The Little Mermaid

Here are some observation about the episode of Super Why! that features the story of “The Little Mermaid.”

Use of Standard English
The characters are pleasant and well-spoken. In one episode I was surprised and delighted to hear the following standard grammar in the mouths of a pig and a mermaid:

Pig: I’m different from you. (as opposed to “to you” or “than you”)
Mermaid: Mermaids can flip really well. (as opposed to “good”)

That word “kid”
A negative is that, like most children’s programming, Super Why! overuses the word “kid” as a generic, not only for “child,” but apparently for “human being” as well.

Confusing phonics instruction
The producers of this show, no doubt upon consultation with “whole language” reading specialists, ignore the existence of letter combinations that represent single sounds.

An example from the episode that featured the story of “The Little Mermaid” is the combination sh.

The sh spelling stands for a sound that does not have a corresponding letter in the alphabet. The sound of sh is not a combination of the sounds of s and h.

The Super Why! template
Each episode of Super Why! follows a template. The characters are faced with a social problem; for example, being different in some way. A traditional fairy tale is chosen to illustrate the problem. Some aspect of the original tale is changed in order to make it suit contemporary attitudes.

In the original version of “The Little Mermaid,” for example, the mermaid hides her tail from human beings. In the Super Why! episode she shows them her tail.

The viewer is shown a list of words, each of which begins with a different letter. On the mermaid episode list one of the words is hides and another is shows. The character Super Why tells viewers that the word they are looking for has “an s at both ends.”

The word shows does have an s at the end, but it begins with the spelling symbol sh. The exercise conveys false information. It also encourages the bad habit of approaching a word from other than left to right.

Super Letter Search
Another less than helpful approach to beginning reading instruction is the Super Letter Search.

In each episode the viewers are shown the scrambled letters of a word. The letters are shown in red and, during the course of the adventure, children are given an opportunity to identify one of the letters in the midst of some other letters.

In the mermaid episode the superletters are RPUDO.

As each letter is located, it is placed in its correct place in blanks on Super Why’s computer screen. For example, at one point Super Why shows us the incomplete spelling P R _ O _ .

The final word the children are looking for is PROUD.

The vowel sound in proud is is represented by the letter combination ou. Like the sound of sh, the vowel sound in proud cannot be represented by a single letter. Yet the children viewing Super Why! are taught to look at the inseparable combination ou as if it were o+u. The word proud is spelled with five letters, but it is made up of four sounds. True phonics instruction teaches the sound/symbol correspondences.

Left to Right is the way to read
Another negative aspect of the Super Letter Search element in Super Why! is the way the letters are scrambled.

Reading games that an experienced reader can enjoy may not be appropriate for the beginner.

For the beginner, everything is new–including the direction in which a word is to be read.

Games or exercises that require the beginner to look at words in any direction other than from left to right are confusing and potentially damaging.

At one point the Super Letter word PROUD appears this way on Super Why’s computer screen: P R _ U _. The next letter to be added is the final letter D and then, last of all, the letter O which is, as we have seen, part of the inseparable combination OU.

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