'Finding out what captioned video can do for students' by Elena Deleyto

24th March 2018

Today I’d like to share with the IATEFL blog readers what I have learnt about the use and usefulness of subtitles and captions for the language classroom. I am a scriptwriter and ELT video producer for DLA (Digital Learning Associates), experts in educational video and learning design. I work with authentic materials, carefully selecting and repackaging them for all proficiency levels. Last year, work on a new video series gave me the chance to put my subtitling skills to the test in the area of language learning. Before I started I immediately wondered if standard subtitling rules applied or if there was more I needed to know. There was.

In order to create suitable captions, I needed to find out how they are best used and what they can do for our learners. Not only are captions a key requirement in ELT video for most teachers, they are also an invaluable asset to help students tune in to unfamiliar accents, work out word boundaries and thus link or infer the meaning of spoken words. All of these are especially relevant to our work at DLA, and we have found research into these aspects invaluable. We also believe it is key for anyone using or looking to use video in class.

What are the purposes of captions in the ELT classroom?

The use of English captions can improve both students’ listening comprehension skills and vocabulary acquisition. Over the last decade several studies, such as the meta analysis carried out by Maribel Montero in 2013, have shown that the dual input of written and auditory information in captioned video aids comprehension and leads to a better understanding of the clip itself. Far from interfering with the listening process, the written input helps students develop listening skills more effectively. By introducing captions we are helping students isolate words more easily and match the written terms they know with the spoken word more easily (Vanderplank 2016, 79-80).

When should they be used?

The aforementioned 2013 analysis seems to point to subtitles being most beneficial for intermediate students: they enable them to process all kinds of authentic video materials and make the most of them in terms of new language acquisition. Advanced learners, on the other hand, tend to use them mostly as back up. In the case of beginners viewing authentic materials, subtitles prove useful if said materials are carefully chosen for the purpose. However, they will not be of much help if the video is significantly above level.

Can they be made level appropriate?

Verbatim subtitles (word for word) are a must if used for language learning purposes, as failure to reflect speech will only create confusion. However, low and intermediate learners will benefit from subtitles that remain under 16 characters per second. This is easily achieved if the pacing is right. However, when the speed of the speech proves faster, captions extended into any silences that follow also works wonders by keeping the words on the screen a little longer.

All in all, although the use of captions will not unlock all authentic video to all learners, when combined with the right choice of clips, they can become a key part of the listening experience and prove useful in more ways than one (Vanderplank, 2016, 248-249 and passim). However, research papers on the topic are still few and far between and I am hoping more detailed studies together with peer discussion will shed further light on the matter.


Montero Perez, M., Van Den Noortgate, W., and Desmet, P. (2013) Captioned Video for L2 Listening and vocabulary Learning: A meta-analysis. System 41(3), 720-739

Vanderplank, R. (2016) Captioned Media for Foreign Language Learning and Teaching. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Elena Deleyto is an ELT scriptwriter and video producer for DLA. She also runs workshops and talks on the use of video in the language classroom and will be doing so at the IATEFL 2018 conference in Brighton.

Digital Learning Associates has held an institutional IATEFL membership since September 2017. Educational video producers and learning design experts, they have worked on video resources for several global ELT publishers including three Pearson courses launching in spring and summer 2018.