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Education Worldwide

Karaoke Reinforces Reading Skills

Most of us know the effect:  As soon as a subtitle appears on a TV screen, we find it quite impossible to ignore it – whether we understand the language or not. Brij Kothari, an Indian PhD student at Cornell University in the United States watched a lot of Spanish movies in order to learn Spanish in 1996. However, he found the English subtitles coming along distracting and thought that his Spanish would improve with Spanish subtitles more easily.

Crucially, Brij Kothari also thought that India would become literate faster if Indian television would use Same Language Subtitles, or SLS, for its programming. Research back in the 1990s had already shown success with closed captioning for foreign language learning as well as with first language reading acquisition. Songs seemed to be particularly helpful. They help to build phonemic awareness and come along with built-in repetitions.

In India, a country with a high rate of illiteracy, Bollywood songs are immensely popular among all age groups. Brij Kothari wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and managed to persuade public Indian broadcasters to introduce SLS in Bollywood music in Karaoke style (that is, captioned text changes color in synchronization with audio). This was the start of PlanetRead, a not-for-profit organization targeting children, youth and adult readers with some very basic reading skills, but who are not yet functional readers.

To date, SLS programming is now available in ten regional Indian languages nationwide, reaching over 200 million weak readers each week. The viewers associate the lyrics with the text subconsciously, automatically and incidentally. Research shows that SLS accelerates reading skills on a mass scale in and out of school contexts and makes learning to read more fun. Three to five years of exposure to SLS helps a person to become functionally literate, but of course first signs of improvement show up after much shorter time periods.  What is more, newspaper reading habits increased with adults after watching SLS shows.

PlanetRead has won numerous awards for its work such as the All Children Reading Award. The organization has also implemented some more SLS initiatives such as the Bookbox. Bookbox offers multimedia book reading experiences with animated stories, audio narration as well as SLS for children.

The programs are being sponsored by local education departments as well as by private donors interested in promoting literacy. PlanetRead also partners with the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Google Foundation, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Dell and other organizations. There are plans to collaborate and expand SLS initiatives to other countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh.

(Image: Community viewing of songs with Same Language Subtitling, Gulbai Tekra Slum, Ahmedabad. Photo Credit: Jaydeep Bhatt)