Turn on the Subtitles (TOTS) is campaigning for what could be a gamechanger for children’s literacy. And all it takes is one small adjustment – read on

Words Libby Norman. Illustration Kai Nicholls

What if you heard that one simple act, costing no money and seconds of your time would improve your child’s reading? That’s what the Turn on the Subtitles (TOTS) campaign is all about, improving children’s literacy. Here in the UK, doing it’s simply a matter of turning on same language subtitling (SLS) so that they absorb words while they are watching their favourite shows.  

TOTS founders Henry Warren and Oli Barrett MBE both work in education. Warren is former Director of Innovation for Pearson and a specialist in education technology – current projects include African education platform Watobe. Barrett describes himself as a ‘serial founder’ and his projects include Tenner, the schools’ enterprise challenge and also – in earlier times – being part of the launch of Bob the Builder.  

TOTS came into being when Barrett sent Warren an email link to an article in The Guardian. This cited research about the benefits for literacy when you turn on TV subtitles. Returning to the article a few nights later, Warren noticed that one of the people cited was a professor in Hawaii. “I thought ‘well it’s a late night here, it will be a reasonable time in Hawaii – I’ll give him a call’. So, I rang this somewhat bemused professor and proceeded to grill him. He was very patient with me. And by the end of the call, I was thinking: ‘If these numbers work this is insanely powerful’.”

Young, Woman, Watching, Television, With, Subtitles, While, Sitting, Comfortably, On
Suddenly, an evening in front of the TV or tablet can be educational – TOTS’ campaign is asking parents to switch on subtitling

The professor in Hawaii told Warren that the person he really needed to talk to about subtitles was Dr Brij Kothari, based at University of California, Berkeley but often in India. Henry Warren tracked down Brij Kothari in an Indian village working on a randomised control trial. Over a crackly line, Warren found out more, then pushed for research evidence. “Immediately I regretted that because I remembered that I don’t actually know the difference between good and bad academia.”

What turned up was a whole lot of evidence. “I had this mountain of papers and no idea what to do with it.” So, Henry Warren had a chat with Dame Julia Cleverdon and the team at the National Literacy Trust and passed the mountain on to them. Six weeks later they came back to say this evidence was remarkable – and why did no one know about it? This was exactly what Henry Warren and Oli Barrett had been thinking.

There’s lots of evidence to prove why subtitles work, but here’s one blinding example to capture the impact. Official statistics here in the UK tell us that children watch an average of 12 hours of television a week. (Warren suspects that’s a conservative estimate.) Let’s say it is 12 hours of TV per week. Once you put subtitles on, your child will, over the course of one year, read the equivalent of all the Harry Potter books, all of Lord of the Rings, all of the Narnia books and the complete His Dark Materials trilogy. And they won’t even realise. “That’s why it works – it’s sheer immersion,” says Warren.  

“Over a year, your child will read the equivalent of all the Harry Potter books, all of Lord of the Rings, all of Narnia and the complete His Dark Materials trilogy”

One key here is the fact that children are watching high-value content – things they love – and so are receptive to learning. Subtitles have an impact on all ages, but they are especially powerful in the earlier stages of reading acquisition. Another is that we can’t avoid reading the subtitles – eye tracking research across all age groups has shown it’s impossible not to take in words. Think about that, and you see why subtitles could be a gamechanger, not just for UK families but globally. “We know what impact low literacy levels have on children longer term. We know that if your literacy levels are low when you leave school you are three times more likely to be incarcerated, three times more likely to be hospitalised, even three times more likely to die young. It literally is a case of life and death,” says Warren.

Getting the word out about the impact of subtitles became just that for Warren and Barrett once they’d had the green light from the National Literacy Trust team. “Initially, we thought, ‘well this is not really our thing – we’ve both got day jobs – but what we can usefully do is synthesise this evidence base and hand it over to the broadcasters’. So, we did all that and also published a letter in The Guardian and waited, and then… nothing happened.”

Warren and Barrett decided to step up a gear. After meeting again at a conference, they escaped to a café in High Street Kensington and scribbled out ideas, including a campaign name, ‘Turn on the Subtitles’ or TOTS. They decided to give it a year or so, alongside their day jobs, with a three-pronged approach. “The first element has been to tell parents about this and raise awareness about subtitles among the general population. We knew that most people didn’t know anything about this – I certainly didn’t and I’ve been in education for 20 odd years,” says Warren. “And everybody has the same kind of reaction, a head-slap kind of reaction – an ‘of course this works’ reaction.” Another prong of the campaign has centred on persuading broadcasters to make same language subtitles (SLS) the default for all programmes aimed at children aged 6 to 10 – they can help for other ages, but this is the key target group. The third seeks to inform governments and politicians, so that they can then use their influence.

The awareness-raising campaign for parents launched last year. Stephen Fry fronted it and other high-profile figures backing it included Sandy Toksvig, Lenny Henry and Sanjeev Bhaskar. TOTS’ campaign attracted 37 million impressions on Twitter, front-page coverage on Reddit and stories in most of the major press. “The launch went remarkably well, considering we had a budget of about £80 for the whole thing!” says Warren.

From there, broadcasters began to get on board. Sky was the first – meaning children can now watch their favourites, such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Scooby-Doo, with subtitles built in. Netflix is running a pilot, Amazon has committed to one and the BBC has been undertaking research. A number of major education players – Pearson, GCSE Pod, Oak National Academy and Twinkle – have been getting the message out to schools and backing the campaign.

TOTS has also been doing a lot of work with YouTube (important because of its popularity with young audiences). It is working to get the user experience element on YouTube changed – manually generated subtitles, not auto subtitles are critical here – and also has its own channel in conjunction with Moonbug Literacy. “That is going gangbusters,” says Warren. “Just short of half a billion views a month currently. It’s hard to say exactly how many children we’re impacting, but conservatively we’d say about 400 million.”

“Everybody has the same kind of reaction, a head-slap kind of reaction – an ‘of course this works’ reaction”

When it comes to political might, a major breakthrough so far is India, where the government has changed the law so that by 2025 half of linear broadcast content (traditional live TV) will have to be subtitled. TOTS is continuing to talk to the major broadcasting players – especially those in the United States, where the reception has been very positive. It would also like to do more awareness raising across Africa, where Henry Warren already works and knows the huge hunger for literacy and education. “We’re talking about 1.4 billion people, and at the moment literacy levels are quite low across the piece, but linear TV is growing very fast.”

Ultimately, the goal of TOTS is to give the power of subtitles to as many children as they can. So, what can UK parents do to help? Tell your friends about the TOTS campaign but, even more importantly, make that simple adjustment to your own children’s TV and tablet watching. “All you have to do is go to services they watch – Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer – and turn on the subtitles,” says Henry Warren. “You only have to do it once. It is, quite literally, the most impactful ten seconds you’ll ever spend as a parent.”


Further reading: Cressida Cowell on the magical powers of reading for pleasure