books v tv · Desmond Morris · Keith Stanovich

Desmond Morris on books v TV for toddlers

Many years ago I enjoyed very much watching Desmond Morris’, at the time, utterly captivating TV programme ‘Zoo Time‘, where he would get up to, amongst other things, all sorts of antics with a number of favourite chimpanzees. His books, The Naked Ape and Manwatching, were also great fun, if a little speculative in places. Last week, he published his latest book, Child, in which he claims, according to an interview in the Guardian, that favouring book reading to children over watching television is ‘cultural snobbery’.
Already criticised for encroaching onto biologists’ territory for his previous work, Baby, one must question the evidence on which he bases his claims. There are undoubted benefits to watching some television and Morris is surely right in saying that even quite young children can watch a film with total concentration. Many television programmes are enriching in all sorts of ways and many are just, well, plain fun! And what busy parent hasn’t just plonked their young child down in front of the TV so that they could attend to something else, like making dinner?
However, it’s easy and a bit facile to make statements like ‘films can be better than books’. Unless Morris specifies exactly what he means by ‘films’ (What kinds of films? And which films is he talking about?) and ‘better’, the statement he makes is meaningless.
Stanovich, one of my favourite researchers in the field of reading, produces a considerable weight of evidence to contradict some at least of what Morris is arguing. Quoting from the work of Hayes and Ahrens (1988, CUP), Stanovich states how relatively lexically impoverished most human speech is, as compared with the written word. Stanovich argues that ‘opportunities to acquire new words occur when an individual is exposed to a word in written or oral language that is outside their current vocabulary’. Furthermore, ‘this will happen vastly more often while reading [or being read to] than while talking or watching television’ and he goes on to point out that children’s books contain ‘50% more rare words in them than does prime time television and the conversation of college graduates’.
According to Stanovich, ‘an oral culture plus visual images (increasingly the environment of children) is no substitute for print’*.
* Quoted from Stanovich, K.E., (2000), ‘Measuring Print Exposure’, in Progress in Understanding Reading, London, The Guilford Press.