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MAG Guide Vol. 7

The educational uses of closed captioning
A brief history of captions
Printed words on the screen have been around since the days of silent movies. Both hearing and deaf audiences had equal access to movies through slides of printed words, which represented dialogue or explained the plot. When sound was added and printed words were eliminated, viewers with hearing disabilities lost access to theatrical film releases. In addition, these audiences were unable to follow television for the first two decades of the pervasive and influential medium. It was not until the introduction of captioned television by The Caption Center (now part of the Media Access Group at WGBH) in the early 1970s, that people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing began to share in all that television has to offer.

How captions work
Similar to subtitles, captions display spoken dialogue as printed words on the television or movie screen. Unlike subtitles, they also identify speakers and indicate sound effects, music and laughter. Most often, captions appear as white letters against a black or transparent strip running along the bottom of the screen.

Written, timed and placed using specially designed software, captions are encoded as data onto a program's video -- made ready for broadcast or home video release. Although caption data is broadcast to all television sets and is present on many videotapes, only TVs with built-in decoder circuitry or a set-top decoder can decipher the data and display captions on-screen.

Who can benefit from captioned television
The original purpose of captions was to make television meaningful for viewers who are deaf and hard of hearing, though captions also have great educational potential for people of all ages. Evidence shows that television viewers -- both hearing and hearing impaired -- can improve their reading skills by watching TV with captions. For example, those learning English as a second language can follow captions to reinforce vocabulary and help them learn spoken expressions and speech patterns that are not always reflected in written English. Teachers, researchers and parents alike are experimenting with using captions as supplementary reading material, while organizations such as the National Parent Teacher Association, the National Education Association and Action for Children's Television have recognized captioning as an aid to reading and increasing literacy.

Ways to use captions in the classroom
As we mentioned, educators may use closed captioned TV programs to improve literacy, build reading fluency and assist in teaching English as a second language. One high school teacher uses captioned tapes of popular programs in his remedial reading class. By showing the first half of the program with both captions and audio, and the second half with captions only, he compels his students to read the captions in order to learn the outcome of the story. The teacher reports that reading skills have improved as a result of using this teaching technique.

Because television is familiar to most children and adults, captioned television requires a minimum of introductory material. And TV offers a wide range of captioned programs to choose from, making it easy to select options that are appropriate for any age or interest group. Once you've chosen a captioned program to use in your classroom, the following guidelines may be helpful:

  • Before using a program in class, preview it to become familiar with its content. When previewing, choose key scenes for discussion, note opportunities to build vocabulary and determine an appropriate break point for programs that run longer than class. To build fluency, you may want to pick a key point to turn down the volume, making it necessary for the students to read the captions in order to follow the story.
  • Before showing a captioned program in class, explain the following facts about captions:
    • Captions usually appear underneath the person who is speaking
    • A single sentence may extend through several captions
    • Off-screen speakers and narrators are identified
    • Captions indicate off-screen noises and sound effects that are important to the plot and/or content
    • Dialogue may be slightly edited or shortened to allow readers to maintain reading speed
  • Select appropriate points to stop the tape. Pause, stop or rewind the videotape to focus your students on key vocabulary and new concepts or developments in the plot. Some teachers stop the tape briefly at key points to test recognition or understanding of new words. You may want to point out scenes where the video supports the content of the captions or where the images and captions diverge (especially in documentaries).

What is closed captioned?
Educators and parents have a wide range of captioned programs to choose from. Although there are rare exceptions, all prime-time (between 8-11pm) network and PBS programs, as well as most children's programs, are closed captioned. New entertainment and instructional programming with closed captions are available regularly in syndication, on cable, on home video and DVD. Most TV shows may be recorded and shown for educational use within seven days of broadcast without infringing on copyright restrictions.

When looking for television programs, educational videotapes and/or DVDs with closed captions, look for the following symbols in the program guide or on product packaging:

If you want to purchase videos or DVDs for educational use, but don't find closed captioning symbols on the packaging or in the catalog, call the distributor directly. This also is a good opportunity to let distributors know that you use captioning in your classroom and that its availability is a factor when you purchase videotapes for your school or organization.

How to access closed captions
Since July 1993, all TVs sold in the United States with screens 13 inches or larger have built-in caption decoders. If you have an older television, but are not ready to upgrade, you can purchase a set-top decoder, which attaches to your TV much like a VCR. Set-top decoders cost $100 - $200 and are manufactured by several different companies. For an updated list of decoder dealers, contact the Media Access Group at WGBH.

We hope this introduction to the technology will encourage you to experiment on your own.

To learn more about how to use captioning for educational purposes, a bibliography of captioning studies is available. And, if you discover any new ways to use captioning for educational purposes, please let us know! Contact the Media Access Group at WGBH.

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