reading literacy improves with same language subtitles

Same language subtitling in programming could improve reading literacy in children, claims UK campaign “Turn On The Subtitles”

by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

A group of major names in UK entertainment, politics and technology has launched a campaign called “Turn On The Subtitles” calling on broadcasters and technology companies to include same language subtitles in all programming. If English-language subtitles were to be run along the bottom of the screen for children’s TV programs and other audiovisual content, they argue, reading levels across the country would automatically rise. They cite the results of international academic research projects which prove that speed, vocabulary, confidence and comprehension would all be enhanced, and are pushing for the change to be made now, during the coronavirus lockdown, at a moment of maximum benefit. The campaign’s website lists a number of relevant and authoritative studies on the subject. One of the founders, Henry Warren, a businessman specialised in education technology, says this is not supposed to replace home reading, merely to supplement it. A clever and simple idea that could go a long way and which is highly relevant at a time when reading literacy numbers from international assessments raise serious concern.

Reading literacy as a key 21st century skill

Reading literacy is considered to be one of the top 21st century skills and key to achieving important life goals. A number of international large scale assessmentsaddress the issue, including the OECD’s PISA (1) and the IEA’s PIRLS (2). Evolving technologies have changed the ways in which people read, with a major shift from print to digital texts. For its latest PISA study the OECD expanded the definition of reading literacy to encompass both the basic reading processes and higher-level digital reading skills. It introduced interactive exercises with texts to be read in a simulated web environment and students were tested on the ability to find, relate and assess information via navigation on websites. PISA 2018 assessed around 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies on reading, science and mathematics. Results of PISA 2018, as well as the recent ICILS survey on 46,000 grade 8 students and 26,000 teachers from 200 schools, in 14 countries, raise serious concerns about students’ capacity to critically assess information found online – see our article on this subject

Same language subtitles can benefit all age groups

Video captions benefit all those who watches audiovisual content: children, adolescents, college students, and adults, reads one of the studies cited by the “Turn On The Subtitles” group. More than 100 empirical studies, says the author, document that captioning a video improves comprehension of, attention to, and memory for the video. Captions are particularly beneficial for persons watching videos in their non-native language, for children and adults learning to read, and for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

cApStan’s involvement in reading literacy skills assessments

PISA 2018 is the seventh PISA cycle in which cApStAn was commissioned with maximising cross-language and cross-country comparability – we started our collaboration with PISA in 2000. For the PISA 2018 programme we verified 106 translated or adapted versions of the survey instruments. We are also proud to have been asked to verify the translations – with a view to maximizing comparability across language versions – of the ICILS data collection instruments. We have had the privilege of working with IEA for 19 years, including on other flagship projects such as TIMSS, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and PIRLS, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.


1) “PISA” is the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment –

2) “PIRLS” is the IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study –

3) Gernsbacher, Morton. (2015). Video Captions Benefit Everyone. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2. 195-202. 10.1177/2372732215602130 –


“Turn on the Titles” campaign website:

“Read my lips: how lockdown TV could boost children’s literacy”, Vanessa Thorp, The Guardian, April 12, 2020 –

Photo credit  Ellyy @ Shutterstock