

Time: Today, 9-9:30 a.m.

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