The campaign trying to make subtitles the default for kids’ TV

“If you suddenly found subtitles on your children’s Netflix account last year – that wasn’t a coincidence”

This story starts back in 2019, when Henry Warren had a conversation with Oli Barrett over coffee about a news article that Oli had read on how turning on subtitles on children’s TV content had a dramatic positive impact on their reading proficiency, writes Nina Hale from the Turn On The Subtitles campaign. 

Slightly sceptical but intrigued, the two sought out the academic who had conducted the study and took his research, along with a mountain of similar studies, to The National Literacy Trust to review.

Once validated, they set off on a quest to make sure this information reached every household with young children.

It has been proven that subtitles cause automatic reading behaviour amongst children (and adults).  The key to reading fluency is practice and it is easier to motivate that practice in children if the subtitles are on high interest content, such as their favourite set of cartoons. 

Multiple studies from across the world have concluded the same thing; subtitles really do improve reading, especially for weaker readers. 

In an academic study of 2,350 children, 34% became good readers with schooling alone. But when exposed to 30 minutes a week of subtitled film songs, that proportion more than doubled to 70%. 

While the research has shown that the maximum impact can be seen in children aged six to 10, any age beyond that will still see a benefit from the additional reading practice.   

Fast forward to March 2021 and earlier this month Stephen Fry, Sandi Toksvig, Sir Lenny Henry and other celebrities and academics jointly helped launch the public facing part of this campaign, “Turn On The Subtitles!”, to get the message out as widely as possible.  

Whilst Henry and Oli’s main focus had been to work with broadcasters and streamers directly to have them switch on subtitles by default, the new avenue to the campaign this year has focused on asking parents and teachers to Turn On The Subtitles.

A task that should take no more than a few seconds could dramatically change the literacy levels in schools. 

The UK Prime Minister has recently backed the campaign and broadcasters such as Netflix, Sky and YouTube Kids are already embracing this. If you suddenly found subtitles on your children’s Netflix account last year – that wasn’t a coincidence, that was this campaign and you were part of a global trial.  

We have been extremely pleased with so much positivity coming from the campaign. A couple of people have suggested their children don’t like the words on the screen, however the beauty of this campaign is that we are only asking for the subtitles to be on by default. Any strong objectors are welcome to switch them off.  

We were also very happy to see a recent study carried out by GCSEPOD and Nesta where over 1 million videos were accessed by their 450,000 students over the course of 5 weeks. 

Around 225,000 students had the subtitles switched on by default at the start of the experiment.  At the end of it, 98.5% of those students had kept the subtitles on, thus very clearly showing that subtitles were not impacting their user experience.  

Sky announced alongside Warner Media and Nickelodeon a week after the parents and schools campaign launched that they had created a brand new children’s section in SkyQ where, yes, you guessed it, all the cartoons have subtitles on.  They also created an awesome video for parents to explain why they had done this.

Netflix switched on the subtitles by default in their trial, so users were able to turn them off if they wanted to, though the SkyQ collaboration with Warner and Viacom went down a slightly different route whereby they created a dedicated literacy space where the subtitles were “burnt into” the shows and thus couldn’t be removed.

What’s next for the campaign?  We will continue to work with broadcasters and streamers to see the default subtitle setting switched on in the UK but have also set our sights on the rest of the world as well.

It’s rare that simple actions that take very little time and cost nothing have the ability to impact so many children. This could just be the simplest one yet, and maybe one of the most powerful.

About the author: Nina Hale joined the Turn On The Subtitles campaign six months in and hasn’t sat down for a peaceful cup of tea since.