Television Captions Can Help Kids Read


Your kids watch too much TV. You can’t get them to read.

Actually, you can get them to do both at the same time. The answer is captioned television.

New research is demonstrating that captions help many children learn to read. The program subtitles, often done with white lettering on black background at the lower part of a TV screen, link written words with images and sound. Experts say they can work for people of any age learning to read or learning English as a second language.

“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 based in Virginia. “They work together to produce a very rich learning environment.”


Since 1993, the federal government has required manufacturers to build closed-captioning circuitry into all TV sets 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, though they are increasingly hard to find. One supplier the captioning institute recommends is Harris Communications Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn., (800) 825-6758 voice or (800) 825-9187 TDD. Prices range from $89 to $198, plus shipping.

Designed as an aid for the hearing-impaired, captioning debuted on network TV in 1980.

It is now available on most network shows, though its use in cable programming varies widely.


The National Reading Research Center at the University of Maryland tested the effect of TV captioning on public school students in Baltimore who were reading below grade level and had learning disabilities. Researchers reported in April 1996 that “exposure to captioned television over an extended period of time improved reading comprehension.” Other studies have shown similar results with remedial readers and students who are not fluent in English.

Hall Davidson is a believer.

Director of educational programming at KOCE Channel 50, Orange County’s public TV station, Davidson said he bought a new television recently so that his son Blake could watch captioned programs. 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.”