Just Deserts


Have you ever watched a movie or program and been frustrated because you could not understand the dialogue? Perhaps the background music interfered with the words, or the accent or dialect made some words unclear. And if you were not alone, has the person that you were with keep interrupting with, “What did they say?”

In my house, this has happened more and more often, and thankfully there is a great solution –closed captioning. At first, it was only when “needed,” but now, it is on most of the time. It is only off when the closed captioning interferes with seeing the score of a baseball or football game.

Now that using closed captioning, also known as SLS, Same Language Subtitles is the norm, I have learned some surprising things. For example, the phrase “just desserts” meaning someone gets what he deserves is actually “just deserts.” And I now know that the line “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” in The Beatles song of the same name is NOT “Lucy in a fight with Linus!”

I recently learned about a group of people from India who also benefited from SLS in surprising and far-reaching ways. In 2001, India’s national television network began adding karaoke-style subtitles to some top-rated regular programming. You see, every Sunday in villages across India, a diverse group of villagers would come together to sit in front of old television sets and watch their favorite Bollywood film stars sing and dance in musical movie videos. Bollywood is the name given to the Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry in India. The term came from combining Bombay (the city now called Mumbai) with Hollywood, the center of the United States film industry. While the lyrics may be in Hindi or English in the case of contemporary mainstream movies, the subtitles were in Hindi.

Soon, viewers began using the scrolling lyrics to sing along with the songs. Some started copying the words on paper. Keeping in mind that there was a high rate of illiteracy across India, these subtle acts marked the beginning of significant changes.

Researchers studying the effects of India’s public karaoke-for-literacy experiment found that newspaper reading went up by more than 50 percent. Village women, who could now read bus schedules, became more mobile. More children opted to stay in school. Remarkably, researchers found that there was a measurable improvement in reading after watching just 8 hours of subtitled programming over six months and all at the low cost of less than one cent per person per year.

The sharing of the benefits of using SLS sparked a significant number of studies that examined whether captioned video could improve literacy and the results indicated an emphatic YES. The following is a list of reading skills positively impacted by the use of SLS and captioning:

  • reading speed and fluency
  • reading comprehension including identifying the main idea of a story
  • word knowledge and recognition
  • decoding
  • vocabulary acquisition

Captioning helps students (of all ages) retain more, take better notes and participate more in class discussions. Not surprisingly, more significant gains occurred with struggling or reluctant readers. Last but not least, researchers noted improvement in listening comprehension.

A week ago, I asked for your thoughts on the potential benefits of using closed captioning to support learning to read. Many thanks to those of you who shared your thoughts. Responses were mixed and fueled my research.

Speaking as an educator, parent, grandparent, community member and proponent of supporting strong literacy practices, I suggest that teachers, parents, grandparents as well as businesses that provide television access, strongly consider taking advantage of the benefits of SLS. This includes video accessed via computer or phone.

Let's return to “just deserts” for a moment. The word deserts is the plural for desert, and we all know that the noun desert means a dry area. A lesser-known meaning of desert is something that is deserved. The students of our community (and we are all students in one way or another) deserve every advantage that we can provide to them. Turning on captions is their just deserts.

I am happy to provide a list of the resources that I referenced, and I welcome your questions and comments. Please email me at kathy@stonesoupliteracy.com


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