What takes ten seconds?

Hand holding Stopwatch

“What takes ten seconds, costs nothing but could change your child’s life forever?” is a question posed by Stephen Fry in publicity for a campaign to improve children’s literacy. The answer, of course, is “turn on the subtitles.”

Turn On The Subtitles, which positions itself as the world’s biggest literacy project, advocates the turning on of subtitles to improve children’s ability to read. It conducted research that shows having subtitles on when children are watching television can double the chances of improving their reading. Based on an academic study of 2,350 children, 34% became good readers with schooling alone; but when exposed to 30 minutes a week of subtitled content, that proportion more than doubled to 70%. The charity says there is a substantial amount of global evidence to back their claims and they publish their own research on their website:

“Subtitles cause automatic reading behaviour among children and adults. A key finding of eye-tracking research on subtitling, which studies the automatic reading behaviour of children and adults, is that viewers who have some decoding ability – even partial letter-to-sound correspondence – just cannot ignore the subtitles and will exhibit automatic reading responses.”

The campaign, which encourages parents to make the switch to using subtitles, was founded by two fathers: serial entrepreneur Oli Barrett and ed tech father of three and entrepreneur Henry Warren. They say that adding subtitles to TV helps across the ages, even for adults, but their campaign focuses specifically on helping younger children with their reading, those aged 6 and upwards.

Homeschooling and an increase in screen time as a result of COVID-19 has had a detrimental effect, according to Stephen Fry, who said “the impact of the pandemic has meant that some children have actually taken a step backwards, a leap backwards in literacy, which is a worry and a tragedy.” Meanwhile Philip Schofield backed the campaign by saying “this quick, simple and free idea can double the chances of your child becoming good at reading.” The founders say that, although subtitles won’t replace books, they may increase a child’s ability to read them.

Sandi Toksvig, Lenny Henry and Phillip Schofield and are among several other celebrities to endorse Turn On the Subtitles. It has also been backed by Boris Johnson and former US president Bill Clinton. The charity aims to raise awareness of their cause amongst broadcasters, tech companies and policy makers. They can now count SubText Digital as among their supporters.

We have conducted our own research specifically into the appetite for subtitling adverts and it‘s effect on engagement with young people, and we will be announcing this new data later this week.

In the meantime, we have our own anecdotal evidence. One of our team recently walked into the living room to find her seven year old nephew watching So Awkward with the subtitles on. She asked him why he had them on and he said: “I like clicking buttons and this way I can see what people are saying.”