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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue B ::: October 2001

What is TV411?

TV411 is a series of 30-minute television shows broadcast on enough PBS and cable stations to reach half the households in the United States. Modeled after popular television genres, the show's major themes are parenting, money, and health. Each half-hour episode is in a magazine format, with five or six major segments that cover a range of reading, writing, and math activities situated within themes and settings of concern to adult learners. While the varied genre and topic format works for broadcast by ensuring enough different segment styles and themes to appeal to a wide audience, teachers, tutors, and facilitators often choose a segment or a series of segments from different shows to conform  to their specific class themes and projects. To date, 20 half-hour episodes of TV411 have been produced, each available in video with an accompanying magazine-style workbook.

TV411 is a "how to" show: it models how to learn. The approach  to learning is active and strategic; the content demonstrates and explains literacy practices in context, such as two co-workers figuring out payroll deductions. The print material provides structured opportunity to practice the skills demonstrated in the show; for example, the components of a paycheck are examined in the workbook section related to the paycheck video segment. The show is aimed at pre-GED and intermediate- to advanced-English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) adult learners, although some practitioners have adapted its use for beginning readers and lower-level ESOL students.

The contents of Episode One give the flavor of TV411. This show opens with Question Man, a comic figure who recurs throughout the series and models asking questions in unlikely places. In Episode One, he asks a toll booth clerk for help in boosting his vocabulary and receives a short lesson in using a thesaurus while angry commuters roll their eyes behind him. Next, in Word Up, poet and teacher Steve Coleman delivers a rap-like poem about synonyms and antonyms. Pop Quiz, a multiple- choice question that focuses on general information, such as average life expectancy, follows. Pop quiz creates a comfortable, fun way to practice multiple choice questions. Following is a Milestone segment, a short documentary that tells the story of an adult learner. In Episode One, Dallas Farmer, now the owner of an auto repair shop, recounts his learning journey in his own words. Not surprisingly, Milestones are the most popular segments among adult learners. Personal Portfolio is next: a four-minute segment on  compiling a personal dossier of accomplishments. Its message is that even individuals without work histories can describe their accomplishments to an employer. The setting is a real job search class in a New York City settlement house. Then comes Laverne, played by actress Liz Torres. Laverne is a clerk in the Big Store, a K-Mart-like place where she helps co-workers and customers with such challenges as determining unit pricing, reading food labels, writing a message on a blank card, estimating the cost of a painting job, and filling out a credit application. In the first show, she helps a co-worker calculate the amount of taxes taken out of her check by illustrating with lunch: a quartered pizza. The final segment features singer Michael Franti in an MTV-like Words Behind the Music segment. In these segments, famous singers describe their writing processes. Franti talks about the fear of writing, writing blocks, and writing tricks and techniques he uses to make his writing come alive. The show closes with Buzzword, a definition of a word used in the show that takes less than a minute and is part of every episode.

TV411 In Print provides structured opportunities to practice the reading, writing, and math skills featured in the show. Each issue contains a deconstruction of a commonly used document or type of prose; for example, readers might encounter the parts of a newspaper article, a job application, a resume, or a business letter. "Words to Know" features vocabulary strategies. The "How to" pages explain how to tackle common learning challenges, such as taking a test, editing your work, reading critically, or keeping a journal. In "Learn About," readers explore such topics as learning styles, reading to children, making  a budget, and putting together a family album. "Good Reading / Good Writing" contains a piece of writing related to the show and a writing exercise for readers. The "Brush Up" section contains mini-lessons on such topics as punctuation, spelling, reference books, or reading hard words. In "People," the final feature, readers can learn about the Milestones subjects, the singers in "Words Behind the Music," or the authors in the show's book club. The back page provides a checklist of the activities in the issue with which learners can keep track of what they've done for their portfolios. It also features a cartoon and various kinds of quick quizzes, as well as ALMA contact information.

TV411's web site, expected  to debut by 2002, will be highly interactive. Visitors will be able to read profiles of adult learners and the show's celebrities, write poetry, improve spelling, calculate their own paychecks, etc. Learning games, a way to keep a portfolio of work, chat rooms, and topical guest speakers will also be features.

Although using the web and print materials along with watching the show provides the deepest TV411 experience, any part of these components can be understood and used by learners on its own. Because the show is iterative and recursive, learners can enter the materials at any episode and not feel they have missed something.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL