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Study Finds Television Can Improve Literacy in India



Would you believe it if someone told you that watching television could help people gain or improve literacy skills? 

Adults in India are watching Bollywood television programs with same language subtitling (SLS) and are learning to read and improving their language skills. Bollywood is the name given to the Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry in India. Bollywood films are usually musicals featuring song and dance with melodramatic plots. 

PlanetRead, a nonprofit that envisions a world where everyone can read, came up with the idea of using SLS to help struggling readers in India. The subtitles send the lyrics of songs in films and music videos across the screen in the same language that they are being sung in.

The Bollywood program Rangoli utilizes SLS. The musical TV show airs in Gujarat, India, and applies SLS in karaoke-style scrolling subtitles so the words are highlighted as they are spoken. The program combines eye-tracking technology with the karaoke-like subtitles so viewers learn the words they see on screen at the same rate they are spoken or sung. Many Indian film songs have repetitive lyrics, which help viewers practice the same words over and over again.

PlanetRead and the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad pioneered SLS with a mission to help hundreds of millions of people in India transition from having low or early-reading skills, to having the skills needed to fluently read at a higher level. 

In 1996, PlanetRead founder Brij Kothari traveled to India’s rural villages and slums with two screens. One showed songs with subtitles and one did not. People loved the subtitles, and by 2002 the SLS project was being rolled out nationally on 30-minute shows, up to 30 times a week.


Rangoli is a musical TV show in Gujarat, India that uses same-language subtitling
to teach viewers how to read with karaoke-style scrolling lyrics (Credit: PlanetRead)

What Research Shows About Literacy in Television

Many people living in India are unable to assist their children with homework, read prescription labels, seek employment opportunities, or perform tasks as simple as reading the daily newspaper.

Research shows that in 2011, there were 780 million literate individuals living in India. It was also reported that the same number watched an average of three hours or more of television a day.  According to PlanetRead, however, at least 400 million of those “literate” Indians cannot read simple, basic text.

In a country where there is a high interest in television and film, PlanetRead found that incorporating SLS into popular TV programs was a great way to reach these struggling readers and help turn them into functional readers. 

PlanetRead’s studies on eye racking and the use of repetitive lyrics, showed that subtitles induce an automatic and inescapable reading response in the viewer.

“The reading engagement takes place, not because the TV viewer is consciously trying to read along the songs, but because the brain automatically registers consistent associations between sound and text,” Kothari said during an interview with BBC. 

A study by the University of Nottingham showed that if subtitles are displayed on TV shows, people are likely to read them. 

In Kaneohe, Hawaii, students who were exposed to programs with SLS scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than those who were not.

Since the SLS program began in India, Kothari said that among those watching the programs with subtitles, newspaper reading has increased from 34 percent to almost 70 percent. His studies, which were published in the International Review of Education, showed that a low-level reader exposed to a half hour of weekly SLS programs gains the ability to read a newspaper within three to five years.

What’s in-store for literacy improvement through SLS?

PlanetRead wants to incorporate SLS into 50 television programs per week. If it can gain support throughout the country and from the government, the estimated annual cost for this initiative would be $1 million, and it could use all of India’s 22 languages. To improve the reading levels of 400 million low-level readers, the cost per person would be less than a cent.

“Among a bunch of literacy projects in India, what differentiates PlanetRead’s work is that they are utilizing existing television shows and experiences people are already used to,” Michael Trucano, senior education and technology policy specialist at the World Bank, said during an interview with BBC.

If this initiative gets off the ground and running, many believe that millions of kids and adults will improve their language and reading skills by watching television and reading along to Bollywood songs. What do you think?






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