My husband and I like having the captions on while we’re watching a TV show so we can keep the volume down without missing any dialogue. Because of that, the captions are almost always on when my son takes over the TV — a fact that frustrated him for years.
In the years before he could read — and even during the very early stages of reading — the captions were an annoying distraction from his TV-viewing experience.
But around the time that his reading skills really started taking off, I noticed that he stopped complaining about the captions and stopped asking me to turn them off. He was both watching and reading, reinforcing what he was learning in school.
Of course, if you’ve ever watched TV with the captions on, you know it isn’t a perfect system. My son says it can be annoying when the words appear before the characters have said them or if there’s a long delay between the words being spoken and then appearing on the screen.
Plus, there was that one time he was watching SpongeBob but the captions on the screen were for another show, and the words “I’m a wild card! I’m a wild card!” kept appearing over and over. “I was like, ‘OK, you’re a wild card, I get it,’” my son says.
But overall, he says the captions help him learn new words and how to spell harder words. (In particular, he watches a lot of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and how else would he know how to spell names like “Ahsoka”?)
It turns out that, beyond my own anecdotal experience, there is some research that suggests that reading subtitles can improve early childhood literacy, according to an article in Education Week:
I looked into the matter further, finding that same-language subtitling can actually support literacy. In other words, rather than being simply annoying, listening to English and reading English subtitles helps in decoding words and reading better. In fact, the linguist and researcher Martine Danan calls captioning an “undervalued language-learning strategy.”
I’m not suggesting that TV captions are a substitute for reading actual books, but turning on the captions is an easy way to help increase word recognition.