1999 Conference Proceedings

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Margaret S. Jelinek Lewis
Idaho Assistive Technology Project CDHD
Moscow, Idaho 83843

Televisions are ubiquitous in our society; education through television starts at home, in nursery and preschool settings, by the availability to very young children of programs such as Sesame Street. Television shapes our knowledge and understanding of our culture and of the broader world. The audio component of television, however, is inherently inaccessible to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The advent of television captions, as assistive technology for the deaf, opened new possibilities for this population to access television media. Captions are the type-written version of the audio component of television, providing a visual display of the dialogue, narration, music and sound effects for those who cannot hear. Thus, with the intent of making television more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing, the Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 states that all US-sold television sets with screens 13 inches or larger are required to have built-in closed caption decoders.

As more television programs are captioned, it is still not clear how many people are fully able to utilize this technology. Because making use of captions involves "reading television," reading is an essential skill for understanding captions and, by extension, comprehending television programs. The process of reading involves the use of prior knowledge and short-term memory; for individuals who are deaf, it may also require skill in a spoken language (i.e., English) which they have not mastered.

Thus, issues of literacy, conceptual knowledge and memory constraints come to bear on the comprehension of television captions. Research to date seems to indicate that most deaf teenagers can only read on a third- or fourth-grade level (Quigley, 1982). Nonetheless, captioned television and films (which are presumably at a higher reading level) are quite popular among school-aged children (Liss & Price, 1981).

Furthermore, when it has been suggested that captions should be "watered down" to a more accessible reading level, members of the Deaf community have cried out, demanding the same information that would be given to a hearing person. Without fluent word reading abilities and adequate background knowledge, however, a deaf person watching television may visually perceive the action, but because the specific information, the subtleties of the conversation or the entire story line of the program are in some way inaccessible the person is only perceiving the program. Fully accessible television may make the difference between perceiving the program and conceptualizing the program.

Research has also shown that children are motivated to read by watching captioned television (NCI, 1983). Both developmentalists who stress the importance of a child's learning environment and literacy theorists who focus on the cultural aspects of literacy would agree that if reading and reading-based activities are incorporated into daily living, children will come to understand literacy as socially valuable (Adams, 1990; Paul, 1998). From that respect, captioning may be welcomed as a path to literacy.

Captioning has made television accessible, to some extent; the question remains, however, as to whether deaf viewers are gleaning the same information from captions as hearing viewers are able to get through the audio portion of television. Therefore, the goal of this research is to determine how accessible television content is to the deaf viewer by assessing comprehension of television programs with and without captions.


Participants were 50 elementary and secondary school students, ages 8-20, from a midwestern residential school for the deaf and an urban public school program for the deaf. 50 hearing students from urban midwestern public and parochial elementary and secondary schools served as a comparison group. All participants had a required minimum Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) reading comprehension score of 2.0. Students participated in four testing sessions in small groups. In each session, they watched a 10-minute segment of a "Nova" television program - Obelisks, The Colosseum, Stonehenge and The Incas - in the following conditions:

  1. video with captioning (no audio),
  2. captioning on a black screen,
  3. a written (paper) transcript of the video (no visual).

Presentation order of conditions and video tapes (content) were counterbalanced across participants. Each student was presented with four different segments, which consisted of three videos and read text, which varied in both content and condition. After each segment, students were given an 18-question multiple-choice comprehension test (CT), based on the video tapes, which was read out loud to hearing students and both signed and read to deaf students.

It was predicted that (H1) findings would reveal a positive relationship between SAT score and CT score for both Deaf and Hearing students and (h4) students' scores for the transcript version would be significantly better than their scores for either video version. Given equivalent reading levels, (H3) hearing students would score better than Deaf students across all conditions.


In general, in order to compare the test scores of hearing and deaf students and the effect of each experimental condition, a mixed analysis of variance model with both between and within subjects factors was used, holding SAT score constant as a covariate. Overall, the mean age for deaf students (180.2 months) was higher than for hearing students (129 months) and approached significance, F(1,83) = 3.27, p = .07, yet the mean SAT-score (reading grade-level) for deaf students was significantly lower (deaf SAT = 3.71 SD=1.64; hearing SAT = 5.6 SD=1.99), F(1,83) = 75.83, p = .0001).

Findings indicated, however, that age did not contribute independently to the video-based test scores. As a whole, hearing students scored significantly higher than deaf students on the video-based comprehension test (hearing mean = 9.79, deaf mean = 7.36), F(1,83) = 5.97, p = .0166, as predicted by (H3). There was not a significant main effect for video content, however, thus the "story" (Obelisk, Inca, etc.) did not affect recall.

SAT is strongly correlated with CT scores (H1), yet when SAT is held constant, hearing students' CT scores are still significantly higher than deaf students' scores. In other words, given equivalent levels of reading skill, deaf students lag behind hearing students in their ability to generalize this skill or use prior knowledge to answer the questions correctly. Unexpectedly, for both hearing and deaf students, however, scores tended to be highest for the captioned video (Condition 1). It was predicted that students' scores for the transcript version will be significantly better than their scores for either video version (h2); this finding may suggest that the pictures in the video assisted comprehension in general.


Research has shown that captioning allows television to be more accessible to people who might otherwise be "shut out" from the audio component of programs. Access to the information contained in the audio component is essential to comprehension of a program, especially if there is a discrepancy between the action depicted and information conveyed through audio or captions. The deaf students in this study all enjoyed watching captioned television and watched it regularly, despite their apparent inability to comprehend programs at levels on par with their hearing peers.

The concept of emergent literacy suggests that children's exposure to literacy activities in the social environment fosters literacy development (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). Based on this view, consistent exposure to captioning may promote literacy skills within the context of television, thus making captioned television a viable option for deaf viewers. Moreover, within both hearing and Deaf cultures, some level of reading proficiency is necessary for reading (and writing) TTY messages, email and possibly for religious study and work or pleasure.

Therefore, just as television is being used in classrooms as an educational tool for students learning English as a second language and students with reading difficulties, it is possible that by watching captioned television, deaf students could be advancing their literacy skills through exposure to English vocabulary and syntax.

As with all types of assistive technology, however, the technology must be developmentally appropriate. If deaf students are unable to comprehend captioned television on par with hearing students at the same reading level, captions are not serving as appropriate assistive technology; that is, the captions are not allowing the deaf students to improve their functional abilities. Research suggests that deaf students arrive at the reading process at a deficit. They tend to exhibit a lack of fluent word reading, which depends on the ability to recognize letters, spelling patterns, and whole words, effortlessly and automatically (Adams, 1990). This lack places great demands on working memory and thus adversely affects comprehension; word-reading fluency.

In addition, deaf children (most of whom are born to hearing parents) tend to have fewer opportunities for linguistic experiences, resulting in smaller expressive vocabularies and limited prior knowledge due to restricted social interactions. It is important to note, however, that both deaf and hearing students scores' on the comprehension test were better for the captioned video than the written transcript version of the video. Therefore, television should not be dismissed as an educational technology.

Subsequent to the testing period, several deaf students participated in an instructional program designed to improve their abilities to read the captions. A teacher worked with students to help them apply their prior knowledge and existing reading skills to better understand the videotape. This exercise used captions, the medium with which students had the highest level of initial comprehension, to build reading skills.

By helping children master their reading skills via captions, educators can then use television media to expand children's knowledge-base. In this way, captioned television can be used as a vehicle to literacy. Only after deaf students master reading skills, will television serve as an assistive technology device which achieves its stated purpose of accessibility.
Author's Note: This research was funded by The United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, through a Student Initiated Research Grant.


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Liss, M. B. & Price, D. (1981). What, when & why deaf children watch television. American Annals of the Deaf, 126, 493-498.

National Captioning Institute. (1983). Hearing impaired children's comprehension of closed captioned television programs. Falls Church, VA: National Captioning Institute, Research Report 85-3.

Paul, P.V. (1998). Literacy and deafness: The development of reading, writing, and literate thought. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Quigley, S. P. (1982). Reading achievement and special reading materials [Special issue]. Volta Review, 84(5), 95-106.

Whitehurst, G. J. & Lonigan, C. J. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development, 69(3), 848-872.

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