​Watching TV and young children’s vocabulary development

One of the most frequent question I receive is whether watching TV develops children’s vocabulary. It is an important question since nowadays children seem to spend more and more time watching media e.g. TV, YouTube or Netflix.

The issue is of particular interest for parents of bilingual children’s since watching TV appears to be a great way of developing English language.

Frankly,  it is also the question I ask myself whenever I watch my son Oskar glued to his favourite clips on YouTube. I would like to think that time he spends watching TV is not wasted. Indeed, Oskar occasionally can surprise me with new words such as assassin, annihilate or mayhem. However, such words say more about the content he watches than the potential educational effectiveness of media for vocabulary development.

So what does research say about watching TV by young children?

There has been a long and heated debate about the role of TV in children’s formative years on cognitive development, language and academic achievement. In general, the findings are mixed and not conclusive. However, there have been more studies suggesting negative or neutral effect of watching TV on language and vocabulary than positive!

The emerging picture suggests that:

  • Educational programs e.g Sesame Street might have a small positive effect on language and vocabulary development
  • Children benefit more from educational programs if they watch them together with their parents
  • Low quantity of watching educational programs might be associated with some benefits, however heavy viewing (more than 2 hrs a day) tends to produce negative effects
  • Cartoons have neither positive nor negative effect on children’s language and vocabulary!
  • Watching non-educational programs does not contribute to children’s vocabulary development
  • Children watching TV extensively have usually lower vocabulary scores than children who watch little TV
  • Background TV affects negatively children listening and speaking skills and parent-initiated interaction
  • For many children TV is the main source of language and vocabulary at home
  • Evidence of effectiveness of educational programs on very young children’s (0-3) is very limited and highly contested

At the same time research suggests that:

  • Watching TV negatively affects children’s shorter attention span, is linked with obesity, might cause aggression and deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Children often watch unsuitable content and not age-appropriate 
  • Many shows ‘over-stimulate’ children
  • TV has negative effect on children’s interaction with parents and siblings
  • TV has an addictive effect on children

What does it all mean for parents of bilingual children?

Firstly that quality of the content children watch matters. It seems that only carefully selected educational programs might be OK for children’s language and vocabulary. Unfortunately, good news finishes here.

There are several problems related to so-called ‘quality educational programs’. It is hard to say what they actually are. Many children’s shows are promoted as ‘educational and effective’. However, there is limited or non-existing evidence of their effectiveness. Even relatively well-researched programs e.g. Sesame Street are associated with both positive and negative effects.

Furthermore, most of educational  programs (e.g. CBeebies)  emphasise the importance of the joint TV watching experiences. Here is the problem. How often do parents watch TV together with their children?

I let my son watch TV when I am really busy and I need to focus on important stuff. If I want to spend quality time with my son, TV is never the choice. Many parents let their children watch TV to rest and charge their own batteries.  It means that children often watch TV on their own which is rarely associated with positive effects on language and vocabulary.

Contrary to the  to common assumptions watching TV might not be as good for children’s language and vocabulary as many parents would love to believe.

What about English language learners?

Some parents might disagree with the last statement since they could swear their children learnt English watching cartoons or movies. Yes, there are several studies suggesting that watching TV might be indeed more beneficial for English language learners. Before we jump to hasty conclusions, we have to remember that English language learners don’t constitute a homogeneous group.

Crudely, we can divide young English language learners into two basic groups:

  • children who live in countries where English is not used as an official language (e.g. Poland, Spain, Italy, China)
  • children who live in the UK/Ireland/USA and learn English as an additional language since their parents speak a different language at home

Watching cartoons and shows in English is clearly beneficial for children from the first group. Children in this group tend to struggle with communicative proficiency in English (due to limited exposure to oral language) and watching TV does help.

However, this blog addressed the needs of the second group i.e. children learning English as an additional language in the UK Ireland/USA. Unfortunately, for this group of children, watching TV is not the best method of developing English proficiency.

Let me explain this.

Imagine a family where parents chose not to speak English at home or themselves speak very limited English. Either way preschool children are exposed to very little English at home. In this case, It is obvious that TV will contribute to English development. It is the stage in which children learn so-called BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills). As a reminder, BICS is the language children need in social situation e.g to interact with other children. English language learners acquire BICS independently (withing 2-3 years) by playing and interacting with other children.  Watching TV develops children’s language and vocabulary they would learn anyway in the playground and classroom.

The problem is that BICS is not the biggest challenge children learning English as an additional language face,.
The biggest challenge for English language learners is developing CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). CALP is a cognitively demanding academic language, children need for learning and reading. It is the language children need to be taught.  Children learning English as an Additional Language need approximately 5 to 7 years to  master CALP.

The real question is whether TV teaches children CALP? Unfortunately,  the resounding answer is NO.
Teaching CALP, more demanding academic vocabulary and conceptual knowledge requires much more than ‘flat’ source of language input offered by TV. Teaching CALP requires very specific instructional approaches such as spaced repetition, multiple encounters, deep processing, working within children Zone of Proximal Development, skillful scaffolding and employing children pre-existing knowledge an e experiences. TV cannot do any of those things very well.

As far as I am concerned I think that  watching TV is detrimental for two other reason:

  • Many programs seem to ‘over-stimulate’ children in order to catch their attention and teach. It is dangerous since TV might rewire children’s brains in the long run. Let’s be honest, watching TV is not the most intellectually demanding activity. It is so easy for children to switch their brains off  and  become little zombies glued to TV. If we want to develop children’s cognitive capabilities we need to challenge them. Here is the problem, once children started watching TV, they are not very willing to engage in more demanding activities that require their sustained attention.
  • The more children watch TV at home the less time they spend on reading, discussions and play with parents (Displacement Hypothesis). Since there is no doubt whatsoever about effectiveness of reading for vocabulary, knowledge and comprehension (an no negative effects associated), it is no brainer, watching TV should be limited. 

However, we need to be also realistic, TV (or other forms of media) is to stay, and children will watch it.

Guidelines for parents:

  • Don’t think about watching TV as an educational activity. 
  • Children 0-3, no TV watching
  • No TV in child’s bedroom
  • Children 4-6 one-two hours a day might be reasonable if the right content and conditions
  • Use TV to support child’s support weaker language and develop BICS skills
  • If you record shows your child watch, you will have more control over viewing patterns
  • Lead by example, if you watch TV a few hours a day, don’t be surprised your child does watch TV too.
  • Establish appropriate usage patterns in early life
  • Avoid solitary viewing
  • Replace TV with reading, discussions and play
  • Link TV and reading
  • Watch together and discuss the content
  • Ask child who watched the show on himself to retell the content
  • Stop video, use ads time to discuss the content
  • Watch together  and turn it off 
  • Don’t let YouTube end up as a parent
  • Parents should pay close attention to what children watch


At the beginning of this blogpost I pointed that the research links watching TV with health issues and behavioural problems. That should be enough to persuade most of parents to limit TV viewing at home. When we add to this that TV does not seem to be the best way to develop children’s language and vocabulary, it is obvious that TV should never be a  substitute for reading activities, discussions with parents and play.

If you think your child need help with communicative English and/or home language skills,  TV might help. However, its effectiveness will depend on quality of content your child watches.