PBS KIDS® Series Martha Speaks Shows Impressive Impact in Helping Children Learn New Vocabulary Across On-Air and Mobile Platforms

May 31, 2011, 10:56 ET from WGBH

BOSTON, May 31, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Three independent studies report that the highly rated PBS KIDS series Martha Speaks is an effective tool across platforms (broadcast and mobile devices) in increasing young children's vocabulary. The studies noted increases comparable to traditional classroom vocabulary instruction (such as reading out loud) for kids who viewed multiple episodes of the show, as well as gains of up to 31 percent in the vocabulary tested among low-income children who played with the Martha Speaks Dog Party iPhone app.

"We're thrilled with the impressive impact the project is having on increasing young children's vocabulary," says Carol Greenwald, WGBH senior executive producer. "Vocabulary is critical to reading comprehension and a key predictor of reading success. By the time children enter kindergarten, however, a great chasm in vocabulary knowledge exists between disadvantaged kids and their peers—and the former never catch up. Across multiple platforms, Martha Speaks has been able to enhance kids' knowledge of words through the context of a talking dog and great stories."

Each episode of Martha Speaks targets 20 new vocabulary words.   Some words are taught implicitly through the context in which they are used.  Other words are explicitly defined. The words range in difficulty from those typically taught between 2nd and 8th grade.  Targeted words are repeated multiple times per episode.

The first study, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and part of the recently published CPB report "Findings From Ready To Learn 2005-2010,"(1) demonstrates that Martha Speaks helps kids increase their vocabulary. On average, low-income children who watched Martha Speaks had a significantly greater increase in vocabulary knowledge compared to children who did not watch the show. Additionally, the study demonstrates that Martha Speaks is an effective tool in helping to bridge the vocabulary gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

"High-quality educational television, such as Martha Speaks, has the potential to facilitate language opportunities in the home by offering an inexpensive means of introducing young children to key early language and literacy experiences," says Deborah Linebarger, Ph.D., Lead Investigator in the study and Director of the Children's Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

Other key findings of the Martha Speaks / CPB Ready To Learn study:

  • Both urban and rural children who watched Martha Speaks significantly outperformed their urban and rural non-viewing peers in providing more detailed and accurate definitions of vocabulary words targeted by the show.
  • Children were able to retain the increased vocabulary, and showed even greater gains on targeted words weeks after the study ended.
  • All urban children who viewed Martha Speaks were better able to define more words than their non-viewing urban peers regardless of both the difficulty of the words as measured by the grade level in which they are usually learned, and the number of times the words were used in the show.
  • Program-specific vocabulary knowledge translated into higher standardized vocabulary scores for urban boys and rural children living in low socioeconomic- status homes, indicating that the skills taught in the show transfer to more generalized vocabulary learning.
  • As an early-intervention tool targeting vocabulary knowledge, Martha Speaks provides strong support for word learning and results in significantly higher vocabulary scores compared to educational television programs that do not focus on vocabulary learning.

Additional Research Studies:
Two studies further reinforce the success of Martha Speaks as a vocabulary-teaching tool:

  • A Rockman et al study which was included in the Joan Ganz Cooney Center Report, Learning: is there an app for that?, evaluated the learning outcomes related to the Martha Speaks Dog Party app for iPhone and iPod Touch, and found that 3- to 7-year-old children who played with the app experienced gains of up to 31% for the vocabulary included in the app.
  • A University of Maryland study that compared watching a Martha Speaks episode to a teacher reading the same story out loud (a traditional method for teaching vocabulary) found that watching a Martha Speaks episode is as effective as hearing the story in increasing vocabulary.
  • Additionally, The University of Maryland study found that children who watched repeat viewings of the same episode experienced higher vocabulary gains.

Together, the results highlight the impressive impact Martha Speaks is having on young children's vocabulary development. Martha Speaks has proven to be an effective and powerful television project that has served low-income families throughout the U.S. as an inexpensive means of introducing young children to key early-language and literacy experiences. On average, Martha Speaks reaches 4.7 million viewers on air each week and 800,000 visitors and 2.5 million visits online per month.  According to Nielsen Media Research, Martha Speaks continues to exceed the average household audience numbers for low-income populations. Hispanic households comprise 11% of US households, but 20% of the series' audience. Black households comprise 12% of the U.S. population, but 16% of the series' audience.

Martha Speaks was created as part of PBS KIDS Raising Readers, a national initiative using the power of public media to build the reading skills of children ages 2-8, with an emphasis on children from low-income families.  The effort was funded by a Ready To Learn grant from the U.S. Department of Education, part of a cooperative agreement with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and PBS. Martha Speaks is a production of WGBH Boston and DHX Media.  Corporate funding is provided by Chuck E. Cheese's®, Kiddie Academy® Child Care Learning Centers, and Chick-fil-A, Inc.  Additional funding provided by public television viewers.

Learn more about this research:


Information about Martha Speaks, WGBH and its partners:

(1) The report focuses on Ready To Learn-supported television programs, including "SUPER WHY," "Martha Speaks" and "The Electric Company"; interactive games; classroom materials; teaching and learning tools; and community engagement activities.


Kathryn Hathaway, 617.300.5305 kathryn_hathaway@wgbh.org