Has culturally sustained local programs in 140 countries, 

Why Sesame Street’s Impact on Language Development
is Important
By: Willow Sauermilch, MA, CCC/SLP
Did You Know?
 First aired on November 10, 1969. Began it’s 40th season in
2009 with episode number 4187.1
 Research is the cornerstone of their programming. More
than 1,000 independent academic studies have been
conducted on the effectiveness of Sesame Street making
it the most researched television program on air to date. 1
 Sesame Street is the single largest informal educator of
young children. 19
Has culturally sustained local programs in 140 countries,
including Galli Galli Sim Sim in India, Sesame Tree in
Northern Ireland, Kosovo’s Rruga Sesam (in Albanian) and
Ulica Sezam (in Serbian), Kilimani Sesame in South Africa,
and Plaza Sésamo, seen throughout Central and South
America, to name a few. 10
While mostly known for their TV program, they make use
of a variety of media including television, radio, books,
magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. 17
Teacher and parent activities are available on-line that
extend each episodes lesson into the classroom and home
How it all began
 The idea of “educational television” was first conceived
at a dinner party in 1966. Parents at the party marveled
at how their children would stare endlessly at television
test patterns waiting for programs to begin. The party
evolved into an “outpouring of ideas on how to master
the addictive qualities of television and do something
good with them” 13
 At the time, TV was free and widely available to all. 13
(Beginning in 2009, families must now have access to a
converter box.)
 In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney, a documentary filmmaker
for public television, and Lloyd Morrisett, head of
philanthropic Carnegie Corporation came together and
created Sesame Street. 13
 In 1967, research was showing that you could teach a
child a great deal before they entered first grade.
Children who had that advantageous education early did
better when they entered school than those that did
not. 13
Self mandate of educating children while entertaining
them 18
the time was considered ‘experimental’ and ‘controversial’.
Sesame Street uses a developmental curriculum instead of
one based on chronological age. A mother of a typically
developing five-year-old and a two-year-old with Down’s
Syndrome wrote a letter to the Children’s Television
Workshop describing how both of her children were
learning the alphabet by watching Sesame Street. 13
 Beginning in 1975 both children and adults with disabilities
have made appearances on Sesame Street. Sesame Street
concentrates on a person’s abilities, demonstrating that
everyone can live a productive life and accomplish their
 Guest appearances by celebrities with a disability:
Marlee Matlin (deaf), Christopher Reeve (quadriplegic), Ray
Charles (blind), and Itzhak Perlman (walks with crutches
due to polio)
 Characters with a disability: Tarah (a child in a
wheelchair who played sports and danced 1994-2001),
Traction Jackson “TJ” (computer animated boy who
appears in his wheelchair), Linda (deaf librarian appeared
1972-2003), Aristotle (blind monster Season 13 & 14),
Jason Kingsley (appeared in over 50 episodes, Down
Syndrome), and Kami (became the world’s first HIV puppet
featured on South Africa’s of version on Sesame Street,
Takalani Sesame)
Anatomy of a Podcast
 45% of children ages 5 and under in the US spend almost
as much time with new media as they do watching TV
(Internet, video and computer games, and handheld
devices). 8
The mission of the Sesame Workshop is that “all children
deserve a chance to learn and grow; to be prepared for
school; to better understand the world and each other; to
think, dream and discover; to reach their highest
potential.” 17
New this season 18
 Format: Segments are in “modules, like a pre-school Today
show” and a new modern theme song
 Digital Muppets: Abby Cadabby is now has adventures as a
computer generated CGI cartoon
 Use of Screen Media: Elmo can watch Grover lead a frog
hunt on his computer similar to watching a YouTube video
An estimated 12 million children tune into Sesame Street
each week 7
More than 60 percent of families with incomes of $25,000
or less report their children age 5 or younger view Sesame
Street at least once a week. 6
Area of Disability
 Emily Perl Kingsley, a Sesame Street writer, became an
advocate for those with disabilities, particularly after she
gave birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome in 1974.
Doctors told her to institutionalize her son immediately
before a bond was established, as he would “never be able
to sit or stand or walk or read or write”. Instead, Kingsley
enrolled her son in an early intervention program that at
On average, 68% of all children under 2 years of age use
“screen” media (TV, video, DVD, computer, video games) a
little over two hours every day. 9
In 2008, Sesame Street podcasts and other digital
content have been streamed or downloaded more than 30
million times. 10
Literacy and Numeracy
 Goal: Prepare kids for academic success
 Initiatives: Rural Literacy (Early literacy skills), Word on
the Street (Building vocabulary & leap into literacy),
Happy Healthy Ready for School (Preparing kids for
school through daily learning experiences), Learning is
Everywhere (Teaching skills during daily routines),
Talking Cents (Financial basics)
 Sponsored by the letter “B”
 Literacy Skills (PLS-4 Items)
 R57 – Identifies initial sounds (“Find the picture that
begins with the /p/ sound like “pig”)
 R59 – Understands rhyming sounds (“I want you to
find the one that rhymes with fun.”)
 R62 – Makes grammaticality judgements (“The girl
can ate cookies. Does that OK or not OK?”)
 E60 – Repairs semantic absurdities (“He eats soup
with a spoon. Change it so it makes sense.”)
 E61 – Defines words (“Tell me two things about
 E62 – Repairs grammatical errors (“The girl can going
home. What should I have said?”)
 E63 – Rhymes words (“Think of a word that rhymes
with bright?”)
 E64 – Segments words (“If I take away the boy in
cowboy, what word is left?")
 E65 – Tells a story in sequence, using grammatically
correct sentences
E66 – Tells a story with introduction, sequence, and
Numeracy Skills (PLS-4 Items)
 R30 - Understands part/whole relationships (door of
the car, nose of the dog)
 R33 – Understands quantity concepts (one, some,
rest, all)
 E39 – Uses quantity concepts (“Can you count
 R36 – Identifies colors
 R40 – Understands more or most (“These girls were
picking apples. Which girl picked more apples?”)
 R43 – Understands qualitative concepts (star,
square, circle, triangle)
 R51 – Understands quantity concepts (numbers)
 R52 – Indicates body parts (elbow, forehead,
eyelashes, wrist)
 R54 – Orders pictures from largest to smallest
 R55 – Understands quantity concepts (half, whole)
 R56 – Understands time/sequence concepts (first,
 E59 – Counts items and gives correct number
 R58 – Understands quantitative concepts (each)
 R60 – Adds and subtracts numbers to five
 E51 – Uses qualitative concepts (short, long)
 E68 – Expresses quantity (empty, more)
Emotional Wellbeing
 Goal: Foster a sense of resilience and flexibility in an
ever-changing world with the support of friends and
 Initiatives: Families Stand Together (Navigating tough
financial times), Talk Listen Connect (Supporting
children of the military), Let’s Get Ready! (Planning for
emergencies), Here For You (Helping children cope with
serious illness) Almost 800,000 children under age 5 in the United
States have a parent or parents on active military duty
or in the National Guard and Reserves. 12
“It was a product that was desperately needed. We realized we had to put together
some programs for the children because we understood that helping the war fighter
meant taking care of the children as well,” says Navy Commander Russell Shilling,
an advisor on psychological health at Defense Center of Excellence and a
collaborator on Talk, Listen, Connect. 21
Emotional Wellbeing (PLS-4 Items)
R35 – Identifies negatives in sentences (“Look at all the
babies. Show me the baby who is not crying.”)
E36 – Produces basic four- to five-word sentences (“Tell
me about your pets/toys/brother/sister/baby”)
E46 – Completes analogies (“When I’m sad I cry, but
when I’m happy I…”)
E55 – Formulates meaningful, grammatically correct
questions (asking questions to a family member –
mother, sister, father - “Kathy wants to play outside.
What could she ask her father?”)
Oscar the Grouch – a character that was developed to
show that “it wasn’t necessary to be cheerful all the
time. If you make him happy he hates that, which
makes him unhappy, but being unhappy makes him
happy but that makes him unhappy, etc, etc.” 18
Health and Wellness
 80% of obese children, become obese before the age of 6
“A cookie is a sometimes food!” 10
Goal: Develop lifelong healthy habits as good health
helps learning and development
Initiatives: Healthy Habits for Life, A is for Asthma, and
Lead Away
Health and Wellness (PLS-4 Items)
R23 – Identifies body parts (nose, eyes, foot, hands,
mouth, tummy, ear, head)
R24 – Understands verbs in context (Thirsty, Hungry,
Tired; “The bear is thirsty. Give him something to
R25 – Identifies clothing items (shoes, shirt, shorts,
skirt, socks)
E41 – Answers questions logically (“Her hands are dirty.
What would you do if your hands were dirty?”)
E42 – Uses words that describe physical state (“The bear
wants something to eat. He hasn’t had dinner. How do
you think the bear feels?”)
E48 – Responds to “why” questions (“Why do we wear
Respect and Understanding
 Goal: Help kids expand social interaction by
understanding the diversity of the world around them
by exploring different cultures and traditions, as well as
the wider world through science.
 Initiatives: Adventures of Grover and Khokha (Arab
cultures, heritage, and traditions), One World One Sky
(Astronomy and a love of science), Global Grover (World
culture), and Panwapa (Global citizenship)
Respect and Understanding (PLS-4 Items)
 R22 – Understands inhibitory words (“wait!”, “my turn!”,
or “stop!”)
 E23 – Uses vocalizations/gestures to request toys or
food (“What do you want?”)
 E28 – Asks questions (“Where’s the toy?”)
 R28 – Understands several pronouns (Having a teddy
bear picnic – “Give a cup to the bear”, “You take a
spoon. Now give a spoon to me”)
 R29 – Understands use of objects (“Show me what you
use to cook food?”)
 E29 – Uses words for a variety of pragmatic functions
 E33 – Answers “what” and “where” questions
 R37 – Makes inferences (“Charlie played outside and got
his shoes wet. What was it like outside?”)
E38 – Tells how an object is used (“Tell me what you do
with a towel?”)
E45 – Responds to “where” questions (“Where do you
R45 – Understands –er ending as one who… (skater,
painter, teacher)
R46 – Understands time concepts (night, day)
E53 – Uses –er ending to indicate one who… (farmer,
teacher, winner)
R61 – Understands time concepts (seasons)
One in three of the world’s 115 million primary-age children
who are not in school lives in an area affected by conflict. 23
Format and Research
 Sesame Street programming targets four content areas:
Literacy & Numeracy, Respect & Understanding,
Emotional Wellbeing, and Health & Wellness. Each
content area is supported by initiates or specialized
areas of focus. 3
 Target initiatives have advisory boards staffed with
professionals from a variety of fields that serve to these
include…Scientists, Pediatricians, Government
Agencies, University Professors, Educators, Directors of
Non-Profit Agencies, Military Personnel, Psychologist,
Social Workers, and a Speech-Language Pathologist
from ASHA to name a few.
This format continues in coproductions of Sesame
Street around the world. Programming aims to share an
understanding of cultural, ethnic, and religious
diversity, such as Shara’a Simsim in Gaza and the West
Bank, Rechov Sumsum in Israel, and Rruga Sesam and
Ulica Sezam in Kosovo. 3 Kilimani Sesame in Tanzania
aims to educate children in order to reduce the spread
of malaria. Malaria is the single greatest cause of
sickness and death in children under the age of 5 in
Tanzania. 10
Disadvantaged children in the United States learn
15,000 fewer words by the time they reach first grade
than their more advantaged peers. 5
“What’s the Word on the Street?” was launched to
address this disadvantage. Sesame Street strives to
increase vocabulary skills by introducing new words
and practicing them in multiple contexts. 10
The Preschool Language Scale – 4th Edition 22
 Written by Irla Lee Zimmerman, Ph.D.; Violette G.
Steiner, BS; and Roberta Evatt Pond, MA
 Assessments available in English and Spanish
 Assessment age: Birth to 6 years, 11 months
 Publication date: 2002
 Standardization sample is based on information from
the 2000 US Census. The sample includes…
39.1% Ethnic minorities
13.2% Individuals with special conditions
(articulation, developmental delay, hearing
impairment, language disorder, Autism)
50% female and 50% male
Parent education level, geographic region, ethnicity,
child learning environment, and English dialects are
also accounted factored.
Learning Language
ASHA’s current Treatment Efficacy Summary for Child
Language Disorders reports that 7% of preschool and
school-aged children exhibit a language impairment that
may impact their academic, social, and emotional
development. 25
Using Motherese15
What is Motherese? It’s the way that a mother talks to
her young child using simplified verbalizations. This
Talking about things in the present
A simplified vocabulary
Paraphrasing information
Presenting well-formed sentences
Frequent repetitions
Slow rate of speech with long pauses between
Mean Length of Utterance
 Average MLU for a Sesame Street segment was 6.91 15
 Average MLU for a Mr. Roger’s segment was 7.42 15
 MLU used by kindergarten teachers directed to students
was 7.52-8.80 25
 MLU used by kindergarten teachers talking to other
adults was 11.78-18.48 25
 MLU used by a mother to a 3 year old child was 6.95 26
 MLU for adults talking to other adults was 13.8 26
Language Use of Sesame Street
 Verb usage: Of the sample segment, 77% were present
tense verbs, 12% were past tense verbs, and 11% were
future tense verbs 15
 Type Token Ration (ratio of different words used to total
words used) was comparable to that used by children 34 years of age (.45) 15
 Question usage: Of the sample segment, 27% were
considered reversals (ex: “Are you coming?”, 22% were
rising intonation (ex: “You want it?”) and 51% were WH
questions (ex: “What is that?”). 15
 58% of the time, Sesame Street characters talked about
events that were occurring on the screen. 15
 3% of utterances were directed to the audience at home,
such as “Now, which one is this one?” Long pauses are
presented allowing for viewer response prior to the
answer. 15
Emphasis of key words during verbalizations – on
average one per utterance. 15
Long Term Effects
 Kids who watched Sesame Street at age 5, reported that
they spent more time reading for leisure as teenagers. 19
 Children who watched more Sesame Street at age 5
demonstrated better grades in high school, particularly
in English, Math, and Science. 19
Sesame Street provides a variety of speech/language
models including developmentally appropriate models,
including Baby Bear, Cookie Monster, and Elmo. Associate
research director Istar Schwager stated that “children learn
from a variety of sources -- including other Sesame Street
characters who speak properly.” 16
Additional Resources:
(1) Moore, F. (2009, November 9). Big Bird's still huge as
Sesame Street hits 40. The Houston Chronicle.
Retrieved November 9, 2009 from
(2) Advisory Board (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2009,
from Website:
(3) Initiates (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2009, from
Website: http://www.sesameworkshop.org/initiatives
(4) Our Process (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2009, from
(5) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York, NY: Author (L. Moats, Overcoming
the Language Gap. American Educator, September 5-9,
(6) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York, NY: Author. (Sesame Workshop, The
Media Utilization Study, 2007).
(7) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York, NY: Author (Sesame Workshop, The
Media Utilization Study, 2007.)
(8) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York, NY: Author (Sesame Workshop,
Sesame Street Brand Tracking, 2008.)
(9) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York, NY: Author. (Sesame Workshop,
Sesame Street Brand Tracking, 2009.)
(10) V. Rideout, D.F. Roberts, U.G. Foehr, Generation M:
Media in the Lives of 8 - 18 Year-olds, The Henry J.
Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005.
(11) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York,
NY: Author (NHANES, “Data on the Prevalence of
Overweight Among Children and Adolescents,”
Pediatrics 115 (2005): 348–51.)
(12) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York,
NY: Author (Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of
Defense (Military Community and Family Policy). 2005
Demographics Profile of the Military Community.
Washington, DC: Office of the Deputy Under Secretary
of Defense; 2005.
http://cs.mhf.dod.mil/content/dav/mhf/QOLLibrary/PDF/MHF/QOL Resources/Reports/2005
Report.pdf. Accessed August 25, 2008., as cited in:
Chartrand et al, “Effect of Parent’s Wartime
Deployment on the Behavior of Young Children in
Military Families” in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine,
vol. 162, no. 11, November 2008. Available at
(13) Davis, M. (2008). Street Gang: The Complete History of
Sesame Street.
New York: Penguin Group
(14) Christakis, D. A., et al. 2009. Audible Television and
Decreased Adult
Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational
Turns. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine,
163, (6), 554-558.
(15) Rice, M., & Haight, P., (1986) “Motherese” of Mr.
Rogers: A Description of
the Dialogue of Educational Television Programs.
Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders. 51, 282287.
(16) Sesame Street Magazine. (1985, May). Issue 144.
Retrieved November 14,
2009, from Website:
(17)Sesame Workshop At A Glance. (n.d.). Retrieved March
15, 2009, from the
World Wide Web:
(18) Gross, T. (Interviewer). (2009, November 6). Fresh Air.
In Miller, D.
(Producer). Washington D.C.: National Public Radio.
(19) Truglio, R. & Fisch, S. (2001). “G” is for growing:
Thirty years of research
on children and Sesame Street. Mahwah: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates.
(20) Tarah Schaeffer (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2009,
from website:
(21) Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Military Families During
Transitions (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2009,
from Website:
(22) Zimmerman, I.L., Steiner, V.G., & Pond, R.E. (2002).
Preschool Language Scale Fourth
Edition, Examiner's Maunal. San Antonio: The
Psychological Corporation.
(23) Sesame Workshop. (2008). Sesame Workshop Annual
Report. New York,
NY: Author (Save the Children, Rewrite the Future:
Education for Children in Conflict-Affected Countries
(London: International Save the Children Alliance,
(24) American Speech-Language Hearing Association
Treatment Efficacy
Summary for Child Language Disorders (n.d.).
Retrieved November 15, 2009, from website:
(25) Granowsky, S., and Krossner, W. (1970) Kindergarten
teachers as models
of children’s speech. The Journal of Experimental
Education, 38, 23-29.
(26) Bohannon, J., & Marquis, A. (1977). Children’s control
of adult speech.
Child Development, 48, 1002-1008.
(27) Sesame Street (2009). Hip Hip Hooray for School!
Activity Book. Learning
Horizons, Inc.
(28) Albee, S. (2000). Watch Out for Banana Peels and
Other Sesame Street
Safety Tips. New York: Random House.
(29) Tarah [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14,
2009 from
(30) Linda [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14,
2009 from
(31) Kami [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14,
2009 from
(32) Oscar the Grouch [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved
November 15, 2009
(33) Baby Bear [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved November
15, 2009 from
(34) Elmo [Online Image]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15,
2009 from
(35) Sesame Street Podcast: Play (2009, September 14).
Podcast retrieved
from itunes.com
(36) Videos. Sesame Street. PBS Kids. (2009, November 14).
What’s the Word
on the Street: Amazing [Video File]. Video posted to