Supporting Reading or Ruining TV? Dr Carol Moxam, Dr Ghada Khattab and Laura Chambers

There is a growing interest in the potential benefit of using subtitles in children’s TV, and this has recently been championed by celebrities who have joined campaigns to call for subtitles to be turned on in children’s TV as standard (see, for example Before jumping on this bandwagon, it is worth considering whether this really is the way forward for struggling readers. 

Our Director of the Children’s Speech and Language clinic, Dr Carol Moxam, has on occasions suggested this as an additional support to complement reading done in the home with the child, but only with older children (aged 9 and over) who have a reading age of around 7. These children typically have some reading skills but are clearly behind with their reading in relation to the demands and expectations of the curriculum. Our director would not advise for subtitles to be used with younger children because, for them, it is more important to develop an interest and love of books. The focus should instead be on developing story comprehension before building sight word and decoding skills. For younger children (6-9years) with alphabetic knowledge and emerging decoding and sight word skills, there may well be a place to support building sight word vocabulary and reinforcing visual memory for common letter patterns and early high frequency words. However, regard needs to be given to factors such as the font size and the delivery speed of words on screen. In addition, consideration would need to be given to the child’s eye-tracking ability as well as their attention, listening comprehension, and verbal processing skills. These children’s cognitive processing skills will be taken up with listening and processing what is being said on screen, let alone adding processing load of decoding and sight word reading; this might potentially detract from and ruin the enjoyment of the TV experience. Use of subtitles assumes that the child has cracked the alphabetic code and can blend and synthesise letters in print for decoding. It also relies on the child having acquired a reasonable sight word vocabulary that they can access and retrieve at speed. Neither of these assumptions can be taken for granted with any young children, let alone struggling readers. One final thought that comes to mind is that, for the struggling reader, TV is likely one area where they can escape the pressures and demands of reading and homework, and instead relax. Subtitles on kid’s TV may well spoil one key downtime option the struggling reader has and can enjoy.  While it is not hard to find research under controlled experimental conditions which may show significant improvement in decoding skills following the use of subtitles, it is important to consider which age group this is feasible for and to solicit the children’s view on this and represent their voices before applying subtitles wholesale for supporting reading and potentially ruining TV.  

Introducing: the Child Language Research Group

Here at Newcastle University, members of the Speech and Language Sciences department hold a monthly Child Language Research Group meeting. We are a group of academic lecturers and researchers, clinical research staff, postgraduate students, and speech and language therapists from around the North East.  Our individual research areas converge around child language development, and as a group we include speech & language therapists, psychologists, teachers, economists, phoneticians and linguists. Our aim is to support and encourage one another as researchers and clinicians, so as to advance our research and clinical work in this socially critical field. Our research areas include (but are not limited to!) … 

  • Understanding typical speech and language development  
  • Impact of speech and language development on wellbeing and achievement.  
  • Assessment, intervention and service delivery for developmental speech and language disorders  
  • Multi-lingual language development (typical and atypical), assessment, and intervention 
  • Public health approaches to child language development 

Our meetings include presentations of work being carried out by group members, discussions of current topics in the field of language development and intervention, and discussions around research issues and processes. There is always time for questions and the sharing of both new ideas and sweet treats! (Though in our recent online meetings we suffice to gaze at one another’s home décor in lieu of cakes and chocolate). 

Each meeting is an enjoyable, encouraging, and often fascinating hour or two, and it provides in a variety of ways for our different members. In the spirit of research, we conducted an informal survey, asking our members for their input on what the CLRG means to them. Three key themes arose… 

Gaining Knowledge 

Perhaps the most fundamental part of the CLRG, and the most cited positive aspect by our members is finding out about other research happening in the department. It’s “an ongoing education” for all members, and as one respondent highlighted, it allows us to “learn from one another to enrich our research”. Bringing questions and topics for discussion to the group is an integral aspect of our meetings. One member commented, “I … find the CLRG a really useful place to discuss topics and bring questions – everyone has different knowledge and skills that can be pooled together to generate new ideas or answer a question.”  

Acquiring Skills 

The CLRG is an informal space for presentations of work “at different levels of ‘finished’”. Feedback from the group has helped many members in enhancing the content of their work, written or oral, and their presentation skills more broadly. Lots of postgraduate students, in particular, highlighted this as a key aspect, for example:  

“[the CLRG] has allowed me to develop skills like providing useful feedback and asking effective questions.” 

Developing Connections 

Our postgraduate students and research staff say that attending the CLRG helps to create and sustain social and professional relationships. This is especially true for newcomers to the group:  

“Attending the CLRG was a great introduction to the department and allowed me to meet a range of people.” 

For postgraduate students, the CLRG also helps to bridge the gap between being an undergraduate and taking ownership of their research as a postgraduate. One member said the CLRG helps them to “…[feel] less of a student and more a colleague.”  

Finally, several members commented on the importance of the relationships they had developed in relation to their own research practice: 

“Learning what areas of [the department] each person came from, and then know[ing] who to go to with small questions that would have taken a much longer time to answer alone. 

For attendees, it’s as simple as turning up on the appointed day and time each month (or a simple click of the ‘join’ button in online times!). For organisers, an email list, a Teams group (or similar) and a regular monthly meeting are the small price to pay in return for a huge range of benefits. We love our group and, we’d love to know what you think. Do you have a similar research group at your institution? If not, why not start one?