Captions and literacy

A student becoming literate involves a number of skills and capabilities, not only the capacity to read, but also the ability to understand, make meaning and analyse, and sometimes act on what has been read.

Literacy takes a variety of forms, including print and digital media literacy. Australian students are increasingly required to respond to a variety of text options in schools, including print, multimodal, digital and media texts, as defined by the Australian Curriculum.

Accessing the curriculum in all its forms is vital for students so they can engage with, learn from and respond to educational content. With increasing levels of educational content being delivered via multimedia, not all students are provided with the same opportunity. The reason for this inequity is that not all media is captioned for those who require it, and when captions are available, not all teachers use them.

Students who benefit the most from captioned multimedia

  • those who have English as a Second Language (ESL) or an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D)
  • those who are Deaf or have hearing impairment
  • students with language delay
  • visual learners
  • emergent readers
  • students in noisy classrooms

Captions and literacy: key research

The benefits of captioned media to improve students’ reading comprehension, incidental vocabulary acquisition and information recall is well documented.

A number of studies have been conducted that emphasise the multifaceted approach to reading that is required for a learner and how using captions can provide access to information and assist comprehension.

Captions are essential for students who are Deaf or have hearing impairment and also have immense benefits for students with English as a Second Language (ESL) and those with an Additional Language and Dialect (EAL/D), struggling readers and visual learners.

In their study, Chai and Erlam (2008) considered the experience of twenty Chinese students using captions as a component of their learning of English. The study focused on the specific learning of new individual words and expressions rather than the overarching understanding of content.

It was found that the students who viewed the video content with captions were better able to learn new words and phrases than those who watched the same content without captions (p.35.)  More specifically, it was noted that “the use of video plus captions can help students learn colloquial language and how and when native speakers use it” (p.36). The findings were supported in student reflections, with one student stating that “reading is easier than listening” (p. 34).

One study of Deaf adults identified that watching video and reading captions simultaneously achieved higher levels of comprehension than simply reading a transcript. Jelenik Lewis and Jackson (2001) found that:

"There were higher scores for tests of comprehension and information recall with the captioned video condition compared to the printed text of […] captions, suggesting combining captions with video provides an information advantage to students who are deaf" (p.50). Of interest here is the discussion of ‘information advantage’ which would seem refers to the access to information provided by the captions for students who are deaf.

Linebarger (2001) conducted a study which considered the effect of captioned television on children’s word recognition. It noted that “when captions were present, they appeared to serve as a focusing agent” (p.297) because the captions themselves would emphasise the most important components of the multimedia material.

It is interesting to consider that even in instances where children are at a comfortable level of reading, Linebarger believes they should continue to view media with captions to avoid distraction and enable concentration.

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