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TV Captions Can Also Be a Learning Tool

Subtitles, developed to assist the hearing-impaired, are shown to help children learn to read.


Your children watch too much TV. You can't get them to read.

But perhaps you can get them to do both at the same time--through captioned television.

New research is demonstrating that closed captioning, developed to aid the deaf and hearing-impaired, can help many children learn to read by linking written words on the TV screen with images and sound. Experts say it can work for adults learning to read, or those picking up English as a second language.

The National Reading Research Center at the University of Maryland tested the effect of TV captions on public school students in Baltimore who were reading below grade level and had learning disabilities. Researchers reported last year that extended exposure to television with subtitles improved reading comprehension.

"Captions turn television into a moving storybook," the report concluded.

Judith Ramirez, an expert on early childhood development at Cal State Fullerton, likened captioned television to "Sesame Street," which has introduced generations of children to the alphabet.

"It only stands to reason that children who are watching TV and listening to things and getting symbolic representation--it's going to help them make connections," Ramirez said. "I'd love to see more research."

Since 1993, the federal government has required manufacturers to build captioning circuitry into all television sets sold in the United States with screens 13 inches in diameter or larger. Usually, the function is available through the remote control.

Older or smaller sets that don't have built-in circuitry can be retrofitted with caption decoders costing as little as $89, though they are increasingly hard to find.

TV captioning debuted on networks in 1980 on "The ABC Sunday Night Movie," "The Wonderful World of Disney" (then on NBC) and "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS. It is now available on most network shows, although its use in cable programming varies.

"Captioning allows the people to see the words, read the words, hear them being said, and see them in context, with the action on the television screen," said Jay Feinberg, marketing director for the National Captioning Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 1979 by the federal government and the television industry. "They work together to produce a very rich learning environment."

Hall Davidson is a believer.

Director of educational programming at KOCE-TV Channel 50, Orange County's public television station, Davidson said he bought an inexpensive TV recently so his son Blake could watch captioned shows. He said Blake's reading improved.

"It's a very powerful device," Davidson said. "It's the only teaching technology that's basically foolproof. You just turn it on, and it works. Most people don't know about it. It was the best $100 I ever spent."

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