This is an excerpt from Chapter Nine of
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease (Penguin,
2006, 6th edition). For a list of all topics covered here
and in the print edition see Chapter Nine
CHAPTER 9: TV, Audio, & Technology—
or Helping Literacy?—continued
What about the 'mechanical
reading tutor' you mentioned at the start of this chapter?
television help to build children’s
Actually, if used correctly, the technology of television can help children’s
reading skills. So let me tell you about the mechanical reading tutor that
for now we’ll
call "CC" and I want to introduce you to it via the place that has achieved
the highest performance with it.9
As I pointed out in Chapter One, Finland's children don’t
start formal schooling until aged seven, yet achieve the highest reading scores
in the world.10 Finnish
children also use that CC device and they use it often. And to make it even
more astounding, these high-scoring children also watch fairly large amounts
of television, far more time than they spend reading books. Their daily viewing
is about two-thirds of what American children watch, which is the highest in
CC device used to be pretty expensive in the U.S. ($250), but the price has
dropped since 1993—that's the year it dropped to zero dollars. Free. In fact,
it comes built into every television set in America. It's the closed-captioning
chip you access through your remote device.
Almost half of all Finnish TV shows consists of our old sitcoms like "Gilligan's Island," "Bonanza," "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," and "Hogan's Heroes." So many shows that the Finns can't afford to dub Finnish into all the soundtracks, so they just run them in English—with
Finnish closed-captioning or subtitles.
This means that almost half of everything a nine-year-old Finn wants to watch
is going to be in a foreign language. In order to understand it, he'll have
to be able to read Finnish and be able to read Finnish fast! In Chapter One
I wrote about "motivation" being a missing ingredient in the National Reading
Panel's report, but it's not missing among Finnish children. Motivation propels
American teens to learn to drive a car, and it pushes kids in Finland to learn
A teacher at one of my BER
seminars told me about her family's recent trip to Helsinki, Finland
and their encounter with a Finnish cab driver. "When he realized
we were Americans and a bit disoriented, he volunteered to give
us a tour of the city. Afterward we complimented him on his command
of English and asked how he had learned it.
proudly replied with a smile, 'The Bad and the Beautiful.'" (a
popular American TV soap opera shown daily in Finland)
It stands to reason that reasonable doses of captioned television can do no harm and most likely help greatly with reading. There is enough research to indicate significant gains in comprehension and vocabulary development (especially among bilingual students) when receiving instruction with educational television that is captioned.12
About two years ago, a first-grade teacher told me about a young girl entering her class in September. "On the first day of school, she was already reading on a third-grade level. That's always unusual but what made it more so was that her parents were both deaf. Normally the hearing child of deaf parents is language deficient and therefore behind—but this child was three years ahead. I could hardly wait to conference with the parents. They beamed when I told them of their daughter's achievement and they explained that she'd had closed-captioning all her life."
There are several other factors that make closed-captioning so effective as a reading tutor. Earlier I wrote about the 30 to 1 ratio of visual
receptors over auditory receptors in the brain. Also note that while adults have learned to tune out various distractions in our environment (like captioning), children do not. Everything registers with them, including the connections between what is being said and what is being shown at the bottom of the screen. There's that sponge effect again.
Now recall the observations in Chapter Seven about the print
climate of at-risk children. I mentioned there was a government program that puts the equivalent
of a daily newspaper or weekly news magazine in the home—for free. Can you
see what's coming? The number of words flowing across the screen (closed-captioning)
in the course of three hours is more than the average adult would spend reading
in a daily newspaper or a weekly news magazine. So by enabling the TV's closed-captioning,
it is the equivalent of a newspaper subscription, but unlike the subscription,
it costs nothing.
As for toddlers and preschoolers not being able to read the words on the screen,
that's true. But they also can't read the words in the books and magazines
in the house either, yet those items help acclimate the child to print and
sounds and meaning. The same thing happens with closed-captioning. In fact,
you could easily argue that the characters on the show are reading aloud the
closed-captioning to the child.
you're a teacher, copy this section on closed-captioning and send it home yearly
to your students' parents. Considering what we now about captioning, as well
as the emphasis a succession of presidents has placed on reading skills, it
seems a little weird that we've not heard a word from them about the importance
of parents turning on that "tutoring device." It's especially weird when you
realize it was Bill Clinton's good friend and George W's father who signed
the legislation that put the free closed-captioning chip in all TV sets in
the first place—President George H. W. Bush.
Topics covered in Chapter 9 of print
and Web editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook: