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This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight 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 Eight list.





CHAPTER 8: — continued

What About the Mechanical Reading Tutor You Mentioned Earlier?

Let’s begin in the place that has achieved the highest performance with the device, Finland.2 As I pointed out in chapter 1, Finland’s children don’t start formal schooling until age seven, yet they achieve the highest reading scores in the world.3 Part of that success can be attributed to a mechanical device that Finnish children use, perhaps more often than any other nation.

Surprisingly, 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 the world.4

The device used to be pretty expensive in the United States ($250), but the price has dropped since 1993— when it went to zero dollars. Free. In fact, it comes built into every television set sold in America. It’s the closed-captioning chip you access through the TV remote.

Almost half of all Finnish TV shows are our old sitcoms like Gilligan’s Island, Bonanza, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Hogan’s Heroes. There are so many shows that the Finns can’t afford to dub Finnish into all the sound tracks, so they just run them in English with Finnish closed-captioning or subtitles. This means that nearly half of everything a nine- year-old Finn wants to watch is going to be in a foreign language. In order to understand it, she’ll have to be able to read Finnish and be able to read Finnish fast!  

In chapter 1, I wrote about the importance of motivation in learning anything. Whereas motivation propels American teens to learn to drive a car, it pushes kids in Finland to learn to read— they want to understand those TV shows. It stands to reason that moderate doses of captioned television can do no harm to students, and most likely it will 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.5

In 2003, 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. In chapter 2, I wrote about the 30:1 ratio of visual receptors over auditory receptors in the brain. In other words, the chances of a word (or sentence) being retained in our memory bank are thirty times greater if we see it instead of just hear it. There’s that sponge effect again.

The silence of U.S. presidents about closed-captioning's impact on reading scores.

Now recall the observations in chapter 6 about the print climate of at-risk children. Closed-captioning is basically a government program that puts the equivalent of a daily newspaper or weekly magazine in the home — for free. The number of words flowing across the screen in the course of three hours of closed-captioned TV is more than the average adult would read in a daily newspaper or a weekly newsmagazine. Enabling the TV’s closed- captioning is the equivalent of a newspaper subscription, but unlike the subscription, it costs nothing.

Although a child may be too young to read yet, all the books, magazines, and newspapers in the home are acclimating him or her to the world of print. The same thing happens with closed-captioning. In fact, you could argue that the characters on the TV show are reading aloud the closed-captioning to the child.

Pasi Sahlberg, a leading member of Finland’s Ministry of Education, has long tied the country’s students’ reading progress to its decision to require all foreign programs on TV to be closed-captioned.6 Strangely, since George H. W. Bush signed the Television Decoder Circuitry Act back in 1990, making the closed-captioning chip mandatory in U. S. sets, not one of his three successors has promoted the use of the device as an aid for children’s reading. My guess is they either didn’t like it because there are no tests to go along with the captioning or they think Finnish children’s brains are built differently than U. S. children’s. Either way, their silence is embarrassing.

Questions and issues covered in Chapter 8 of the print and e-book editions
        of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

Chapter Eight — p.1   p.2    Footnotes

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