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Raising Literacy Part 6:
Opening the Captions

by Bill Lauritzen

Milton Goldman, an innovative teacher at Hamilton High in L.A., uses video of a popular situation comedy in his class. The first half of the video he shows with both sound and captions. The second half he shows without sound--captions only. The students have to read to find out what happened in the comedy.

He can do this because in 1980, a new technology was quietly introduced that allowed hearing-impaired individuals access to TV and video. This technology is similar to subtitles of foreign films (except that “subtitles” are in a different language). The new technology allows “captions” to be embedded and hidden in the normal video signal. Thus, they are called closed captions. These captions can be opened by a special decoder that attaches to the TV set, or is a part of all TV sets built after 1993.

I recently examined the results of 25 research studies that showed higher literacy levels as a result of using opened captions (compared to textbooks alone). There are at least 15 other studies with similar results. (Only one study I came across showed no higher literacy rate from using captions.)
Most of these studies were conducted on ESL, at-risk, or adult ESL students, however, I think that the technology could be useful with mainstream students also. Why did these studies report higher literacy with open captions?

Video is a multisensory experience. The students can hear the word, see moving three-dimensional images of the word in a meaningful context, and with captions, see how the word is spelled. A video with opened captions might be called a multisensory book.

Many elementary, at-risk, ESL, and special education students, who would rather not read, enjoy watching TV. Video and TV are a visual mode. Due to our evolutionary design, the visual mode is easier to understand by Homo sapiens than minuscule markings on paper. It is more similar to the survival activities of gathering food and hunting for game.|

In the English language, there is a spelling-pronunciation mismatch that doesn’t exist in other languages. It has been estimated that 80% of the words in English are not spelled phonetically. This may be due to the fact that 75% of English words are derived from other languages. Some simple mismatch examples that I have thought of are: one (wun), two (too), three (three, but not “th” as in Thai), four (for).

I remember how for years I mispronounced the words “chaos,” “corps,” “coup,” and “hor d’oeuvres.” I had seen these words and I had heard these words, but I had never seen and heard these words together, so that the sound was linked with the spelling. Opened captioned TV and video links the sound with the spelling.

Here is an exercise I gave to seventh grade special-education students at Toll Middle School (Glendale, California). Said aloud by teacher: “The two men walked slowly down the hill.” Written by students: Student A: “The two men walk slowly down the hell.” Student B: “The tow men weaked slowle down the hill.” The responses of the other students in the class were similar.

How many of these mismatches could have been eliminated if these students had been given access to opened captions during the ten thousands of hours of TV watched during their youth?

We have a large percentage of immigrants and thus a corresponding number of Limited English Proficient students. In Glendale, we have the following breakdown: LEP (Limited English Proficient): 45%. FEP (Fluent English Proficient): 25%. English Only: 30%. So also almost half of the students have limited use of English.

The National Captioning Center reports an interesting statistic: more than half of the decoders bought are not bought by deaf people, but by foreign language immigrants. Perhaps these immigrants know something that we don’t.

My recent experience while teaching in Glendale is that most teachers don’t know how to open these captions on their TVs. Also, most teachers don’t know how to implement “open captions” into their regular lesson plans.

So teachers, administrators and parents should be informed as soon as possible concerning the potential benefits of using open captions to raise literacy levels.

Teachers should be shown how to change the caption mode from “off” to “on” on the TV menu, especially in elementary, ESL, at risk, and special education classrooms. Each school should distribute an information letter to these teachers suggesting how to incorporate opened captions into their classrooms. Possibly the teachers should receive special training, since it isn’t part of teacher education classes yet. Also, we should also encourage teachers to watch some TV and video with “open captioning” so they get familiar with the medium.

Science, history and English teachers should be also given some information on this technology. I have been in science classes where the teacher has assigned the students a video to watch, and told them to take notes on it. The video had to be stopped continually in order to clarify a word, or to spell a word. Most of the interruption could have been avoided simply by pressing a couple of buttons on the TV menu to bring the captions into play.

I have seen English teachers show a video of a Shakespearean play and require the students to follow the text while the actors performed. The students had to constantly shift their eyes from the text to the TV screen. This could have been avoided by opening the captions.

Perhaps the superintendent of schools should direct the school staff to write a letter to parents, telling them the potential benefits of opened captioned TV and video, and encouraging them to buy 1993 or later model TVs or a special decoder. (TV, of course, should always be watched in moderation, and only after homework is complete. Educational programming is always preferred.)

Almost all evening programs come with captions now, and most educational programs, and video tapes. Most classrooms have access to video and TV. So for a very small cost, frequently the mere push of a button on a remote, I believe we can achieve significant gains in literacy. We can match the sounds with the letters and with meaningful moving pictures.

As more teachers use captions new methods will emerge. Perhaps, at times, the entire video should be shown with the sound off and captions on. Or perhaps the video should be shown twice. Once with sound, once with captions. Experiment. Raise literacy.

I. Video-TV is multisensory (sounds, letters, visual meanings).
II. Visual mode (TV-video) more evolution-compatible with Homo sapiens than purely written mode.
III English language has large percent of spelling-pronunciation mismatches.

Part 6 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via his internet site: