My oldest child would tell you that she wasn't allowed to watch TV until she was 12. This is an exaggeration, but it's pretty fair to say that my kids were discouraged from watching much TV. I always believed that the less TV they watched the more they would read. I still think there's really good reasons to seriously restrict all kinds of screen time, but I read about some new research today about emerging literacy that has me very excited.
It seems that India has been experiencing a soaring literacy rate in the last five years or so. The reason? TV (really.) It seems that people of all ages like to gather in front of television sets in villages and watch their favorite Bollywood movies. If you saw the Jai Ho dance in Slumdog Millionaire you've got the idea. There's extravagant costumes and glamorous singing and dancing. The movies reach everybody in society: young, old, rich, poor-- everybody. India has a huge proportion of people who are only beginning readers-- the result of too few years of schooling or none at all.
An Indian student studying in the US had the idea that seeing the words as the stars sang and danced might help boost literacy. He managed to persuade the Indian state channel to broadcast movies and music videos with Hindi subtitles (the same language the movies were already in.) People started singing along, karaoke style and even copying down the lyrics as they watched the movies. If you want to read the whole article you can read it at http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/09/19/watch_and_learn
This is what occurred to me as I was reading the article. Closed captioning is available on almost all DVD's and for many shows on TV. All you have to do is select it from the menu. You don't make it part of school. You don't increase the amount of TV your kids are watching. Just set the closed captioning when they watch a Disney movie or whatever you would normally let them watch for a treat. Apparently, part of the magic of this is that it is inherently enjoyable. The Indian ladies in their saris got together to watch because they loved to see movie stars, not because somebody convinced them that it would be good for them.
TV can't teach anybody to read from scratch. But what it has been shown to is help people who are semiliterate or lacking in fluency. ( Sound like anybody you know? ) I remember from learning to read myself and in seeing my kids learn, there comes a point when the world is filled with print. You can't not read it. Some less fluent readers have not reached this point. It is still work to decode every word and for some, plodding through books is torture.
It turns out that subtitles are almost impossible to ignore and that people just naturally read along. It's not frustrating, because they can hear the words in their own language. It turns out the musicals or music videos with song lyrics are especially good. Songs build phonemic awareness, which is the ability to break a word into individual sounds and syllables.
You don't have to say or do anything except change the menu or push a button on a remote. Give it a try. I'd love to hear about your results.