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Can turning on the subtitles really improve the literacy levels of millions of children?

Written By: Gemma Goldenberg
4 min read


The recently launched ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ (TOTS) campaign is supported by partner organisations such as National Literacy Trust and Berkeley University. It encourages broadcasters, parents and policymakers to turn on the subtitles during programming aimed at children, claiming that it can support children’s literacy, especially for those who struggle.

What is some of the key research that’s taken place?

A longitudinal study of continuous use of subtitles at home, showed that children who watched television with subtitles scored significantly higher on word identification and comprehension tests than children who did not use subtitles (Koskinen et al., 1997).

Similar results were found in an American study (Linebarger et al., 2010) whereby 70 readers aged seven to nine, who were identified as being from disadvantaged families, were shown six 30-minute episodes of children’s television. They were pre-tested to ascertain their reading ability and then randomly assigned to watch the episodes with or without subtitles. Subtitles were found to help children recognise, read and understand more words and make inferences about programme content.

A study in rural India (PlanetRead, 2018) focussed on struggling readers from low income families. Participants watched animated stories with and without same-language subtitles and eye tracking software was used to see how much they engaged with the subtitles. The study found that 94 per cent of children engaged with the subtitles when the story was at a low level of reading difficulty. As the stories became more challenging and complex, the children displayed lower levels of reading engagement. This suggests that less fluent readers will engage with subtitles, as long as the content is not too challenging for them.

Several studies have reported that when children watch television with subtitles, the greatest gains are made by children who are at risk of poor reading outcomes. Therefore, less fluent readers are likely to benefit the most from having subtitles switched on (Parkhill and Johnson, 2009; Linebarger et al., 2010). This could be particularly relevant during times of school closures when some children will have fallen further behind with their reading than others.

How robust is this research?

Research in this field has taken place over three decades and in many different countries. A summary of the research undertaken so far cites that there are over 100 empirical studies documenting that subtitles improve comprehension, attention and memory of what has been viewed on screen (Gernsbacher, 2015). The research base comprises both longitudinal and experimental designs, which have taken place in the home environment as well as in schools or experimental labs, this diversity helps contribute to a rich range of information and evidence about the effects of subtitles. If subtitles prove to be effective across different times, places and cultures, it is more likely that the results from these studies can be generalised to other contexts.

The experimental design of the Linebarger et al. (2010) study makes it well positioned to demonstrate causation. Rather than showing a correlation between using subtitles and having higher literacy levels (which could also be caused by many other factors), the researchers were able to manipulate the conditions to identify the specific effect of the subtitles. However, as is commonly the case with these studies, the results are more complex and nuanced than the headline findings suggest.

In some cases, children using subtitles ‘performed better’ than those without. But how many children was this the case for, and how much better did they perform? Were the results between groups different enough to be sure that they did not happen by chance? In order to make a judgement on this, we have to look at whether the results met ‘statistical significance’.

Results showed that children who were lower attaining readers to begin with, performed better on a word recognition task than their counterparts who viewed the same content without subtitles. However, overall the difference in performance between the subtitle and non-subtitle group did not reach statistical significance. There was also no significant difference in the group’s literal comprehension of the programme content. Therefore, the data suggests that subtitles did not have a strong effect on these aspects of reading for all children, though they may have done for the weakest readers.

However, children in the subtitle group did perform significantly better in terms of how many words they knew the meaning of, and how well they could make inferences about the storyline. Seventy is a small number of participants from which to make generalisations, however the results do suggest promising effects and grounds for further research.

As an educator, what are the key things I should take away from this research?

Whilst subtitle reading shouldn’t entirely replace reading books at home, as a supplement it may help children’s literacy, particularly those children who are struggling.

Research suggests that children respond positively to reading subtitles on screen and are motivated to do so, spending more time on task than with other types of reading (Layton, 1991).

Many children do not have access to adults who are available, able or willing to read to them on a regular basis. Parents may have low levels of literacy themselves or be unable to read in the language their child is being educated in at school. In helping to narrow the gap, subtitle reading may make a big difference to how much reading disadvantaged children access at home.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How might this research on subtitles be used in your context to improve students’ literacy levels?
  • Gernsbacher MA (2015) Video captions benefit everyone. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2(1): 195-202.
  • Koskinen PS, Bowen CT, Gambrell LB, et al. (1997) Captioned television and literacy development: Effects of home viewing on learning disabled students. Paper presented at the Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.
  • Layton K (1991) Closed-captioned television: A viable technology for the reading teacher. Reading Teacher 44(8): 598-99.
  • Linebarger D, Piotrowski JT and Greenwood CR (2010) On-screen print: The role of captions as a supplemental literacy tool. Journal of Research in Reading 33(2): 148-167.
  • Parkhill F and Johnson J (2009) An unexpected breakthrough for rapid reading improvement: AVAILLL uses movies so students read it, see it and get it. set: Research Information for Teachers 1: 28‚àí34.
  • PlanetRead (2018) AniBooks: Scalable and likeable, but readable? Available at: (accessed 10 July 2020).
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