Carol Greenwald: We heard from a public television colleague that when her son was four and a half, he asked to have Martha Speaks read to him, over and over. When they went grocery shopping, he reminded her to get alphabet soup; she began finding unopened cans of soup on the counter, which she put away, thinking she’d left them out by mistake. And then one day she came into the kitchen and saw her son standing with their standard Poodle, his foot holding Martha Speaks open to the page that shows the cross-section of Martha’s brain filled with letters. With one hand, he held up the dog’s earflap, and with the other, he shone a flashlight into the dog’s ear. Then he looked at his mother and said, plaintively, “But how will I know?”
B: What role does Martha have within her family? And can you tell us why you chose to make her young companion a girl rather than a boy?
SM: As I mentioned, Martha and Helen had already been paired in The Witches’ Supermarket. But although Martha’s personality has been evident since the first book, Helen’s character had to be fleshed out for the TV series. Martha will continue to be Martha: Confident, honest, loving, talking and acting before thinking, sometimes wrong but seldom in doubt. She’s learning about the world (and learning some words along the way). Helen is somewhat shy and cautious, a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, an artist, and the more sensible part of the duo, who tries to pull Martha back when she goes too far. For her part, Martha will push Helen into new situations and adventures that Helen would ordinarily be reluctant to try. It’s a loving relationship of opposites that works for both of them … usually.
CG: WGBH was attracted to the property specifically because it has a female central character. The majority of cartoons and TV shows for young children have boys at the center. We were thrilled to have a girl.
B: The goal of this series is to expand the vocabulary of its audience. How did you go about doing that? How are the words introduced so that the young viewer will understand their meanings?
CG: Surprisingly, first-grade vocabulary knowledge predicts eleventh-grade reading comprehension. So achieving our educational goal is incredibly important to us. People often assume that when you’re talking about teaching young kids vocabulary, you’re talking about words they are learning to read, like “hot,” “cat” and “top.” However, we’re focused on helping kids learn the meanings of more sophisticated words, so that when they begin reading—and particularly when they move from learning to read to reading to learn—they will understand the meaning of what they are reading. It doesn’t matter if you can sound out “aggravate,” “plot” or “custom” if you don’t know what they mean.
We worked closely with a board of academic advisors to figure out how we could use television to build children’s vocabularies. Because the vocabulary gap between at-risk kids and their more advantaged peers is so great, our advisors encouraged us to incorporate as many words as possible. Thus, we are teaching 800 words the first season (through 40 shows). They also confirmed that the best way to teach vocabulary is by providing context, so we are integrating the words and the definitions into the dialog of the stories, supporting them visually whenever possible, not teaching them in isolation. Because repetition is key to learning vocabulary, each of our words is repeated at least five times in the story, and more than that in the paired story (each episode has two stories) and across the series. We work closely with our content director, Dr. Rebecca Silverman from the University of Maryland, to both choose appropriate words and provide age-appropriate definitions.
B: Besides vocabulary building, what other lessons do you hope your viewers come away with?
CG: We have worked hard throughout the series to depict pet ownership in a positive way, to model good owner behavior. We hope viewers will come away with an appreciation for the important role dogs and all pets play in our lives. We also hope, through the series and our national partnerships, to raise awareness for animal shelters and encourage more families to adopt.