How TV Captions Can Help Kids Read


A Kidmore End entrepreneur has developed a program to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on children’s reading and writing skills.

Oli Barrett has found that turning on closed captions during a TV show can double a child’s chances of becoming a proficient reader.

He says the average child watches 11.8 hours of television per week, which means that by turning on the subtitles, a child would read the equivalent of all the Harry Potter series, Earthsea, His Dark Materials, The Chronicles. of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings books in a year.

He co-founded Turn on the Subtitles (TOTS) with his friend Henry Warren to encourage national broadcasters, schools and parents to support children’s literacy skills.

Mr Barrett, 42, who has two children, said he came up with the idea for TOTS after reading a literacy study on the benefits of captions about six years ago.

He said: “I read a very short article on an essay that showed a bunch of kids using captions to be more proficient readers and that prompted me to do more research.

“I shared the facts and started telling people about them. I read more and more and I was like, “You know what, this idea is so powerful it can’t just be done with me telling my friends about it.” “

One of the people he told about the research was Mr Warren, who he has been friends with for 10 years after participating in a program called Tenner, the UK’s biggest school business challenge, which Mr Barrett also co-founded.

Mr Warren, a tech entrepreneur from Bishop’s Stortford, agreed to co-found TOTS because he has three young children of his own and the idea resonated with him.

He said: “The lockdown meant that, despite my best efforts, the kids were watching a lot more TV than they should.

“TOTS is one of those ‘simple’ ideas that can really help us as parents. It’s a bit like bringing vegetables into dinner – the kids don’t notice it but you know you are doing them good. “

The men started planning the campaign in 2019 and since then Sky, WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS Networks have teamed up and have captioned over 500 of their most popular episodes of children’s programming.

Mr Barrett, who worked in children’s television, said: “Three of the biggest companies in the world are pushing this – they really supported it. It is extremely exciting. Netflix and Amazon Prime have been encouraged to launch pilot projects where shows automatically have subtitles, and YouTube Kids has launched several literacy channels.

Mr Barrett said: “If creators don’t automatically put captions on, it’s hard to turn them on, so YouTube encourages their creators to make their own as well.”

The businessman, who lives with his wife Verity, 42, also an entrepreneur, and their two young daughters, received research assistance by speaking to the National Literacy Trust, a charity dedicated to help disadvantaged children to read and write.

He said: “I strongly believe in what schools, parents and big business can do to make a difference.

“Brilliant companies and campaigns are already encouraging people to read books and I’ve seen so many different investments helping young people do it, but this campaign seemed like a blinding way to fill the void.

“We are targeting children aged 6 to 10, but it can help at all ages. We spoke to 20,000 schools.

Financial support for the campaign was provided by online educational publisher Twinkl, international educational publisher Pearson and award-winning digital publisher GCSEPod.

A study conducted by GCSEPod and Nesta, an innovation agency, took place over the past winter, involving 225,000 children watching videos with captions and the same number without captions.

Only one in 100 children with captions chose to turn them off, but 98.1% of those without captions kept them.

Mr Barrett said: “The lesson from this research is that default captions are really important. There is a school of thought that says, “Couldn’t children turn them on themselves if they wanted to?” but research shows they don’t, which is why this little change is important.

In addition to getting broadcasters involved, Mr Barrett has asked celebrities to help spread the word.

Stephen Fry, actor and host, said: “The best scientists have proven that turning on subtitles on TV programs can double the chances of a child becoming good at reading.”

Lenny Henry, comedian and actor, said: “Just turn on the subtitles, it’s amazing. Research has shown that they can double the chances of a child becoming good at reading.

Other names to support the campaign so far include former US President Bill Clinton, Countdown Rachel Riley, actor Sanjeev Bhaskar and presenter Sandi Toksvig.

In December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a statement in the Commons calling the campaign “excellent”.

Mr Barrett, who received an MBE in 2013 for business and entrepreneurship services, said: ‘It is great that the Prime Minister has shown his support to us, but the most important thing is to spread the word to parents and teachers.

“We wrote to Stephen Fry before the first lockdown and we were very grateful for his support.

“He was the host of IQ and the voice of the Harry Potter books and I like to think it’s magic and people don’t know the secret.

“As for the other celebrities, I think something about the simplicity of the campaign and how it benefits young people has encouraged them to get involved.”

Mr Barrett, who attended Bradfield College and then Leeds University, said the big change was to harness the power of broadcasters and tech companies.

He said: “The default setting for the subtitles is that they are off, so we started by talking to the folks at the BBC, Disney, Amazon, Channel 4 to raise awareness – it was two. very busy years.

“We want to encourage the BBC and Netflix to think about their default settings.”

Mr. Barrett has the subtitles in his own home to help his daughters as well as for him and his wife if they hear part of a program poorly.

He said: “I’m really proud that my oldest daughter likes to read, but she has the subtitles when she watches cartoons and she complains if someone tries to turn them off. She loves her reading and I would like to think the subtitles helped her.

“I don’t think screen time should replace reading and I think it’s important that parents continue to read to their children.

“Verity and I have subtitles for ourselves because we don’t want to miss anything and whether it’s because of our hearing or the way the show is produced, the subtitles help us. It benefits the hearing impaired as well as those who live in busy and noisy households. It’s a chance to turn on subtitles by default.

While the campaign has already accomplished a lot in three years, there is no slowdown for TOTS.

Mr Barrett said: “We want to continue to spread the word and hope parents will want to support the campaign.”

He started working in children’s television with the launch of Bob the handyman. He went on to create Tenner, the UK’s biggest school business challenge, in which students start with £ 10 and are tasked with making money. Over 250,000 have passed.

Mr. Barrett has also co-founded a number of other organizations, including Volunteer It Yourself, a Wickes-backed social enterprise that has helped thousands of young people start their own youth clubs; Rainmakers, an innovation and incubation company; and StartUp Britain, which was privately funded and led to the creation of PitchUp Britain, with John Lewis and Sainsbury’s, and PopUp Britain, with the opening of stores across the UK.

He has also co-created and led 11 international trade missions, including WebMission and Clean and Cool Mission to help businesses succeed abroad.

He is now a regular host of conferences and awards for events in education, technology and entrepreneurship, as well as advisory boards of Tech London Advocates, One Million Mentors and Troubadour Theaters.

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