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PBS set to unleash a new tutor

'Martha Speaks' show will focus on vocabulary

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / August 17, 2008
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When local author Susan Meddaugh started publishing books about her dog in 1992, she didn't intend for the results to be educational. She was riffing on an idea posed by her then 7-year-old son: What would happen if Martha ate a bowl of alphabet soup?

But "Martha Speaks" and its sequels, a set of goofy, cartoon-inspired books about a mutt who develops the power of speech, hit the shelves as academics were beginning to trumpet vocabulary as an essential academic skill. The books grew popular as Boston's WGBH, fresh off the success of its "Arthur" cartoon, was trolling around for the next big preschool public television hit.

Now, as PBS strives to help the at-risk children who represent its public-service legacy - and appeal to affluent parents who want to give their children a leg up in school - it is making "Martha Speaks" its big hope for the fall. The half-hour show, which premieres nationwide Sept. 1, aims to teach 4- to 7-year-olds words as advanced as "communicate," "diminish," "courageous," and "concoct."

And with 40 half-hour episodes of "Martha" planned for this year and a second season in the works, producer WGBH hopes the new show will prove as popular as its top-rated "Curious George."

"Martha" joins a PBS lineup that is newly thick with reading shows. Letters and phonics play heavily in "Word World" and "Super Why," which premiered last fall, and in the longstanding "Between the Lions." "Sesame Street" now emphasizes reading. A new version of "Electric Company," set to air in January, will teach literacy skills to older children. "Word Girl," a year-old superhero spoof produced by Soup2Nuts, a Watertown animation firm, teaches vocabulary to 6- to 8-year-olds.

The focus on reading is, in part, the result of a 2005, $72 million grant from the Department of Education, tagged to several PBS reading shows and related community outreach. It represents a new government interest in reading, said Ilona Holland, a "Martha" adviser and lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. For a long time, Holland said, federal grants were largely aimed at teaching science and math skills, to help Americans compete with children overseas.

Some trends and studies, academics say, have spurred a new interest in literacy and in vocabulary - the focus of "Martha" - in particular. An influx of children learning English as a second language sparked the need for more instruction. Recent research has shown that "the single greatest predictor of academic excellence is vocabulary development," Holland said.

And studies have shown a vast difference in the number of words children know when they enter first grade: anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000, depending on their background.

While the need to help children of immigrants and low-income families is clear, demand for reading shows has also come from upper-income parents, said Lesli Rotenberg, PBS's senior vice president for children's media.

"They want to make sure their kids are keeping up with the other kids," she said. "Literacy is a really important building block."

By the time PBS applied for the 2005 grant, "Martha Speaks" was already moving slowly through the WGBH pipeline. Producers learned about the importance of vocabulary while developing "Between the Lions" in 1995, said Brigid Sullivan, the station's vice president for children's programming. Carol Greenwald, executive producer of "Arthur" and "Curious George," spotted Meddaugh's books early and made contact with the Sherborn-based author.

Once PBS got the grant and "Martha" got its funding, the process of merging education and entertainment began in earnest. First, there was the challenge of teaching the right skills. Greenwald initially hoped to play with letters in cartoon word-bubbles, a feature of Meddaugh's books. But WGBH's advisers said no: What children really needed was to hear the words in context.

Rebecca Silverman, the content director for "Martha" and an education professor at the University of Maryland, eventually developed a list of goals. Each 11-minute story - there are two per episode - would introduce children to 10 new words. Half would be difficult words that are explicitly defined, half easier words that many children would know from context.

Meanwhile, writers created a "bible" of immutable facts about Wagstaff City, the fictional town where Martha lives, and its human and animal denizens. Much of it came from scratch, since in the books Martha's human family - a mother, a father, and a daughter named Helen - mostly hovered in the background of the dog's adventures.

The writers gave the people personalities, gave Helen a baby brother, and made the mother Hispanic, with a thick accent, so that English-language learners could relate to her. They invented more characters, from Helen's teacher to her cousin to her neighbors.

Meddaugh set some early rules, chief among them that Martha had to behave like a dog, with firm tastes for the smell of bacon and the act of rolling in the grass. (In one episode, she becomes host of a radio advice show, and soon has Wagstaff City humans wearing collars and burying their valuables.) She couldn't be supernatural. A proposal to let her fly was swiftly quashed.

There was also early debate about whether Martha alone would be learning the meanings of words, or whether the humans would get lessons in vocabulary, too. The conclusion: Everybody learns.

The trick was to make that learning feel invisible, by weaving definitions seamlessly into the scripts. In one episode, Martha and a dog named Skits are stuck in a department store, and Martha talks about "fleeing the scene."

"Woof, woof," Skits says.

"No, fleeing like running, not like a flea you have to scratch," Martha says.

"Woof, woof," Skits says.

"Yes, I know they sound alike," Martha says.

It was important, Greenwald says, to come up with humor and characters that children could relate to - and a dog they could view as a peer. The 100 kindergartners who focus-tested actors' voices liked both finalists for Martha, but said one of the voices sounded like their mother. The other actress, Tabitha St. Germain, got the job.

Children have given the completed show high marks in focus tests and proved that they've learned from watching. Holland, the Harvard adviser, twice showed episodes of "Martha Speaks" to groups of kindergartners in Cambridge and Delaware. After watching the show, she said, both sets of children were better able to recognize the target words, define them, and use them in stories.

There's anecdotal evidence, too, that vocabulary shows make an impression on youngsters. Dorothea Gillim, the creator of "Word Girl," said she has heard reports of a 2-year-old saying "predicament," and a 4-year-old using "flabbergasted," after watching her show.

And there's always a chance that "Martha" viewers will find their way to the original books, which contain their share of complicated words. Meddaugh, who lives with four energetic dogs (the original Martha has since passed away), admits she started off skeptical about some of the show's academic goals and feared the definitions would get in the way of the stories.

But as she watched rough cuts from a laptop in her home, holding a magnifying glass against a small computer window, she has come to appreciate her old dog's new purpose.

"When I've written a story, it's just been to write a story," Meddaugh said. "And they're character-driven stories. But if there are lessons . . . that's fine."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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