Same Language Subtitling (SLS) is the idea of subtitling (or captioning) audio-visual content in the ‘same’ language as the audio. Word for word, what you hear is what you read, in perfect timing.
Does SLS cause automatic reading engagement among good and struggling readers?
d’Ydewalle et al.’s (1991) eye-tracking research found that American subjects watching an English movie with SLS and Dutch subjects watching a Dutch movie with SLS, spent considerable time in the subtitle area. Reading SLS was inevitable and comparable for both groups, even though the Dutch subjects had much more experience with subtitles on TV. Reading SLS did not depend much on habit formation.
d’Ydewalle and Rensbergen (1989) recorded the eye-movements of young children while watching SLS on cartoons. The viewing patterns of 4th and 6th Grade children did not differ much from adult readers. However, 2nd Grade children’s reading of SLS depended on the content watched – they read on ‘Garfield’ (verbally heavy) but much less on ‘Popeye’ (action-oriented).
Several other studies have confirmed that reading along with SLS is inescapable, but the subjects have almost always been good readers. Hence, the critical question is, would struggling readers, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, also try and engage automatically with SLS?
PlanetRead (2018) completed an eye-tracking study of government school children in Grades 2-5 in rural Rajasthan, India, by showing them animated stories with and without SLS. It is an understatement that the subjects were struggling readers from low-income families. Most children (94%) engaged with SLS, exhibiting an increasing number of eye-fixations on the subtitles, with grade. The story at a ‘low’ level of reading difficulty (81 simple words/min) invited the most reading engagement, followed by the ‘medium’ one (82 words/min), but SLS was mostly ignored in the ‘high’ difficulty story (111 words/min).
The primary conclusion is that almost all viewers who are beginning, struggling or good readers, will automatically engage with SLS. SLS just cannot be ignored.
Does SLS exposure lead to improved reading skills?
The idea of leveraging Closed-Captioning (CC) on TV to enhance the reading skills of struggling readers, is as old as CC itself (Koskinen et al., 1986) but longitudinal studies are few. Linebarger et al. (2010) commented on one such by Koskinen et al. (1997): “In a longitudinal study of continuous caption use in the home, children who viewed with captions scored significantly higher on normative tests of word identification and passage comprehension when compared with non-caption viewers.”
In Linebarger et al.’s (2010) study with struggling readers in Grades 2-3 from economically disadvantaged urban locations in the US, SLS exposure was limited to just six 30-minute episodes from children’s TV. Still, “The majority of outcomes… indicated that children who viewed with captions outperformed their counterparts who viewed without captions,” and the improvement was most pronounced among children at risk for poor reading outcomes.
Similarly, in New Zealand, Parkhill & Johnson (2009) found that in their six-week ‘AVAILLL’ programme for children aged 5-13 years, which uses popular, subtitled movies and accompanying novels to engage students in reading literacy, the greatest gains occurred for ‘low-progress’ readers. A positive impact was also observed for average and higher-level readers.
A number of longitudinal studies have come out of the SLS project in India. Kothari and Bandyopadhyay (2014) evaluated the impact of SLS after sustaining it for 5 years on a weekly hour-long programme of Hindi film songs telecast nationally in prime time. Among school children who could not read a single letter in Hindi at the baseline (2002), 70% in the high-SLS viewing group became functional readers by the endline (2007) as compared to 34% in the low-SLS group. In the 15+ age group, 14% in the high-SLS and 5% in the low-SLS group went from non-decoding to functional-reading. Adults gained too but children benefited substantially more in what can be described as a schooling + SLS effect.
Given the SLS project’s goal of persuading broadcast policy in India to require SLS on all the film songs shown on TV in India, in every language, a maximum SLS exposure of an hour a week, albeit for 5 years, was still too little. That was addressed in Maharashtra state where, for 2 years, SLS had a strong broadcast presence on around 20 Marathi films per week (only the songs were subtitled) on two of the most popular Marathi channels (Kothari and Bandyopadhyay, 2015). The Gujarat (control) and Maharashtra samples were comparable at the baseline (2013). By the endline (2015), in Maharashtra, 68% in Grade 3 could read at Grade 1 level or better as compared to 43% in Gujarat.
The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) independently found that over the same 2-year period, Maharashtra outperformed all states – 9% more children in Grade 5 were able to read a Grade 2 level text, as compared to no gain nationally. Among those who got regular SLS exposure, 30% more children in the early grades achieved basic reading ability. The impact of SLS on reading skills was considerably stronger for children in Grades 2-3. A separate study of SLS on TV in Gujarat state confirms its value on film songs for reading literacy (Kothari et al., 2004). What about SLS on children’s TV?
Universally, children love to watch cartoons. PlanetRead (2018a) found that struggling readers cannot but attend to SLS on animated stories. Does that contribute to reading skills? Linebarger et al. (2010) and Linebarger (2001) provide evidence that it does, while underscoring the importance of captions, “especially for children who might not have access to print.”
PlanetRead (2018b) conducted a year-long study in 10 primary schools in rural Delhi serving children in Grades 1-5 from low-income families. In 5 treatment schools, the teachers showed all the children in Grades 1-4, 30 minutes of animated stories in Hindi with SLS, three times a week. From a comparable starting point, the average reading score in the treatment schools was 70% higher than the control schools. The impact of the intervention on reading was most apparent in Grades 2-3, pointing again to the strong complementarity of SLS, during the early stages of reading acquisition.
The benefits of SLS or CC are not limited to reading literacy. For an overview of the range of benefits attributable to SLS – including reading, media access and language acquisition – see Gernsbacher (2015).