The verdict was unanimous: watching videos with subtitles is useless for learners because they end up just focusing on reading. I was in the middle of a conversation in an online group of language teachers and I was struck by how confident everybody was that subtitles were detrimental.
In the current climate we find ourselves in from the Covid-19 virus, many people are turning to online streaming services to pass the time; also, in an attempt to make asynchronous online learning work, language teachers might be wondering about the value of directing students to watch films and TV series with (or without?) subtitles. So, I decided to do some research and see if the jury is still out on captions.
Are subtitles so bad after all?
Based on findings from studies on watching videos and films with captions in foreign languages (not in the learners first language (L1)), it seems clear that there are some advantages, but also some caveats to be aware of .
Watching with subtitles seems to be beneficial to enhance:
- Speech segmentation: (the ability to tell where one word ends and the next one begins) and, more broadly, bottom-up listening skills such as recognising and interpreting the building blocks of language (sounds, syllables and so on);
- Vocabulary acquisition: watching with captions can encourage students to pay attention and consciously focus on the form, especially if new words or expressions are heard. There is also evidence that subtitles can help establish connections between forms and meanings, whilst developing the ability to use context to infer word meaning;
- General listening comprehension: in some experimental studies, groups that watched videos with subtitles outperformed groups that did not in terms of improvements in general listening comprehension;
- Level of effort invested and self-confidence: thanks to the availability of captions, learners might be motivated to make extra efforts to go beyond just understanding the gist of the message and gradually increase their self-confidence;
- Adoption of flexible strategies: rather than rely entirely on reading subtitles, students in various studies developed more flexible approaches, improving their ability to decide autonomously how to switch between watching and reading subtitles, pausing or looking up words when necessary.
Is all that glitters gold when it comes to subtitles?
Based on the research, it’s not that simple. First, subtitles seem to work best for intermediate and high-level listeners: low-level listeners, conversely, tend to focus on reading and might feel overwhelmed by having to read, watch and listen. Another related issue concerns each learner’s beliefs: for example, students who see videos in foreign languages mostly as an opportunity to develop their vocabulary (rather than their listening) might focus even more on the captions at the expense of improving their listening. In addition, some learners see the activity of watching videos, films and TV series as primarily a leisure activity, so they might rely on the subtitles for most of their viewing to avoid spoiling their fun by making too much of an effort.
So, what should we do?
These caveats are certainly valid for a lot of students, but as teachers, we have ways to tackle them and make the most of captions. Here are some tips:
- Before introducing your students to videos, films or TV series, consider their difficulty. This includes factors like lexical complexity, repetition of information (the more, the easier the text), thematic complexity and students’ prior knowledge on the subject. Using authentic and popular shows or films can be motivating and fun; however, lower-level learners might not be ready to deal with them, so they might rely too much on subtitles;
- Consider scaffolding these viewing activities, for example by discussing the topic of the video in advance or reading and commenting a synopsis of a film;
- Provide guidance to your students on how to approach the task and what they can reasonably expect from it: once learners let go of their expectation to understand every word, they are more likely to relax and enjoy the video;
- Allow for time at the beginning for students to get used to the video. Research suggests that captions are used a lot at the start of the viewing experience while students familiarise themselves with the video, so allowing for some time before asking students questions is likely to help;
- After watching, it is a good idea to review with the students what worked and what didn’t. This helps students develop an autonomous approach and enhances their metacognitive knowledge (i.e. knowledge of what strategies work in what contexts, how to apply them, monitor and evaluate their success).
Have you ever used captioned films and videos with your students? What did they think? Tell us in the comments!
- Vanderplank, R. (2019). ‘“Gist watching can only take you so far”: attitudes, strategies and changes in behaviour in watching films with captions.’ The Language Learning Journal 47(4): 407-423.
- Montero Perez, M., et al. (2013). ‘Captioned video for L2 listening and vocabulary learning: A meta-analysis.’ System 41(3): 720-739.