Use TV Subtitles To Boost Literacy

Could TV subtitles help children with their reading?

Justine Greening thinks parents who lack confidence in reading should turn on television subtitles to improve their children’s literacy.

She was speaking at a social mobility summit in the US and highlighted the use of TV subtitles as a “practical” thing that parents could do to improve their children’s prospects.

As soon as the ex-education secretary had said her piece people scrambled to poo-poo her ideas saying “it wasn’t that easy”.

No, it isn’t but it’s something that can work. The National Literacy Trust supported her comments and called on broadcasters to automatically subtitle children’s TV programmes as a way of improving reading skills.

Director of the NLT, Jonathan Douglas pointed to some international evidence finding that same-language subtitles could be “beneficial” in building literacy.

In fact, extensive research has been completed over the last 30 years by Dr.Brij Kothari, Greg McCall, Susan Homan, Dr. Alice Killackey and many others, that clearly demonstrates the link between the use of subtitles and the improvement in reading and literacy skills such as:

  • Reading speed and fluency
  • Word knowledge
  • Decoding
  • Vocabulary acquisition
  • Word recognition
  • Reading comprehension
  • Oral reading rates

Over 100 empirical studies have found that captioning a video improves comprehension of, attention to, and memory for the video.

Research by Perego et al (2010) shows that when children watch TV with subtitles their eyes are continually drawn to the subtitles,

“Novel results were instead obtained on the effectiveness of subtitle processing (in particular on scene recognition capacity) and on the absence of a trade-off between image processing and subtitle processing. Furthermore, we observed that more fixation time was devoted to subtitle reading than to the visual analysis of the film scenes, but fixations on visuals were longer than fixations on subtitles. This suggests that participants, while watching the film, read the subtitles in order to understand the story, but they did not perform an extensive exploration of the overall visual scene, focusing instead their attention only on the most informative or visually salient elements.”

Watch and listen to former US President Bill Clinton in the following video recognising the value same-language subtitling pointing out research that indicated that the use of Subtitles on television doubled the number of functional early-age readers.

Too Busy To Read

The idea that subtitles or closed captions could be used to boost reading skills isn’t a new idea and has been suggested before as a way of helping tired parents too busy to read with their children.

In 2006, America’s foremost expert on reading aloud, Jim Trelease, argued that children aged over eight years old should watch TV without sound so they can only understand their favourite programme by reading the text on the screen.

TV subtitles, help English language learners significantly improve grammar, vocabulary, listening skills, word recognition, and reading comprehension. For example, it is no coincidence that Finland has the highest reading scores of any children. Why? This is because it imports a lot of English language programmes and they are subtitled.

The key challenge is convincing others that subtitles are worth it.

In her brilliant paper, Morton Ann Gernsbacher (2015) says that subtitles benefit everyone and she does a fine job of bringing together various research and makes the point,

With so many studies documenting the benefits of captions, why does everyone not always turn on the captions every time they watch a video? Regrettably, the benefits of captions are not widely known. Some researchers are unaware of the wide-ranging benefits of captions because the empirical evidence is published across separate literatures (deaf education, second-language learning, adult literacy, and reading acquisition).

One thought on “Use TV Subtitles To Boost Literacy

  • June 22, 2018 at 10:56 am

    Well, You wrote: “Could TV subtitles help children with their reading?”

    I am a senior citizen who learns foreign languages. When seeing for example German TV shows, I put on subtitles. Thus, I quickly learn to pronounce the language and understand better shows.

    This is useful for adults. I know many languages and my blog is in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. None of these languages is not my mother tongue. I understand also German and Swedish.

    When I started to learn French in the 70s, I translated ten books with my dictionary. Hard job but useful.

    Happy Midsummer.


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