Using television for literacy skills

Posted by on February 25th, 2008 at 10:02 am

My audacious idea is to use television to help children learn their letters and, maybe, even to read.  This may be a surprising suggestion given that TV is cited as a main reason for the decline in children’s reading.

But, this heretical idea comes to mind for three reasons:

  • First, children watch a lot of TV – on average four hours a day, which turns out to be more time than they spend in school each year.
  • Second, having print and reading materials at home helps kids learn to read. And, the more they read, the better they read. Unfortunately, more than 30% of city children live in poor households which tend to have few books or reading materials.  One study found that poor families had, on average, less than one book per household.
  • The third reason is that TVs must all have the technology to show captions and most programs and movies must have written transcripts. So, if you turn on your TV’s captioning feature, the words that are spoken – and many of the sounds as well – will appear in writing at the bottom of your screen.

I’m not suggesting that TV should replace reading, or that kids should watch more TV.  After all, pediatricians say children should watch no more than two hours a day and that adults need to turn off violent and inappropriate programs.

But, parents, teachers, and caregivers, given that most children are watching TV every day, why not turn on the captioning and let them “see” the words as they hear them? And for older children who can read, how about also turning off the sound so that they can follow along by reading the dialogue?

Would this help Baltimore become the City that Reads? I think it might. I found web references about the use of captioning by English-language learners to improve their English and a few studies of remedial reading teachers who used captioned TV to get “reluctant readers” to read more.

But let me know what you think Baltimore – and how it works (or doesn’t) for your children.


14 thoughts on “Using television for literacy skills

  1. Ms. Sundius suggests a simple, cost-free idea which could aid children in reinforcing reading skills. The “caption-on” idea would add an extra dimension to TV watching for children which they might find to be fun (a crucial element in teaching/learning). Instead of just sitting and watching, they would be thinking, sounding out words, and reinforcing their vocabulary.

    I especially like the suggestion for older children to turn off the sound and read the captions. They could simulate real actors, and deliver their lines with the inflection they feel appropriate for the scene, and have fun doing so.

  2. This is a fabulous idea – a simple, common sense variation of an accepted strategy used with struggling readers called “neurological impress”. The technique is used in a clinical setting where the reading instructor points to words on the page and whispers them to the student and he/she works to sound out the words him/herself. It is especially useful in developing oral reading fluency. One of the greatest benefits of this technique is that it provides a safe forum for oral reading practice. Most kids who struggle with literacy spend a tremendous amount of time and mental energy trying to avoid embarrassment and shame. This would free them of that burden so they can focus on the important work of learning to sound out and recognize words.

  3. I love this “if you can’t beat them join them” idea. This is such a simple solution,yet so out of the box. I often use the “closed captioning” option when I am watching televsion while speaking on the telephone. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the ones we overlook.

  4. Maybe I’m missing something — but what’s so audacious about caving in to the desire of children to watch TV? That sounds fairly common.

    Why not just shut the TV off? That way, when the children get bored, they will be forced to interact with other humans or pick up books or pencils or crayons.

    I worry that telling parents its okay to watch TV with captions as an “educational” experience will be like telling overweight people it’s okay to eat “low calorie” cookies. Just don’t eat the cookies. Don’t watch the tube.

    If parents start thinking TV with captions is the equivalent of reading, then they’ll feel even less pressure to read to their children.

    Perhaps the idea here is that poor families with no books could teach their children to read this way instead. Would you want your children taught this way? I certainly wouldn’t. So why should we push this dumbed-down version of education on lower income families? The public library is open to people of all incomes.

  5. Didn’t they do something like this for my kids, thirty years ago, on “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company”?

    Speaking of the “Electric Company”, what about Naomi?

  6. I agree with Mr. Pelton’s opinions and assessments. Additionally, my cousin is hearing impaired. I’ve watched TV with him and the captions are delayed by enough seconds that they do not match with what is currently being viewed and heard on the screen. It’s common for captions to be misspelled and omit words, in addition to the delays.

    Most people, regardless of their economic standing, are probably too lazy to exert the effort necessary to understand a show via captions. For children who are not hearing impaired, I honestly believe captions are too challenging for them and that parents would not take the time or level of involvement required to help them in the manner Ms. Sundius proposes.

  7. I think Ms. Sundius’s idea may reinforce basic literacy skills like letter and word recognition – so reading in it’s most basic sense.

    However, I worry about it as applied to older children. Reading or really literacy, as defined as reading/writing/listening and communicating, engages the mind in a much more dynamic way. It is the conversation in the head or with others about the ideas being presented. In my opinion, lots of tv watching makes folks less interested in the exchange of ideas (like in this medium for instance), which is often the why or the motivation behind reading.

    My inclination is to fight the power of tv. I wouldn’t want it for my kids but on the other hand I’m curious to see what it would look like…Baby Einstein?

  8. If TVs are on already, captions are a good thing for reading. John Holt used to say that young people’s eyes should be bathed in text.

    But I agree with other comments: why are the TVs on already? Mostly because TV is a convenient, inexpensive baby-sitter and sedative. The fundamental problem is helping young people learn to control media, rather than to be controlled by it. This includes print literacy–reading and writing, but also other kinds of media literacy. Whatever we teach, it should help young people be more active. TV is the most passive-making of media–the less of it the better!

  9. All of these messages are, to me, cases for being engaged in the way our children use television. From age 2-5 one of my children watched few “preschool” programs, but really loved “The Price is Right.” Maybe his interest was in keeping with Ms. Sundius’ idea of layering a reading experience over the passive act of watching television. He identified numbers, determined higher and lower values of cash, and even began to understand decimals. We explored it together thanks to network TV. And maybe “together” is what made it such a great part of those preschool days.

  10. Okay. I understand that in a perfect world, children would be engaged in healthy, enriching activities with their parents all day long. Their parents would read to them, take them outside to play and interact productively and happily with them all day. I’d like to think that this is how I raised my children, but…maybe not all day, everyday. I really do believe in the possibility of the best of all possible worlds, but I also realize that we need to live in the world that we have. The fact is that the televisions are on, kids are in front of them, and we have a lot of kids, from poor families or not, who don’t or can’t read. We need to find ways that are possible to make this better. There is no ONE way that will fix things for everyone, but some ways might help a bunch of people. That makes them worthwhile ideas. We have to work with what we have, and never give up trying.

  11. Thanks for all of these posts – they each have thought-provoking ideas and comments that helped me to flesh out the pluses and minuses of this idea further. As you can tell from the length of my reply, this is an idea I am interested in exploring further. Please feel free to respond again, or to send to someone else who might want to comment – both positively and negatively.

    – About Parent’s Roles and Responsibilities: I appreciate Mary Bonner’s point that it’s the job of adults to make sure that children’s TV viewing supports their healthy development. Jay Gillan’s post also applies here: we need to teach kids how to interpret media messages. He suggests turning the TV off, but I don’t think kids can learn to decipher TV messages by using other types of media as examples. As a medium TV messages can be more subtle, compelling and fleeting.

    – About Excessive TV Watching: To everyone who raised concerns about excessive screen time, I’ll say again, that I agree. Many, many, many children watch too much TV. More than 30% of preschoolers exceed the two hour limit, and that figure is even higher for poor and older children. I restricted my kids’ screen time, but it was really tough and I know that I didn’t limit it as much as I should have. It was much easier with my youngest child (a real screen-time fan) because her school, the Waldorf School in Baltimore, asked parents to limit TV, especially during the week. And, the staff did not allow children to talk about TV shows at school, encouraging them to draw on books and their imaginations instead. The Waldorf School policy is a good example of how schools and other institutions can help to limit TV – it made my TV policy much easier to enforce at home. In any event, Donna Tuttle’s point rings true for me: given that the TV’s are on, let’s find a way to get additional benefit out of the watching experience.

    -On Access to Print: Tom Pelton’s argument is that poor children would have enough reading materials if their parents used public libraries. Many poor families do use libraries, but libraries are not always easy to get to, may not be open when parents are free, can be intimidating to illiterate parents (38% of Baltimore adults read at the lowest literacy levels,) and cost money when books are late. Libraries cannot offer the sheer volume of print exposure that captions can, especially in homes where books are few and TV is always on. Captions offer the opportunity to “bathe children’s eyes in text,” a wonderful image from John Holt that Jay Gillan notes in his post. I say we take advantage of that opportunity.

    -On TV as Education: TV watching IS an educational experience for children (and adults). The tricky thing is to ensure that kids learn useful, appropriate content. TV can and does expand children’s worlds by introducing them to new interests, places, and events. But it has to be used in moderation. (Again, I admit that is the tricky part.)

    -On Using Captions to Teach Reading to My Child: Also in response to Tom, I did use TV as a reading/learning tool for my youngest child. It was, in fact, her idea. When she was about nine, she was enthralled with the music from The Phantom of the Opera. We rented the DVD and as we started to watch, she said “Stop, turn on the captions, I want to read the songs and learn the words” Then, because she is more tech-savvy than I am, she grabbed the remote and chose the English subtitles option. She was a pretty good reader then, but I think that captioned-TV helped with comprehension and fluency. TV’s visual and spoken contextual clues are vivid, and hearing the words spoken while reading them is reinforcing. When watching shows that really interested her, she paid more attention to the captions. It made me think of the “shared-reading” technique that teachers use. Maryann Povell made the connection to a technique called “neurological impress.” Thanks for that tip.

    -On Using Captions for Older Children: I was surprised by Katie McCabe’s response because it’s the not-quite-fluent older children (and adult) readers who I think might benefit the most. Older children and low literacy adults can be self-conscious about reading – a point Maryann makes. They may struggle to “decode” words, understand what they read, and/or read slowly. When it’s really hard work, readers get discouraged and avoid reading. Katie’s comment about passivity, however, made me wonder whether any researcher with imaging technology has compared brain wave activity with and without TV captions? And I thought that Barbara Willette’s suggestion to have kids read the captions out loud and act out the parts would really reduce passivity – I think of it as “karaoke TV.”

    -On Caption Delays and Inaccuracies: If you use captions, you will notice that on “live” shows, captions may be delayed a bit and some captions are a summary, not a transcript. Jennifer’s post alerts us to this drawback. According to the folks I spoke with at Maryland Public Television, those captions are typed in real-time, often by moonlighting court stenographers, in real-time, on a keyboard without all characters and letters – resulting in misspellings and omissions. These shows may not be as effective as those that are scripted ahead of time.

    A Final Note: If you haven’t watched TV using captions, I challenge you to you try it, and if you have kids, I would really like to know what they think. Start with a movie/DVD. Let me know how it works. Are your kids still aware of the subtitles after awhile? Are they consciously or unconsciously reading them? For those children who read already, try keeping the volume a bit lower than usual. Do they use captions to understand what is being said? Let me know, Baltimore!

  12. How wonderful to find your article about using TV captions. Just what we’re trying to tell families and teachers about.

    We have a booklet which lists research articles, a couple of posters and a scenario for a public service announcement (PSA) to enocurage the use of TV captions and about two years worth of grant application for the production of the PSA, thus far all denied.

    Be delighted to hear your ideas on how to spread the word more effectively.

    Laura Lou Meadows, Executive Director
    Captions for Literacy, a 501(c)(3) charitable trust.

  13. Dear Laura:
    I am so pleased to learn about your organization and the resources you offer. I do have a couple of suggestions:
    First, have you reached out to advocates and intermdiaries for the the after-school community? I think this group might be very interested as children spend alot of out-time in front of the TV. The After School Corporation in NY might be a good contact, as might the Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University.
    Second, I understand that Ivan Jusang of MEE Productions in Philadelphia did quite a bit of advocacy on this issue last summer. You might want to send him the information about your site.
    Third, you might want to take a look at your web site to see why the search engines I used did not find your organization. (google and explorer)
    Fourth, have you contacted some of the public television children’s programs?
    Fifth, it seems to me that this is a great time to push this idea with state and federal departments of education – They may be more receptive now that budgets are tight and standards are still rising.
    Sixth and finally, I think it might be time for a policy level discussion about why the default option regarding captions is “off” rather than “on”.
    Thanks for your information , please keep in touch.

  14. Captions are a wonderful way to provide equal access to children with hearing loss and to support and encourage reading in hearing children. I have a son who is profoundly deaf, a daughter with significant hearing loss, and a son in the second grade who is hearing. They’re all good readers and we’ve had captioning on every tv since they were small. It works.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *