Exclusive: 'TV subtitles boost literacy’ - Greening

Government is too 'reticent' about advising parents how to help children learn at home, says former education secretary

Will Hazell

Child watching TV

Parents who lack confidence in reading should turn on television subtitles to improve their children’s literacy, Justine Greening has said.

The former education secretary suggested that government had in the past been too reluctant to tell parents how to bring up their children, and called for it to take a more “active” role by advising parents on how they could create a good “home learning environment”.

One literacy charity has backed her comments by calling on broadcasters to automatically subtitle children’s TV programmes as a way of improving reading skills.

Speaking last month at a social mobility summit organised by the Sutton Trust in New York, Ms Greening highlighted the use of TV subtitles as a “practical” thing that parents could do to improve their children’s prospects.

She said: “If we could just get parents having subtitles on the TV as a matter of course for a child’s early years. If you’re not a great reader yourself, as a parent, that’s one thing you can do, to help children listen and learn words.

“It can help. It’s not going to change the world, but it can help.”


Ms Greening suggested government should abandon its historic reluctance to tell parents what they should do at home.

“I think governments perhaps sometimes have been a bit reticent about what you need to change in, say, the home learning environment, in order to make a difference for kids coming into school,” she said.

Improving the 'home learning environment'

“The bottom line is overwhelmingly parents want to do what’s best for their children, and want some simple things that they can do that will help, and often ask schools for that anyway.

“I think governments need to be more active in helping parents do the best that they can.”

Ms Greening’s comments were welcomed by the National Literacy Trust.

Jonathan Douglas, the charity’s director, told Tes that there was some international evidence that same-language subtitles could be “beneficial” in building literacy.  

In India, researchers had looked at how subtitling on state television impacted reading skills. “It did suggest that actually there was an uplift in terms of the literacy levels of children,” Mr Douglas said.

A US study had found that “repeat appearances of a word and subtitle on a screen several times during a programme” could “help embed that word in a child’s vocabulary”, he said.

And psychological studies had “demonstrated inextricably that your eyes are drawn to print when it’s on the screen – it’s virtually impossible to ignore subtitling”.

Mr Douglas said he would “absolutely support automatic same-language subtitling” on children’s TV programmes.

“This is not replacing or taking away anything from what teachers do – this would be a supplemental activity,” he said.

“What we’re talking about would be particular shows, for kids. In a way, the language of those [programmes] would probably be quite repetitious, and in exactly the same way as picture book repetition or rhyme repetition, would begin to build language systematically.”

Mr Douglas endorsed Ms Greening’s comments about the importance of the home learning environment, which “he called the seedbed of all literacy”.

He said that government had a role to play in making sure that the organisations that shape that environment – like broadcasters – do so in a way which is positive for children’s learning.

“Government has been reticent [to interfere] because the home is a place where public policy can feel intrusive,” he said.

“The kind of initiative we’re talking about here is not about government finger-wagging at parents.

“It’s about supplying environmental nudges – the role of government is strong in terms of creating incentives and a public policy challenge to those people who do unconsciously shape the home learning environment.”

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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