The Reformist

Overcoming the Tribulations of Reading

Rakshit Mohan


Oct 26 2023

Image source: 

Image Source: Unsplash

Image source: 

Image Source: Unsplash

There was once a boy named Alok from Deoghar, a small town in Jharkhand, India, who was not very good at reading. Throughout his school years, he struggled to read well. As a result, he began losing interest in reading. Reading had become an arduous task, which gave him no pleasure. However, Alok had an interest in storytelling and would listen to stories on the internet. Joseph, his English teacher, suggested that he turn on the subtitles of all the content he watched on the internet. Gradually, as he read through the subtitles of the stories on the internet, his ability to read improved. He did not even realise how quickly he had improved over the years. At college, several years later, when the demand of his course required him to read extensively, he discovered that his struggle with reading was not as herculean as he had expected. He could understand the course material well. A simple suggestion, based on the idea of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), changed Alok's reading experience.

Alok's improvement was possible because of an excellent suggestion and years of practice. Nothing would stop Alok at college thereafter. With three years of intensive reading practice at his college, Alok's reading struggle was eliminated. Today, he reads for pleasure. Alok has developed a particular interest in the art and science of reading. He continues to improve his reading and comprehension through dedicated practice and reading for pleasure.

Alok's struggle with reading was very real. Reading is not an effortless task for our brain. In evolutionary terms, reading is a relatively recent phenomenon. Evolution did not have the time to cause changes in the human brain that created specialised reading circuits in the brain. How then do we read if evolution did not have enough time at hand to affect such changes in our brain that enable us to read?

For reading, our primate mind has to utilise existing pathways in the brain. Cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene has propounded the neuron recycling hypothesis to address the above question. As per the neuron recycling hypothesis, the human brain is largely limited by the genetic strictures. However, some pathways in the brain show more adaptability to learn new things than the rest of the brain. In the context of reading, the left occipito-temporal area has some circuits, the content of which can be changed from time to time, much like the content stored in a computer hard drive. These circuits tolerate variability to enable reading. Irrespective of the language and spatial factors, identical regions of the brain activate to help us read. Calibrated practice in reading, therefore, can make reading accurate and automatic. As is clear from Alok's story, practice is the key to reading.

However, practicing requires motivation and interest. Cognitive scientists and educational researchers Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich point out to the phenomenon of "Matthew Effect" in reading achievement. The effect is borrowed from a Biblical parable in the gospel of Matthew. The parable goes as stated below:

The parable is that of a lord who had three servants. As per the parable, the first servant was intelligent. The second servant was moderately smart. The last one was not endowed with intelligence. When the master was set to leave for a trip, he gave each of his three servants some money. He gave money to each of the three servants according to their ability.

The first servant was given ten talents. The second servant got five talents. The third servant got only one talent. The master gave it to them, hoping they would increase its value and return it to him when he gets back. The first and second servants invested their money and doubled it. The master rewarded them.

The third servant simply saved the money by digging a hole and hiding the money in it. When the master discovered that the third servant had done nothing with his money, he reprimands him. The master takes the one talent back. The master said that he would rather give even the third servant's one talent to the first servant and see him double it, rather than giving it to a fool and watch him waste it's potential.

The parable from the gospel of Matthew shows how the already privileged servant increased his privilege while an already underprivileged servant lost further. The "Matthew effect" is powerful in explaining why some children read well from an early age and others cannot read well even later on in their life. On the one hand, the adept readers, from an early age, climb up the upward spiral of positive attainments. Because adept readers can decode well, have more sight words and better comprehension, they read more. They spend less time decoding the text and more time comprehending the text. Their reading is more fluent and automatic. They can read for meaning and thus derive pleasure from the text. Good readers keep moving up the spiral because of interest and motivation. Their interest is a necessary concomitant of the pleasure they derive from reading. On the other hand, the poor readers have trouble decoding the text. They fall into the vicious loop of low reading attainments. Because they decode words and sentences with difficulty and have lesser sight words, their focus on comprehension is diminished. Their reading is punctuated with laboured decoding. They find it difficult to read for meaning. Without meaning-making, the pleasurable aspect of reading is lost on them. Poor readers keep falling down the spiral because of low interest and loss of motivation. Their lack of motivation is a necessary concomitant of laboured decoding and inability to lift meaning out of the text.

The divergence between poor readers and adept readers accumulates over time. It becomes gaping with passaging time. The troublesome reality of the "Matthew effect" in reading attainments is concerning. It leads us to reflect on methods of breaking the downward spiral of low motivation and low reading attainments. How can educators break down the downward spiral and create a space for poor readers to thrive?

Alok's story may provide an insight. It is easy to imagine how the exercise of reading a book scares a child who already struggles to decode simple words. Struggling to decode makes reading an arduous task. Difficulty reinforces low motivation to read. Something Alok's teacher, Joseph, suggested can be of great utility in breaking the downward spiral of low motivation and low reading attainments. What is it?

Joseph suggested that Alok turn on the subtitles whenever he watched a movie or listened to a song. Joseph's suggestion was based on an academically established insight. The insight that Same Language Subtitling (SLS) helps improve reading attainments when used for a prolonged period. The idea of SLS was presented by Brij Kothari, an academic from Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. But, what is SLS? SLS is as simple as it sounds. SLS involves adding the same language subtitles to mass media programmes such as movies, songs, YouTube videos, etc. SLS ensures that a person watching the mass media programme reads from the screen what he/she hears from the speakers.

Kothari argued that SLS can affect reading akin to the 'Butterfly Effect' of Edward Lorenz. Lorenz had contended that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world may alter weather phenomenon in other regions of the world. A seemingly insignificant gust of wind, compounded by other factors, could have systemic effects in the weather system. Similarly, simple interventions such as SLS that sound insignificant, to begin with, may have far-reaching positive impacts on the reading attainments of a child.

Kothari, Takeda, Joshi, and Pandey (2002) had suggested SLS in the context of creating mass literacy. They advocated use of a creative combination of SLS and mass media. However, Kothari et al.’s arguments can be extrapolated to the context of student learning. Because student interest and motivation is crucial in acquiring reading skills, a creative communication of mass media with SLS can prove effective. It can arouse a child's interest. The study argued that reading skills require constant practice and continuous exposure. Hence, it was important to integrate practice into aspects of daily life through SLS of Bollywood songs, popular TV programmes, etc. Kothari’s study succinctly summarised the utility of SLS in education – "the power of SLS lies in the fact that it is covertly educational and 'adds' to the entertainment value" (Kothari, Takeda, Joshi, & Pandey, 2002, p. 64). The paper also added that SLS "makes reading practice an incidental, automatic and subconscious process" (Kothari, Takeda, Joshi, & Pandey, 2002, p. 64).

A critique SLS, previously prominent, was that SLS was experimentally tested only on Roman scripts. However, this critique can now be put to rest. Recent studies conducted a study on SLS in rural Rajasthan with the Hindi language and the Devanagari script, and the results were alike those of Roman script results (Arjun, Kothari, Shah, & Biswas, 2022).

But, will the children engage with the subtitle? Why would they not simply ignore the subtitles they see on the screen? If they ignore the subtitles, SLS can come crashing down on its knees. Recent studies also set aside the above concern. A recent eye-tracking study used a web-based visual analytics tool to analyse if participants engaged with the subtitles. They analysed fixations, saccades and time spent in the SLS region and the non-SLS region of the screen. The authors concluded that the participants reported more engagement with SLS and less engagement with video when SLS was presented. Furthermore, the saccade amplitude of participants was higher in SLS video than in video without SLS. They also found out that the poor readers performed higher regressions and were fixated more on the left-hand side of the screen while the relatively adept readers performed lower regressions and did not show a left-hand side fixation (Arjun, Kothari, Shah, & Biswas, 2022). Earlier studies d'Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007), conducted on subjects who could read well, also arrived at similar conclusions. Arjun, Kothari, Shah, and Biswas (2022) further reinforce d'Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007) because it could show engagement with SLS even for weak readers from rural India. Thus, it can be safely concluded that when participants are presented a video with SLS, they engage with it.

The facts, as established in the previous paragraphs, show that SLS can be an intervention that can enhance the ability of students to read. However, while curating content with SLS, the reciprocal impact of motivation and reading skills on each other must be accounted for. Toste, Didion, Peng, Filderman and McClelland (2020) have contended that motivation and reading skills have a reciprocal relationship with each other. Students may be presented SLS content such as movies, interesting stories, animated books, informational content such as documentaries, etc. SLS, embedded in engaging content, can reinforce the grapheme-phoneme associations in the brain of a child. Furthermore, repeated exposure, in engaging setups, is expected to automatize such associations. Thus, content should be engaging for the students.

This essay would like to point out some concerns that emerged from the literature on SLS. SLS solves the problem of budding literacy for the masses. However, its application in the academic domain is procedurally unclear. The original conceivers of the idea had envisaged it as a mass literacy tool designed to create Grade 2 appropriate literacy among budding literates.

The author, therefore, suggests academic calibration of SLS content because the requirements of academics differ from requirements of mass literacy. If mass literacy is the goal, written exposure to regularly spoken words is enough. However, since academic books, even for children, have higher incidence of rare words than regular adult conversations, calibration to suit such needs is a prerequisite if the SLS is to be academically utilised. The caveat deserves a mention. Nevertheless, it is also important to reassert that even if SLS content is not calibrated for the academic context, it would give a fillip to decoding among struggling readers. Thus, academic calibration would only enhance the already high potential of SLS for developing reading skills.

SLS is an effective tool. It can help overcome some tribulations of a struggling reader if administered carefully and regularly. Such administering of SLS should be engaging for the students. The tool is ripe with possibilities of affecting positive changes in the reading paradigm of students. It is not a wonder, therefore, that new applications such as Jumbaya have utilised the idea of SLS to impart reading skills to children. We need more such applications. SLS needs to be scaled up. Should we not strive to nurture students who love to read? Don’t we wish to cultivate students who read for pleasure? The author dreams of a day when students would echo the spirit of the following beautiful words by Francisco De Quevedo.

"Withdrawn into the peace of this desert,
Along with some books, few but wise,
I live in conversation with the deceased,
And listen to the dead with my eyes”.


Arjun, S., Kothari, B., Shah, N. K., & Biswas, P. (2022). Do weak readers in rural India automatically read same language subtitles on Bollywood films? An eye gaze analysis. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 15(5), 1-15.

d'Ydewalle, G., & de Bruycker, W. (2007). Eye movements of children and adults while reading television subtitles. European Psychologist, 12(3), 196-205. d'Ydewalle, G., Praet, C., Verfaillie, K., & Rensbergen, J. V. (1991). Watching subtitled television: Automatic reading behaviour. Communication Research, 18(5), 650-666.

Kothari, B. (2008). Let a billion readers bloom: Same language subtitling (SLS) on television for mass literacy. International Review of Education, 54, 773-780. Kothari, B., Takeda, J., Joshi, A., & Pandey, A. (2002, Jan-Feb). Same Language Subtitling: a butterfly for literacy? International Journal of Lifeling Education, 21(1), 55-66.

Toste, J. R., Didion, L., Peng, P., Filderman, M., & McClelland, A. (2020). A meta-analytic review of the relations between motivation and reading achievement for K-12 students. Review of Educational Research, 90(3), 420-456.

Rakshit Mohan is the co-founder of The Reformist. He is a public policy enthusiast and an independent foreign policy analyst.