Monday, June 1, 2015

Captioned Television: Developing Readers at School and at Home

Today's guest post is by my favorite literacy specialist, Cynthia Mershon. Besides her many years as a teacher,Cynthia has been a consultant to the television program, Reading Rainbow, the former chairperson of the Video and Literacy Special Interest Group of the International Literacy Association, and has presented workshops on using captioned television as a text in the classroom.

Every teacher who teaches reading, every teacher who cares about students’ reading development, knows that the more we read, the better we read.  Practicing reading for significant amounts of time each and every day helps students become better readers.  As teachers, we are constantly trying to give our students more time to practice the whole act of reading, as well as searching for classroom strategies that facilitate that practice. 

A strategy that offers powerful support for our goal of offering students the opportunity to read more and read better is captioned television.  Captions – the dialogue, narration, and/or sound effects of a television program or video that are printed on the television screen – are now available on hundreds of hours of television programming each week and on thousands of home videos. The reading practice that results from reading captions affords students an opportunity to develop and improve their reading ability.  It is that simple, and yet there is more to captioned television than meets the eye.

Captions were originally developed to enable deaf and hearing-impaired individuals to enjoy and gain information from television.  Research, however, reveals that when students read the words on the television screen and hear them spoken by the people in the television program or movie and see the pictures or images on the television screen that tell them what those words mean, their reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and general engagement with reading increases and develops at a higher rate than those students not watching captioned television. In particular, learning disabled and ESL students exhibit dramatic improvement in language skills when captioned television is a regular part of their reading program (Koskinen, P.S., & Wilson, R.M.  1987; Koskinen, et al., 1993; Neuman, S., 1991).

Not only is captioned television effective in developing reading skill, it also motivates student to want to read. Taking advantage of students’ familiarity with and interest in watching television and films, using television as a reading text plays into skills students possess and can use effectively in instructional settings.  Researchers have found students and teachers are enthusiastic about the use of captioned television in their classrooms: students’ attention to task is high and their attitude toward learning is positive when captioned television and film is a component of their lessons (Koskinen, P.S., & Wilson, R.M.  1987).

Initial research looked at simply including captioned television in the classroom reading program without direct instruction on the part of the teacher, i.e., while the concept of captioned television was explained, no explicit teaching accompanied that viewing.  The positive effects on children’s reading comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and attitudes were gathered from studies that involved the introduction of time spent watching – and only watching – captioned television.    As a result of this research, teachers are considering captions as reading material for all students, and are embracing television programs and films as classroom texts for developing reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency, building background knowledge, and encouraging student interest in learning.

  Since that early research, teachers have been expanding their use of captioned television in the classroom to include deliberate teaching of comprehension/vocabulary strategies that can be effectively used with any text. Are we teaching predicting, questioning, and inferring with our read-aloud, for example?  Then we can teach those three strategies when using captioned television as a text.  Keeping in mind that early research, however, suggests strongly the benefit of students watching from 30 to 60 minutes of captioned television at home each day, even if, unfortunately, they watch it alone.  The time spent reading the captions, and the multimedia input of text, sound, and visuals that supports their ability to read the captions, will have a positive effect on their reading development.  

This knowledge is especially important considering the deleterious effect of “summer loss phenomenon” (Crowell & Klein, 1981) – children’s reading ability actually declines during their summer vacation from the daily organized reading practice provided by schools.  Students at home over the summer could be watching captioned television each day, developing their reading skills doing something they do well and do often.  Parents often ask us about what they might do during the summer months to support their children.  One of the best – and easiest - answers we can offer is to tell them to turn on their television’s captions.   
When captions first became available to television viewers, they were “closed” to those viewers unless a television was equipped with a TeleCaption Decoder that electronically opened (made visible) the captions.  Since June of 1993, however, the Television Decoder Circuity Act, legislated by the United States Congress, requires that all new televisions sold in the United States have built-in circuitry to decode and display captioned programming.  This circuitry differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, but can be easily accessed by using a television remote to put the caption setting on “open.”

My experience with using captioned television in the classroom began when I used Reading Rainbow for 30 minutes each week to support my third, fourth, and fifth grade struggling readers. (Interestingly, this program premiered in July 1983 funded in part by a grant with the intention of providing a solution to summer loss phenomenon). I was looking for a variety of strategies to develop their comprehension and vocabulary, but wanted also classroom practices that would extend background knowledge, interest in and excitement about reading, and engagement in learning. I turned on Reading Rainbow and its captions and found, through its program design, that it supported and facilitated the teaching of reading: it featured a read-aloud followed by an experiential segment related to the read-aloud; the program ended with students reviewing books related to the read-aloud; host LeVar Burton talking about the importance of reading as he interacted positively with a variety of people.  Reading was celebrated throughout each episode of the program, providing students with a regular picture of the power and pleasure of reading. And……in addition to their daily independent reading, they were reading 30 minutes of captions each week.

        Reading Rainbow led to films – or parts of films – presented as texts in the classroom. My reading program was organized around several literacy components that supported students’ reading development: teacher read-alouds, literature discussion, direct instruction of comprehension strategies, independent reading, written response to reading, partnership work, and student-teacher conferences.  These components were practiced with all texts in our classrooms, be they print or video. For example: Our first read-aloud in grade five, selected to support a science unit that focused on insects, was Mary James’ Shoebag (a young cockroach wakes one morning to find he has changed into a boy).  With great humor, the story is told entirely from the cockroach’s point of view.  To deepen our understanding of the story, we explored the important literary devices of “point of view” and “personification” in our discussions and by reading also Chris Van Allsburg’s Two Bad Ants (two ants and their adventure in a kitchen with an enticing sugar bowl, again told from the insects’ point of view).  Watching parts of the captioned film, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” followed.  This third text tells the tale of a brilliant but eccentric scientist who accidentally shrinks his son and daughter, as well as his neighbor’s two children, so that the four children, now the size of insects, must find a way to survive in the family’s back yard.  This part of the movie, of course, is told entirely from the tiny children’s perspective.  As we watched the children make their way through grass five times their height, we talked about point of view and how it affected our perception of and understanding of a story: we carried the strategy of examining a text though the lens of literary devices through all three texts. Captioned television, acting as a classroom text, not only offered our students reading practice that led to comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency development, but allowed us as teachers to extend students’ understanding of strategies as tools that could be used flexibly and consciously to construct meaning from a variety of texts in a variety of situations.

        Captioned television is one of many strategies and practices available to classroom teachers in their quest to ensure students become successful readers.  Too often we hear that watching television is a waste of time and that we should rethink the role of television in our lives.  Important considerations, certainly, but perhaps thinking about the power of captioned television is a more important one.  I am drawn to a strategy that can develop comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and positive engagement with reading.  I appreciate a strategy that takes advantage of students’ obvious appreciate for television and video, and the ease with which they watch, embrace, and manipulate this medium.  I applaud a strategy that students can practice at home, even when they are alone, that will build their reading skills and perhaps blunt the effect of three months each year without the daily practice in reading that school promises them.  I remain convinced that captioned television is one of the most important research-based reading strategies to appear in the 20th century.  I wonder – often – what might happen if we found a way to share it, enthusiastically and regularly, with all of our students.


Crowell, D.C., & Klein, T.W.  (1981).  Preventing summer loss of reading skills among primary children.  The Reading Teacher, February, 561-564.
Koskinen, P.S., & Wilson, R.M.  (1987).  Have you read any good TV lately?:  A guide for using captioned television in the teaching of reading.  Falls Church, VA: National Captioning Institute.
Koskinen, P.S., 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, 36-43.
Neuman, S. (1991).  Closed captioning helps ESOL students learn English.  Reading Today, February/March.
Thron, J.R.  (1991).  Children’s literature: Reading, seeing, watching.  Children’s Literature in Education, 22, 51-58. 

James, M.  (1990). Shoebag.  New York: Scholastic.
Van Allsburg, C.  (1988). Two bad ants.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: The Movie.  Dir: Joe Johnston.  Walt Disney Pictures, 1989.

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