Sometimes I turn on my TV and the close captioning feature has been activated. I can’t find the button to turn it off so I think, it won’t distract me. And yet I find it impossible to ignore. It turns out that reading subtitles in the same language as you are listening, is impossible to ignore. This study looks closely at what our eyes are doing when we are listening and reading together.

When I looked into it further, I found that same language subtitling supports literacy. In other words, listening to English and reading English subtitles helps you decode words and read better. In several controlled studies with school children in early grades, half exposed to videos with captions and half to the same videos without captions, Brij Kothari and others (2004) found that captions contributed to word recognition and word comprehension skills. Other studies show subtitles support your understanding of a movie or audio sources.

In fact one researcher Martine Danan calls captioning an undervalued language learning strategy. Most of these studies are looking at videos with subtitles or karaoke like captions. But why not add subtitle to radio?

Supported Listening with Transcripts

The resource we’ve created, Listenwise, curates the best of public radio to keep teaching connected to the real world and build student listening skills at the same time. The non-fiction storytelling works for science, social students and ELA. The curated public radio stories are carefully chosen for relevance to your curriculum and relevance to your students. The stories come with lesson plans that are aligned to standards and learning objectives.

Listenwise  Premium adds a live transcript that highlights the words of the script as they are being read in the story. This interactive transcript, or same language subtitling, is a unique feature to Listenwise and should make every teacher take note. It plays into the subtitling literacy study mentioned above. When a student listens to a story and reads the words as they track along, literacy is supported. Test it out below!

We added this listening subtitling feature because teachers asked for it. They wanted the ability to have their students site specific portions of the text. They wanted to use it with their English Language Learners who needed the words to follow the story. And they wanted to use it with their students who struggle with reading to also follow the story while listening. When we learned about how important same language subtitling is to literacy, we were sold on the idea of “captioning the listening”.

Subtitling Studies

Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The largest study about same language subtitling is on an unlikely source, Bollywood songs on TV and their impact on the millions of functional illiterates in India. Essentially an Indian researcher discovered that kids were learning to read by watching Bollywood films on TV and reading along. They were even writing down the song lyrics to memorize them and share with friends. The study showed that exposure to same language captioning in film songs contributed positively to decoding skills.

While this is something that researcher Brij Kothari noticed casually, he has since devoted his career and created a non-profit organization called Planet Read that’s dedicated to reading and literacy development.

In another study cited by the What Works Clearinghouse by the Institute of Education Sciences and featured on Planet Read, researchers used audio from Broadway musicals such as “Les Miserables” and “Cats” to support reading strategies. They worked to improve reading comprehension skills of secondary students in Hawaii. Students listened to the music and followed along the text as if they were doing karaoke. They answered questions while viewing the videos and listening to the audio. They also produced their own subtitled files. The study showed students who had the same language subtitling intervention scored significantly higher than students in the control group.

All these studies support an important but overlooked opportunity in the classroom. For students struggling with reading or learning English as a Second Language, subtitling can help.