Captioning to Support Literacy

Captioning to Support Literacy

One motivating, engaging, and inexpensive way to help build the foundational reading skills of students is through the use of closed-captioned and subtitled television shows and movies. These supports can help boost foundational reading skills, such as phonics, word recognition, and fluency.


Captions can provide struggling readers with additional print exposure, improving foundational reading skills.

In a typical classroom, a teacher may find many students who are struggling readers, whether they are beginning readers, students with language-based learning disabilities, or English Language Learners (ELLs). One motivating, engaging, and inexpensive way to help build the foundational reading skillsof students is through the use of closed-captioned and subtitled television shows and movies.

These supports can help boost foundational reading skills, such as phonics, word recognition, and fluency, for a number of students. Given the wide (and inexpensive) availability of captioned and subtitled media on broadcast television, on DVDs, and online, it can be a valuable addition to your teaching of diverse learners.

Using captioning in your classroom

Presenting information in multiple ways can help address the diverse needs of learners in the classroom and engage students on multiple levels.

The use of captioned or subtitled media can be a great tool for teachers looking to differentiate classroom instruction. Consider using captioned or subtitled media whenever and wherever you use video in your teaching; turning on captions during class has considerable benefits for boosting the literacy skills of all students, especially those with print disabilities or ELLs.

Many struggling readers avoid text, and so have minimal exposure to print. Imagine the many additional hours of print exposure your students would get if captions were turned on every time they watched a video at home and at school!

Provide multiple means of representation

  • For students who are learning English, captioned media can help improve vocabulary acquisition, listening comprehension, and word recognition and decoding skills. Using captioned videos can help ensure that these students access important material.
  • For students who are struggling readers, seeing and hearing unfamiliar words can help improve their understanding of the material and important vocabulary words.
  • If your students are very low-level readers, consider using videos aimed at a younger audience or those that relate to their areas of interest—for example, an animated action series or film or pop culture content, such as interviews with musicians and actors. Entertaining, brief videos tend to have less challenging vocabulary and your students will still receive the literacy benefits of reading while listening.

Provide multiple means of engagement

  • Providing information both textually and through the use of video (where appropriate) can be motivating for your students. Because we naturally read text that appears on a screen, using captions and subtitles can help boost literacy skills in a fun and engaging way.
  • Consider recommending that students (and caregivers) turn on captions or subtitles at home to maximize exposure to print.

What the research says

Several studies (e.g., Bowe & Kaufman, 2001; Evmenova, 2008; Linebarger, 2001; Rickelman, Henk, & Layton, 1991) indicate that captioning and subtitles can help strengthen the following reading skills of students with learning disabilities, ELLs, and struggling or beginning readers:

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

Research has shown that watching videos appears to have a positive impact on comprehension skills, and combining viewing with text or captions appears to boost vocabulary acquisition, addressing skill deficits of struggling readers (Koskinen, Wilson, Gambrell, & Neuman, 1993; Koskinen, Knable, Markham, Jensema, & Kane 1995; Linebarger, 2001). Although most students do well with captioned media, the speed of captions could potentially pose a problem for very young children or struggling readers (Koskinen et al., 1993). For particularly low-level readers, teachers may want to consider using captioned television or movies where vocabulary is less likely to be difficult, such as those where the main characters are children or teenagers, animated movies, family programs, or movies with young children in the cast (Goldman, 1993).

For students who are learning English (or another language), captioned and subtitled media also can have benefits. This strategy has been shown to be more effective at improving overall listening comprehension than noncaptioned movies. Students who watch captioned videos to learn a foreign language have shown improvement in reading and listening comprehension, word recognition, decoding skills, motivation, and vocabulary acquisition (Evmenova, 2008; Goldman, 1993; King, 2002; Koskinen et al., 1995; Neuman, 1990; Shea, 2000). The use of multimedia to teach a foreign language can also help motivate students and remove some of the anxiety of not knowing the language (Huang & Eskey, 1999; King, 2002; Neuman, 1990; Shea, 2000).

Students consistently report increased engagement and enjoyment of captioned media over other options (e.g., print, uncaptioned media). Even in studies that have not found a significant improvement in academic objectives when using closed-captioned media have still determined that students report preferring captions (Evmenova, 2008; Holmes, Russell, & Movitz, 2007; Koskinen et al., 1993; Linebarger, 2001; Rickelman et al., 1991; Spanos & Smith, 1990). Because of this finding, captioned media also may have an effect on students' nonacademic skills such as time-on-task, motivation, and behavior as they find classroom reading activities to be more enjoyable (Evmenova, 2008; Koskinen et al., 1993).

Researchers have found that the reading of captions or subtitles is fairly intuitive, so the use of captioned media requires little extra training or instruction for students. When watching subtitled media, viewers will typically attempt to decode the text, even if they are struggling or beginning readers (Kothari, Pandey, & Chudgar, 2004). Another benefit of the addition of captioned media to classroom instruction is that it shifts watching typical classroom videos from a "dominantly picture-viewing activity to a dominantly reading activity" (Kothari et al., 2004, p. 29), providing struggling readers with additional reading practice.

Because lower level readers may tend to avoid reading activities, their exposure to print is minimal and development of literacy skills continues to fall behind that of their peers (Koskinen et al., 1993). Maximizing print exposure through the use of captions, both at home and at school, can add many hours of reading practice and literacy skill development (Koskinen et al., 1993; Kothari et al., 2004).


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Bowe, F. G., & Kaufman, A. (2001). Captioned media: Teacher perceptions of potential value for students with no hearing impairments: A national survey of special educators. Spartanburg, SC: Described and Captioned Media Program.

Evmenova, A. S. (2008). Lights! Camera! Captions!: The effects of picture and/or word captioning adaptations, alternative narration, and interactive features on video comprehension by students with intellectual disabilities.Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, College of Education and Human Development.

Goldman, M. E. (1993). Using captioned TV for teaching reading. FASTBACK, 359.

Holmes, K., Russell, W. B. III., & Movitz, A. (2007). Reading in the social studies: Using subtitled films. Social Education, 71(6), 326–330.

Huang, H. C., & Eskey, D. E. (1999). The effects of closed-captioned television on the listening comprehension of intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) students.Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 28(1), 75–96.

King, J. (2002). Using DVD feature films in the EFL classroom. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 15, 509–523.

Koskinen, P., Wilson, R. M., Gambrell, L. B., & Neuman, S. B. (1993). Captioned video and vocabulary learning: An innovative practice in literacy instruction. The Reading Teacher, 47(1), 36–43.

Koskinen, P. S., Knable, J. E., Markham, P. L., Jensema, C. J., & Kane, K. W. (1995). Captioned television and the vocabulary acquisition of adult second language correctional facility residents. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 24(4), 359–373.

Kothari, B., Pandey, A., & Chudgar, A. R. (2004). Reading out of the "Idiot Box": Same-language subtitling on television in India.The Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyInformation Technologies and International Development, 2(1), 23–44.

Linebarger, D. L. (2001). Learning to read from television: The effects of using captions and narration.Journal of Educational Psychology, 93, 288–298.

Neuman, S. (1990). Using captioned television to improve the reading proficiency of language minority students. Vienna, VA: The National Captioning Institute, Inc.

Rickelman, R. J., Henk, W. A., & Layton, K. (1991). Closed-captioned television: A viable technology for the reading teacher. The Reading Teacher, 44(8), 598–599.

Shea, P. (2000). Leveling the playing field: A study of captioned interactive video for second language learning. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 22(3), 243–263.

Spanos, G., & Smith, J. J. (1990). Closed captioned television for adult LEP literacy learners. Washington, DC: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Literacy Education for Limited-English Proficient Adults.

Alise Brann, PowerUp WHAT WORKS (2011)


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October 2011A Partial Solution for Teaching Our Young to ReadA number literacy organizations have done a masterful job of summarizing the needs of the young population of this country. What has been overlooked by many is the contribution that free TV captions can make to improve the reading ability for those who watch a lot of TV. Free TV Captions Help Millions. In a brief video, former President Bill Clinton, at his Clinton Global Initiative, praises the use of same language subtitles that have taught 150 million in India to read from television. See the Clinton video that comes up as you open along with a short video of a boy learning to read and write with free TV captions. Make Sure Children Are Ready to Learn If kids aren’t ready to learn when they arrive at school, teachers can’t always bring them up to speed. Underprivileged children often don’t have families available or able to help them. To bridge the achievement gap, the ubiquitous resource of free TV captions may be what toddlers need to develop print awareness to start kindergarten, what young students need in early grades to be ready to read or what older children need to reinforce reading skills with practice at home, especially young black males. The Reading Achievement Gap For Blacks & Latinos. As you point out, when NAEP results are analyzed by ethnicity or language, over 50% of black and Hispanic students fail to read at the basic level by the 4th grade. How can we help underprivileged kids who can’t read or read well but who do watch a lot of television? Turn On TV Captions To Help Learning To Read. Free TV captions create an unrivaled opportunity for learners to connect hearing the spoken word with seeing the printed word in the context of the action unfolding on the screen to explain and reinforce the meaning. When the average child watches television 4 to 7 hours a day and 97% of our households have a television set, turning on free TV captions provides thousands of hours a year for millions of students to expand their classroom lessons by practicing reading at home. Not More Television, But Better Television With TV Captions. We know that TV captions cannot substitute for the warmth of a family member reading to a child. But when there is no family member available to read to the kids, where there is only a single parent with two jobs and little free time, where a foreign language is spoken at home because the adults cannot yet read English or where the reading skills of the family are shaky, other help, such as TV captions, is urgently needed. Of course free TV captions are only a supplement, not a substitute, for credentialed instructors. To use TV captions in classrooms, teachers can assign age-appropriate programs to their students to be watched as homework with TV captions turned on, with further study in later classes. The federal Department of Education believes in using television and awards PSB and others millions of dollars each year to produce Ready to Learn television programs. Federal Legislation Is In Place, The Research Has Been Done. Since January 2006, federal mandates, initially for the deaf, require TV captions to be available 20 out of 24 hours a day (generally not between 2am and 6am) on virtually all programs on almost all stations. Though TV captions are free for viewers, they’re expensive for producers or others who provide the captions. It seems scandalous to squander the price producers pay to provide TV captions free to viewers but not to tell viewers of their educational power. Over 25 years of rigorous scientific studies validate the effectiveness of TV captions for learning to read. For a list of such studies, see the Research tab at www.captionsfor How To Open Closed TV Captions. Free TV captions can be turned on with a click of the CC button (if there is one on the remote control) or, if not, with the use of the set’s menu. Using the television’s menu often needs a reader to plow through menu choices. Teachers can also show students in class how to use the menu at home. Dissemination And Implementation Are What We Need Now. The problem is that many families (and many teachers) are unaware of the near universal availability and the learning value of free TV captions. We need to harness these organizations formidable platforms to alert children, families and teachers to the near universal availability of free TV captions and their educational value.

This is a particularly interesting subject and it is the focus of what we are working on here at Zane Education - http://www.zaneeducation.comWe have recently completed the development of over 1,000 online videos all of which are purposely subtitled and they are developed to teach 11 K12 subjects and 260 curriculum topics. We also provide online assessment and testing for each topic in the form of online interactive quizzes containing a total of over 23,000 curriculum based questions which are designed to also help continue the learning process.When we first embarked upon this project, we anticipated that by providing this online subscription based service, that it would be primarily of benefit to children and students in classrooms and homeschools by enabling them to study and learn curriculum material while at the same time also enabling them to improve their reading skills and literacy levels. We have also developed a better understanding of how, by combining the use of educational videos with subtitles, we are providing each child with the option of watching, listenting to, or reading each presentation, and thereby being able to provide for different learning styles and levels of academic ability.By working with a range of children with a variety special needs we discovered that by introducing a variety of techniques as to how the videos were used in each particular situation, we are able to provide significant benefits to a wide range of of children with various types of special needs. We have also discovered that gifted students can also benefit greatly because the use of video enhances the ability for the child to learn and study at their own speed and thereby achieve their greatest potential. However what we did not anticipate that what we have produced would have significant value in the ESL market. By enabling each child to see each word, hear how it is pronounced, and then better understand the context in which it is used enables those children learning English as a Second Language to use what we produced to significantly improve their ESL studies.We are currently establishing new offices in India and China to complement what we are doing here in the United States and we are always interested to look at collaborating with those academics, individuals, companies and other organisations that have a similar interest in this field.A lot of research has been successfully conducted in respect of the benefits of linking video subtitles with the improvement of literacy levels, however we seem to be the first to combine the learning of curriculum subjects with improved reading at the same time, and provide an online solution for special needs children.

I'm a special education teacher in Hawaii, and very interested in subject of literacy. SLS is a very simple and affordable idea for improving the literacy amongst struggling reader populations. (In reality the majority of USA High School students are ‘struggling readers with Reading below 7th Grade Equivalencies) The application has many possibilities in both television and in education. This approach to enriching reading is legitimate --Google gave a 25 million dollar grant to the India based study: and the OLPC program has a version of this program with music pre-loaded on their laptops. This format includes not only the viewing and responding to subtitled media but also the opportunity for students to design and create their own surtitled projects. For class activities we use a free program called Karafun ( My students really love it, it is easy, intuitive, and can use any mp3, jpeg, or even .avi to rapidly make dynamic syllabicated subtitling. My students also use it with poetry and famous speech. You can see samples of my student's karaoke projects at my study web site:, just look for SLS samples: Musicals and Other Genres. SLS has enormous educational potential --even if just added to MTV. I do know of teachers besides myself who have used SLS format however there are very few if any published studies. I am hoping that other researchers will be interested in this use of technology and do additional studies and help to validate my observations. Thanks for reading this and I hope you will consider some of these ideas for exploration. For further info please access and explore: Greg McCall , Hawaii: www.sls4reading.comAlso --just for fun check out -- sample of SLS done by a student.

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