Captions Help ALL Learners

Steven R. Crawford, Ed.D.

woman with hand to ear and thought bubble with words this would be so much easier with captions

Discussions about captioning often center around providing an alternative source of educational content for learners who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, captions are a critical component of multimedia and video content that assists all learners.

Types of Captions

There are two common types of captions — open and closed. Open captions appear on the screen and cannot be turned off, while closed captions can be turned on or off as desired by the viewer (United States National Institutes for Health, 2017). However, the content of the captions can vary. Many video captions provide a direct transcription of what was said by the speaker. Some videos, though, provide additional information through descriptive captions. Descriptive captions typically address influential background sounds such as a device clicking, tone of the music, etc.

Use of Captions by Learners

A 2006 survey of television viewers in the United Kingdom found that nearly 7.5 million people were using captions, despite about 6 million — or 80% — of respondents not having a hearing impairment (United Kingdom Office of Communications, 2006). Within a higher education setting, research has shown that a majority of students utilize captions at least some of the time, even if they are not deaf or hard of hearing (Stritto & Linder, 2017 and Edelberg, 2019). Learners typically used captions to 1) help them maintain focus, 2) watch videos in sound-sensitive or noisy environments, and 3) learn vocabulary, decipher thick accents, or overcome poor audio quality.

Several studies have shown that the use of captions can lead to improvements in learner achievement. The availability of captions has been shown to motivate learners as the captions assist them in keeping track of the narration. (Ozdemir et al., 2016). In addition, captions are useful in assisting ESL students in learning English sounds more efficiently (Birulés-Muntané & Soto-Faraco, 2016). Finally, Kim and Kim found that the use of open captions augmented the cognitive load and thus allowed the learners to better recall the information presented (2020).

Importance of Caption Accuracy

Broadcast television, which originated the use of captioning, serves as a guide for the level of accuracy needed when adding captions to a course’s multimedia and video content. While we should always strive for 100% accuracy, the broadcast standard for captions is 98% accuracy. During the broadcast of the 2020 Super Bowl, captions were provided in real-time by a transcriptionist and were found to be 99.42% accurate. While most of the errors were minor — consisting of typos and delays of greater than seven seconds — 1.77% of the errors were considered serious as the information provided was considered misleading to the viewer (Fresno et al., 2020).

A review of sixty-eight minutes of course videos that were automatically captioned by YouTube’s speech-to-text system found a total of 525 errors for an average rate of 7.7 errors per minute (Parton, 2016). While technology has improved since the study, the error rate is still a substantial barrier. A 2020 review of twenty commencement addresses that used captions provided by YouTube’s automated system found a total of 460 errors over the course of 200 minutes of video. That is an error rate of one mistake every 26 seconds. The most common error occurs when the system replaces a word with a different word. This happens most often with nouns, which account for nearly a third of the errors, followed by verbs at just over 20% (Lee & Cha, 2020). These results highlight the fact that despite improvement, speech-to-text technology cannot yet be solely relied on to provide captions that will benefit our learners.

How to Improve Captions for all Learners

Regardless of whether the captions for multimedia and video content are created by you or a third-party, the Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) recommends that captions are:

  • Synchronized and appear at approximately the same time as the audio is available
  • Verbatim when time allows, or as close as possible
  • Equivalent and equal in content
  • Accessible and readily available to those who need or want them

In order for the captions to be as usable as possible, The DCMP further recommends that the following principles be followed when possible:

  • Captions appear on-screen long enough to be read
  • Limit on-screen captions to no more than two lines
  • Speakers should be identified when more than one person is on-screen or when the speaker is not visible
  • Punctuation is used to clarify meaning
  • Spelling is correct throughout the production
  • Sound effects are written when they add to understanding
  • All actual words are captioned, regardless of language or dialect
  • Use of slang and accent is preserved and identified (2021)

While we cannot solely rely on speech-to-text systems like the one utilized by YouTube, they do provide a way to jumpstart the process. But if you use YouTube or a third-party to create captions, you must verify the accuracy of the captions and correct any errors you find. Pro Tip: Write a script before recording. This allows you to quickly review the captions and compare them to your script. If you find an error in the captions, you can easily cut and paste the correct text into the captions. You can also utilize a cheat sheet from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education, which walks you through how to edit YouTube captions. 

Call to Action

QM Specific Review Standard 8.4 asks that we provide alternative means of access to multimedia content in formats that meet the needs of diverse learners. While the importance of using captions to increase access to course materials for students who are deaf or hard of hearing has long been recognized, now it’s time to embrace captions for all learners — to recognize that captions are critical for their success. But we must go beyond simply providing captions. To fully support our students, we need to ensure that the captions provided are as accurate as possible.


Birulés-Muntané J. & Soto-Faraco S. (2016). Watching subtitled films can help learning foreign languages. PLoS ONE, 11(6). 

Described and Captioned Media Program. (2021). Caption it yourself: Basic guidelines for busy teachers, families, and others who shoot their own videos. DCMP Learn Center. 

Edelberg, E. (2019, June 3). Study shows adding captions improves faculty evaluations + helps students learn. 3PlayMedia. 

Fresno, N., Sepielak, K. & Krawczyk, M. (2020). Football for all: The quality of the live closed captioning in the Super Bowl LII. Universal Access in the Information Society. 

Kim, H. & Kim, K. (2020) Open captioning as a means of communicating health information: The role of cognitive load in processing entertainment-education content. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 64(3). 

Lee, J. & Cha, K. (2020). An analysis of the errors in the auto-generated captions of university commencement speeches on YouTube. The Journal of Asia TEFL, 17(1). https://10.18823/asiatefl.2020. 

Parton, B. (2016). Video captions for online courses: Do YouTube’s auto-generated captions meet deaf students’ needs?. Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 20(1). 

Ozdemir, M., Izmirli, S., & Sahin-Izmirli, O. (2016). The effects of captioning videos on academic achievement and motivation: Reconsideration of redundancy principle in instructional videos. Educational Technology & Society, 19 (4). 

Stritto, M.E.D. & Linder, K. (2017). A rising tide: How closed captions can benefit all students. EDUCAUSE Review. 

United Kingdom Office of Communications. (2006, March 3). Television access services review. United Kingdom Office of Communications. 

United States National Institutes for Health. (2017, July 5). Captions for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. United States Department of Health and Human Services.