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Friday, Sept. 28, 2001

Sesame Street for better English learning


Special to The Japan Times

The creators of "Sesame Street" are developing new content and materials to make the highly successful children's television program more useful for Japanese children learning English.

Television is "the most powerful teaching instrument ever invented," says Gary Knell, head of Sesame Workshop.

Aired on NHK for the past 30 years, "Sesame Street" has long been used by Japanese as a way to study English. In April of this year, the public television station introduced a new program called "Sesame Eigo World," developed specifically for teaching English as a foreign language.

This is the first step in an ambitious plan to build "Sesame Street" into a multimedia tool for learning English. On a recent trip to Tokyo, top executives of Sesame Workshop spoke to The Japan Times about their strategy for Japan. "Although we have long recognized that 'Sesame Street' is widely used in Japan for English learning, we resolved several years ago to work with NHK to make 'Sesame Street' even more relevant to Japanese families," explained Gary Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop).

Three years ago, Sesame Workshop and NHK convened a meeting of Japanese child-development experts and teachers of English as a foreign language to seek advice on how to improve the program. Based in part on this input, Sesame Workshop decided to create new content to help children learn English in a fun and effective way.

The Jim Henson Company developed a new muppet character, Tingo, especially for the task. Tingo, who looks something like a tiger, is impulsive and curious, and eager to learn from his American friend, Kiki. In Japan, Tingo speaks English and Japanese. In other countries where the show airs, including China, the show is called "Sesame English" and Tingo speaks English and the local language.

Each episode teaches expressions used in everyday conversation (e.g., "Good night" and "What's this?") as well as useful vocabulary. The show also introduces phrases and expressions that elicit a response, such as "Look at me" or "Put on your coat." Simple grammar is taught, along with the alphabet and numbers from one to 20.

The curriculum uses themes that are familiar and interesting to children, including families, friends, pets, toys, food and weather.

"Our aim is to make the English-learning experience effective and enjoyable for Japanese families," Knell said. While making the changes, Sesame Workshop was careful to preserve "what has made the program so successful in Japan," he said, explaining that Japanese viewers see "Sesame Street" as "a window on America."

"Sesame Street" is now broadcast in 148 countries with 20 international coproductions to suit local languages, customs and educational needs. "We are the best-known teachers of children in the world," Knell asserted.

Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit organization, but it does not solicit donations. Instead, the organization raises revenue through business ventures and licensing agreements, plowing all earnings back into developing new programming.

The workshop has relationships with several Japanese companies, including Sony Creative Products Inc. for toys and goods and Berlitz Language Schools for a "Sesame Street"-based curriculum for teaching English to children. Knell was in Tokyo with Martha van Gelder, Sesame Workshop's vice president for international products and television distribution. Van Gelder was here seeking partners to help develop new "Sesame Street" products for the Japanese market, particularly in publishing and interactive media. One possible venture is a "Sesame Street" magazine, perhaps designed as a companion to the television program.

Japan is an excellent market for "Sesame Street" books, according to van Gelder, who stressed the organization's experience in developing children's books, with about 90 percent of U.S. homes with preschoolers owning at least one "Sesame Street" book.

Sesame Workshop has moved into providing online content through its Web site ( www.sesamestreet.com ) and interactive TV ventures, and is exploring the possibility of developing "Sesame Street" content specifically for i-mode cell phone technology.

Van Gelder hopes to work with corporations interested in developing public-service materials for Japanese children and their families.

"We have a lot of experience in custom publishing -- developing materials that use the 'Sesame Street' characters to encourage children to adopt positive behaviors such as using seat belts," she explained.

Sesame Workshop has three new children's television programs that it would like to introduce in Japan, possibly on commercial stations.

"Dragon Tales," produced with Sony Pictures Family Entertainment, premiered on U.S. public television in 1999 and soon became one of the top three preschool shows on U.S. television. The show portrays a magical world where characters overcome obstacles and face their fears. The strength of the show, according to Knell, is that it engages and entertains preschoolers while offering them strategies for meeting the challenges of everyday life.

Sesame Workshop also developed "Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat," a program adapted from the book by author Amy Tan. Another new program, "Tiny Planets," features computer-generated animation and teaches science and problem-solving skills to young children.

"Television is the most powerful teaching instrument ever invented," Knell said, recalling that "Sesame Street" was launched 32 years ago in the United States in an effort to "use television for something positive, to build bridges between people and to teach."

"Sesame Street" is broadcast every Saturday on NHK's Channel 3 from 7:35 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and is repeated the same day from 4 p.m. to 4:55 p.m. The program is dubbed in Japanese, with the original English broadcast on the secondary audio channel.


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