How Closed Captioning Can Improve Literacy

If you want to learn to read well, watch TV — with closed captioning. Captions provide readers, and especially emergent, struggling, or English Language Learning readers, with additional print exposure; and they offer an inexpensive way for students to build and improve their foundational reading skills, including phonics, word recognition and vocabulary building, and fluency.

Captions also take advantage of using multiple learning modes to improve comprehension and retention — in this case using visual information paired with simultaneous auditory information. Since we naturally tend to read text that appears on screen, teachers and parents can help boost student literacy in a way that kids find engaging, challenging, and motivating.

A major advantage of closed captioning for learning to read is how natural it is. Sitting for long periods can be difficult, especially when students are at a table looking at a book of squiggles and trying to make sense of them. Studies find that when this same information is presented in a video, it lowers both the barriers to learning and the students’ resistance to participating. [1]

For emergent and low-level readers, it’s usually a good idea to use videos targeted for a younger audience or those that appeal to their areas of interest — for example, an animated action series or movie, a family program, or something with pop culture content. These types of videos tend to have less challenging vocabulary but will still provide literacy benefits in terms of hearing the sounds while looking at the letters and words — that is, decoding.

With a captioned video, if the student doesn’t understand a word, they can stop and write it down, then look it up, or they can rewind the video and watch what’s said again with the new word displayed. That means they’re seeing words used in context, and that offers a better sense of how these words fit into their vocabulary. Teachers can also use topic-specific videos for a deeper dive into which words relate to those ideas.

Several research studies (Bowe and Kaufman, 2001; Evmenova, 2008; Linebarger, 2001; Rickelman, Henk, and Layton, 1991) found that for emergent and struggling readers, captioning and subtitles strengthened:

  • Decoding ability
  • Reading speed and fluency
  • Word knowledge and vocabulary acquisition
  • Word recognition
  • Reading comprehension
  • Oral reading rate[2]

Studies have also found that reading captions or subtitles is a fairly intuitive process and thereby doesn’t require teachers to provide much extra training or instruction. Kothari, Pandey, and Chudgar (2004) determined that, when watching captioned media, viewers typically attempt to decode the text, even if they’re struggling or emergent readers. And Kothari et al. (2004, p. 29) indicate that adding captioned media to classroom instruction provides an additional benefit: it shifts watching from a “dominantly picture-viewing activity to a dominantly reading activity,” providing additional reading practice.[2]

This is an activity students can definitely try at home, too. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 required that all video programming distributors (broadcast stations, and multichannel distributors such as cable, satellite, and other television service providers) include closed captioning that not only contains the complete and accurate written text of what’s spoken, but also syncs that text with the sounds as they’re made. All television set manufacturers must also include the technology to display said captioning.[3]

Students consistently report increased engagement and enjoyment of captioned media over other options like printed material and uncaptioned media. Even studies that didn’t find a significant improvement in academic objectives when using closed-captioned media (Evmenova, 2008; Holmes, Russell, & Movitz, 2007; Koskinen et al., 1993; Linebarger, 2001; Rickelman et al., 1991; Spanos & Smith, 1990) still reported that students preferred seeing captions. As a result, captioned media may have an effect on students’ nonacademic skills — such as motivation, time-on-task, and behavior — as they find classroom reading activities to be more enjoyable (Evmenova, 2008; Koskinen et al., 1993).[2]

Lower-level, emergent, and struggling readers may tend to avoid reading activities if they feel overwhelmed. As Koskinen et al. (1993) found, because of this, their exposure to printed material remains minimal, and the development of their literacy skills continues to fall behind that of their peers. However, maximizing print exposure through the use of video captions, both at school and at home, can add many hours of reading practice and literacy skill development that will benefit them for the rest of their lives (Koskinen et al., 1993; Kothari et al., 2004).[2]



[1] Lurie, Leib. (July 16, 2018). “Closed Captions Help Reading.” Kids Read Now. Retrieved from

[2] In Brann, Alise. (nd). “Captioning to Support Literacy.” Reading Rockets. Retrieved from

[3] National Association of the Deaf. (2020). “Closed Captioning Requirements.” Retrieved from,and%20other%20television%20service%20providers.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to

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