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 https://www.itv.com/news/2021-03-01/celebrities-including-stephen-fry-and-sandi-toksvig-join-call-for-subtitles-to-be-turned-on-for-childrens-tv). 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.