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Educational Uses of Captioning
Oregon's Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (ODHHS)-Technical Assistance Center
ODHHS Information and Technical Assistance Series

Educational Uses of Captioning
(Source: Caption Center)
Evidence is mounting that hearing, deaf and hard-of-hearing of all ages who watch television with captions may be improving their reading skills. Teachers, researchers and parents alike are experimenting with using captions as supplementary reading material and we hope this introduction to the technology will encourage you to do the same. If you would like to know more, a bibliography of captioning studies is available. If you discover new ways to use captioning to aid reading, let us know.
What are captions and how did they come about?
Printed words on the screen have been around since the days of silent movies. Deaf and hearing audiences both had equal access to movies through slides of printed words which represented dialogue or explained plot. When sound was added and printed words were eliminated, deaf viewers lost access to theatrical releases. Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences were also unable to follow television for the first two decades of this pervasive and influential medium. Not until the advent of captioned television, pioneered by The Caption Center in the early ´70s, could deaf and hard-of-hearing people begin to share in all that television has to offer.
Similar to subtitles, captions display spoken dialogue as printed words on the television screen. Unlike subtitles, they indicate sound effects, music and laughter and are carefully placed to identify speakers. Most often, captions appear as white letters against a black or transparent background, however, as the technology continues to improve, you may begin to see captions in color.
How do captions work?
Captions are written, timed and placed using specially designed software. Captions are encoded as data onto a program´s video, 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 deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. However, captions also have great potential to serve people of all ages who are learning to read.
For those learning English as a second language, captions can reinforce vocabulary and help them learn expressions and speech patterns in spoken English which are not always reflected in written English. The National Parent Teacher Association, The National Education Association, and Action for Children´s Television are among the organizations which have recognized the educational benefits of captioning. Even former First Lady Barbara Bush has championed captioning as an aid to reading and increasing literacy.
How can I use captions in the classroom?
Educators use closed captioned television 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. He shows the first half of the programs with captions and audio and the second half with captions only. To learn the outcome of the story, students must read the captions. The teacher reports that reading skills have improved because of his techniques.
Captioned television requires a minimum of introductory material. Television is friendly and familiar to most children and adults. Television can also play a key role bringing literature to life. The wide range of captioned programs makes it easy to select whichever programs appeal to your students. Your experience with different populations and your judgment will guide how you use captioned programs in your classroom but the following guidelines may be helpful.
  • Preview the program, to become familiar with content, before using it in class. Choose key scenes for discussion of concepts and note opportunities to build vocabulary. To build fluency, you may want to pick a key point to turn down the volume on a program, making it necessary for the students to read the captions in order to follow the storyline. Previewing is also essential for determining an appropriate break point for programs that may run longer than class time.
  • Explain that captions follow certain principles.
    • Captions usually appear underneath the person who is speaking.
    • A single sentence can extend through several captions.
    • Off-screen speakers and narrators are identified.
    • Captions indicate off-screen noises and sound effects when they are important to the plot and/or content.
    • Captions may be slightly edited - a word or two - to maintain reading speed.
  • Select appropriate points to stop the tape. Pause, stop or rewind the videotape to focus your students on target vocabulary, 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 and places where the pictures and captions diverge (especially in documentaries).
How can I get closed captions?
Since July 1993, all televisions sold in the United States with screens 13 inches or larger have built-in decoder circuitry. If you have an older television and you are not yet ready to upgrade, you can purchase a set-top decoder and attach it to your television much like you would connect a VCR. Set-top decoders cost between $100 and $200 and are manufactured by several different companies. Please contact The Caption Center for an updated list of where to buy decoders.
What programs are closed captioned?
Educators have a wide range of captioned materials to choose from. With rare exception, all network and PBS programs offered in primetime (between 8 and 11 p.m.) are closed captioned. Most children´s programs are also captioned. The list of captioned programs in syndication, on cable, in home video and instructional programming increases daily. Most television programs may be recorded and shown for educational use within seven days directly after broadcast without infringing on copyright restrictions.
The following symbols indicate that a program is closed captioned:

Before purchasing videotapes for use in your school, you may want to make sure that the tapes are captioned. If you don´t see any of the closed caption symbols on the packaging or in the catalog, call and ask the distributor if the tape is captioned. This would be a great time to let distributors know that you plan to use captions in your classroom and that captioning is a factor when you purchase videotapes for your school.