ESL At Harvard?

A look back at an old ESL program at Harvard, and the methods that they pioneered:


Some of Dr. Karen Price’s students at Harvard diverge a bit from the typical Ivy League profile. Refugees and boat people mingle with foreign professionals in a common quest for fluency in English. Price, associate director for ESL research and program development at the university, finds this not daunting but challenging. “Our program is exciting because of the various socioeconomic levels, the various ages and the various educational levels,” she says. “We have such a diversity of students.”

Harvard offers both a year-round, part-time program and an intensive Summer program in ESL. Of the 500 or so students during the school year and 700 in the Summer, only 20 percent are Harvard affiliates. Most come from the surrounding community. All, however, are between the ages of 18 and 65 and are what Price calls “linguistically disadvantaged.”

To help them overcome this, she has researched and is employing a rather novel approach: video captioning. Not to be confused with subtitles–which translate what on-screen speakers are saying into a different language–captions are superimposed on video images as printed supplements to on-screen dialogue. They have commonly been used as an aid to the hearing-impaired.

Bridging the Language Gap

In 1981, Price conducted the first study ever on the potential of captioning for teaching English to non-native speakers. Captioned video materials were shown to 500 literate students from 50 countries. The study’s parameters, Price explains, were as follows: “Measures concerning viewing comprehension as well as extensive background and psycho/socio-linguistic data were oibtained for each subject.

“The effects of these variables, along with segment preference, repeated viewing and order of presentation were evaluated. The results, ” she says, “showed that all viewers, regardless of educational level or language background, benefitted significantly from captioning, even with only one viewing.”

Price attributes this to captioning’s ability to bridge the gap between language in the classroom and language in the street as well as the gap between printed language and spoken language. For example, she says, students who hear a video character say “wanna” can learn from the caption that the actual phrase is “want to.”

Subsequent to Price’s study, captioned video became a mainstay of Harvard’s ESL program and is employed in classroom, language-lab and small-group work. More than 1,500 closed-captioned videocassettes are commercially available, and at least 90 hours of network television programming per day is close-captioned.

“These programs provide the authenticity and situationality of language,” Price says, “and that’s what’s needed. Students find the tremendous variety of captioned programming provides both enjoyment and greater access to and understanding of American culture.”

Simplifying the Equipment

Originally, a decoder box was used to reveal the closed captions “invisibly” embedded in these TV shows and videocassettes. But last year, Price read in a professional journal about the Caption Master VCR from Instant Replay, Inc. of Coconut Grove, Fla.

It boasts such traditional capabilities as four-event, 14-day programming; fast scan with still and slow motion; wireless remote control; stereo sound; and electronic digital clock timer. But it also incorporates a caption decoder and can, therefore, function as a VCR, a decoder box or both.

“Caption Master eliminates the need of an external decoder box,” says Price. “It’s compact — in one piece — and very straightforward to operate.” She acquired a front-loading, four-head unit in June of ’88. With it, captions appear in white letters on black bands at the bottom of the screen, and users can switch the captions on and off at will.

The device serves to simplify and support an approach to teaching ESL that Price finds most promising. “Captioning,” she says, “can make a significant contribution to the lives of individuals struggling to develop the language and cultural skills so necessary to economic, social and professional independence.”

~Dryer, Kymberly G. “Video captioning lets Harvard ESL students read what they hear.” T H E Journal