According to a study on the SLS project by the academic and social entrepreneur Brij Kothari and others at Stanford University that was published by MIT, limited exposure to SLS within a telecast period of six months was “found to make an incremental but measurable contribution to decoding skills … The potential for SLS in India and other countries is enormous.” Kothari’s project was ambitious, but the results weren’t anomalous. For example, a study at the University of Nottingham concerning the processing of native and foreign language through subtitles concluded that “Many vocabulary-learning studies seem to confirm that having both written and aural form of a word facilitates learning.”
Drawing conclusions that sounded very similar to my own students’ reflections, the SLS study found that “one’s ability to anticipate the lyrics,” combined with immediate validation through the audio, cultivated “a steady stream of successful reading events”—presumably scenarios in which students read with accuracy and enjoyment. In this way, the SLS contributed to “a nonthreatening reading environment in which to embark upon, confirm, practice, and enjoy one’s developing reading skills.”
The study also noted that the low cost of subtitling television shows is “attractive”—and again, I feel the same way in my own classroom. Two years ago, my English department worked for months to convince the district to buy hundreds of copies of a nonfiction anthology for tens of thousands of dollars. For two seasons’ worth of Serial, including maps, photos, and links to supplementary articles, a teacher simply goes to the website and presses “play.”
Though the similarities with the SLS project are inspiring, I’m not ready to incorporate subtitled movies or television shows. From my perspective, they’re simply not as textually dense; and from the students’ perspective, they’re frankly not as interesting. When I showed Twelve Angry Men and even an episode of Making a Murderer (which has some subtitles) to my criminal-justice class, they were visibly nonplussed, and openly asked for a return to something like Serial.
Again, this could be expected. In the same aforementioned Atlantic article, Rodero explained: “Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production … and that of course, is something that you can never get with visual media.” Or, as one of my students put it, “listening to the words puts the visualization in my head.”
Audiobooks, too, seem to fall short of the podcast’s value in the classroom for a variety of reasons. One, from my experience there are few things more soporific to a teenager than listening to a singular narrator read a classically told story. Even an Edgar Allan Poe tale near Halloween fails to captivate, which used to surprise me. Wen cites Rodero’s study that shows a story told through dialogue “stimulates listeners’ attention” more than a traditional narration. Also, as The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance recognizes in her analysis of Serial’s “fandom,” the listener can participate in many contemporary podcasts rather than feel like a novel is being read to them.