Reading for a Billion: Same Language Subtitling, India

  • Date published:
    16 December 2016

Programme Key Information

Programme Title Reading for a Billion: Same Language Subtitling
Implementing Organizations Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) and PlanetRead
Language of Instruction Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi
Funding (past and present) Tata Trusts, Dell Giving, Development Marketplace (World Bank Group), Google Foundation, USAID, Oracle Foundation, Department of School Education and Literacy, and an anonymous donor
Annual Programme Costs US $150,000 for pilot projects; US $2,000,000 for the national scale-up; US $0.004 cost per learner
Date of Inception 1996

Country Context

India is one of the world’s fastest-growing major economies and has witnessed steady progress at all levels of education in recent years. Statistics show that India’s net enrolment rate in primary education reached over 92 per cent in 2013, and there has been a continual increase in the literacy rate of those aged 15 and over, with a figure of 69 per cent given in 2011 (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2015). These numbers are promising; however, considering that India has a population of more than 1.3 billion, they also suggest that 400 million Indian adults over the age of 15 still lack basic literacy skills. Furthermore, accurate data on the proportion of youth and adults with functional reading, writing, and numeracy skills is not generated in the country and so the exact figure remains unknown – literacy levels are currently gauged through self reporting, which tends to overstate levels of competence. Some studies (e.g. Kothari and Bandyopadhyay, 2010) speculate that a figure much lower that 69 per cent would emerge if literacy skills were actually tested. Kothari and Bandyopadhyay’s (2010) independent study claims that in reality approximately 740 million Indians cannot read a newspaper or simple texts, indicating that the country needs to redouble its efforts to achieve universal functional literacy for its population.

The issue of demonstrable literacy competences becomes more acute if one considers the diversity of the country’s linguistic landscape. India is a multi-ethnic nation with 22 official languages and more than 700 dialects, so there is a requirement to learn multiple languages in order to function within a community, state, and the country as a whole. Since achieving independence in 1947, continual efforts have been made by the government as well as civil society institutions to provide various literacy programmes for youth and adults. However, traditional literacy programmes are often criticized for their inadequate quality, lack of resources, and inability to reach those who are socially, economically, and geographically marginalized.

In addition, the shortage of reading materials for newly literate adults in their local language exacerbates the problem of sustainable literacy development opportunities. According to the National Readership Survey, 359 million Indians who are officially literate do not read any publications regularly (NRSC, 2006). Hence, it has been necessary to seek innovative approaches to improving literacy learning opportunities for youth and adults.

Programme Overview

In 1996 the Same Language Subtitling (SLS) programme launched as a research project. Its aim was to examine whether the subtitling of mainstream TV content could help people, especially those who were hard to reach through traditional literacy programmes, to improve their reading and writing skills (Kothari, 2016). The main approach of SLS is quite simple: to subtitle audiovisual content in the language of the audio track so the on-screen text and audio match perfectly. While watching TV, viewers can match the words on screen to the sounds they are hearing simultaneously. Subtitles were thus created for popular song-based programmes, which were broadcast on local TV stations.

The reading and writing skills of randomly selected viewers were tested before and after at least one year’s exposure to SLS. Based on the research results, and extensive feedback from viewers collected between 1996 and 1998, learners who were exposed to SLS demonstrated significant improvement in reading and writing compared with those who had no access to it. It seemed that, as the subtitles of popular songs appeared on screen, it created a strong desire to read and understand the words. Additionally, it is assumed that people with hearing impairment greatly benefitted from the implementation of SLS programmes.

In 1999, SLS was officially put into practice as a literacy intervention programme by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) and not-for-profit organization PlanetRead. In the state of Gujarat, Bollywood film songs with Gujarati subtitles were broadcast on Chitrageet, a weekly 30-minute TV programme operated by Doordarshan, India’s national broadcasting agency. After a successful three-year implementation period, SLS expanded to other state broadcasters in other parts of India. In 2002, Hindi subtitles were added for the first time to a national TV programme, Chitrahaar, which features song clips from Bollywood films. From 2003 to 2012, SLS was rolled out to another Hindi song-based national TV programme, Rangoli. In parallel, a longitudinal impact study of SLS (spanning five years) was conducted (Kothari and Bandyopadhyay, 2014). Over the past two decades, IIM-A and PlanetRead have implemented SLS on numerous Doordarshan programmes in eight languages: Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Punjabi. More recently, between 2013 and 2016, SLS was added to Zee, one of India’s largest private broadcasting networks, in Marathi, Telugu and Hindi (Kothari and Bandyopadhyay, 2015).[1]

Aims and Objectives

The overall goal of the SLS programme is to create positive change in the lives of millions of Indian people by improving their literacy skills and cultivating a culture of lifelong learning. Specific objectives are:

  • To leverage an existing mass media platform where learners can easily practise reading and, indirectly, writing skills
  • To cultivate an environment conducive to literary learning within those communities that currently lack sufficient exposure and access to print reading materials
  • To equip learners with foundational reading skills to help them secure better chances in the workforce and play a more active role in their communities and society

Target groups

This programme primarily targets India’s early literate or functionally illiterate population, many of whom are officially known as literate based on the national census. Learners with low proficiency levels in reading and writing, including children, youth and adults across all ages, are the target of SLS programmes. Although they can recognise some letters, they rarely practise their reading and writing skills because of a lack of opportunity to engage with print materials. Beginners need to practise their skills until they acquire some fluency and can transition from the basic mechanics of reading (learning to read) to higher reading proficiency levels (reading to learn). If the opportunities to transition gradually from learning to read to reading to learn are limited, there is a danger of relapsing into poor reading skills or losing foundational skills altogether. In this context, the SLS programme provides opportunities for adult learners to practise reading and writing skills in the comfort of their homes.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

The successful implementation of the SLS programme relies on two important factors: the ubiquitous presence of TV in India, even in rural areas, and people’s enthusiasm for Bollywood films and music all across genders, ethnicities, and religions. It is estimated that over 800 million people watch three hours and 16 minutes of TV per day on average in India (Dasgupta, 2016) According to some sources, the number of TV households in India is expected to reach 191.7 million in 2021 (Statista, 2018). Even in rural villages, where not every home owns a television, people often watch TV at their neighbours’ or elsewhere in the community. Thus, as a TV-based programme, SLS has greater potential to reach hundreds of millions of Indians across the country, especially when compared with traditional literacy and other educational programmes. Furthermore, Indians’ passion for Bollywood songs creates strong motivation for improving literacy skills through reading subtitles, understanding meaning, and memorizing song lyrics. Watching popular Bollywood songs through SLS programmes invites viewers, especially the early literates, to practise reading automatically and effortlessly.

Ho does SLS work in villages and slum in India? See for yourself in the video below.

The procedure of subtitling song-based TV programmes

PlanetRead approaches local and national TV stations to request permission to add SLS to their existing song-based programmes or films (only the songs are subtitled). The choice of language is made by the TV station itself. The content is then sent to PlanetRead’s subtitling department, where language experts and editors prepare subtitles in various languages. This subtitling must be rigorous and accurate, as any spelling mistakes may be noticed by tens of millions of viewers. The subtitling process thus has to meet the following criteria:

  • Zero tolerance for spelling mistakes
  • Readable font size, style and colour combination (for colour and black and white TVs)
  • The subtitles appear on the screen highlighted in red. Each word is then highlighted in white in time with the audio track, to make it easier for the reader to follow along.
  • The subtitles must be in the safe screen zone; the safe screen zone is a term used to describe the area of the television that can be seen on a television screen. This means that the subtitles must be in an area of the television screen that can be viewed by all, whatever the screen size, and must also be legible.
  • There must be an appropriately coloured background plate to facilitate readability, especially if and when the subtitles overlay the picture (in the older cinema format)

SLS as an effective pedagogical approach

In many traditional literacy interventions, adult learners tend to be demotivated and sometimes even intimidated by structured learning with printed texts. This often results in a lack of confidence and low expectations of success, and at times leads to withdrawal from the respective programme. In contrast, the SLS programme engages viewers by presenting words and sentences to read in an informal, spontaneous and non-threatening way. As such, SLS serves as an effective and motivating platform for learning through these methodologies:

  1. by building on prior knowledge of lyrics, melody, rhythm and rhyme,
  2. by enabling viewers to strengthen decoding skills while reading along with a song, and
  3. by receiving immediate feedback on their reading skills, especially when they read words correctly or realise mistakes they made while listening to the audio.

As the speed at which words are sung can vary within and across songs, viewers also learn to read the subtitles both slowly and quickly. As a result, the reading process is neither too difficult and frustrating nor too easy and boring for viewers with different levels of reading proficiency. In other words, the SLS programme can help viewers to learn to read by providing various reading challenges.

Another pedagogical feature of the SLS programme is that it enables readers to practise reading words several times during one song. Since Bollywood songs are repetitive, viewers are not only able to practise the correct pronunciation of newly acquired words, but also to decode unknown words as they sing along. Moreover, while most traditional reading and literacy interventions are time-bound, and learning happens in structured classrooms, SLS makes literacy learning happen anytime and anywhere: in private homes, communities or other public spaces, and among families, friends, neighbours or even strangers, as seen in picture 1 below.

People watching a programme on TV with Same Language Subtitling (SLS)

People watching a programme on TV with Same Language Subtitling (SLS).

Complementary learning activities beyond reading via the SLS programme

In some states, complementary interventions have been made to build on the existing SLS programme features. The SLS programme in Gujarat state, for example, encouraged viewers to write to the TV station to share their opinions and experiences, along with their requests for the programme. To show appreciation for this, the programme sent back a printed booklet containing a selection of song lyrics from recent episodes. For instance, from June 1999 to April 2000, 25 episodes of Chitrageet, an SLS song-based TV programme, were broadcast by state TV in Gujarat, generating 2,570 feedback letters and postcards from TV viewers. Analysis showed that four out of five of these written communications were from rural areas and one third were written by early literates (Kothari et al., 2004). Judging from viewer comments (see examples of these comments in the Testimonies section below), it became clear that many SLS viewers practise their writing skills by writing down the lyrics as they appear on the screen. The SLS programme has therefore motivated viewers to practise and use their writing skills along with their reading skills.

The content of viewers’ letters in particular revealed that learners were participating in diverse learning activities through their engagement in the SLS programme. For example, in some cases, SLS viewers reported that they took part in group learning activities. They watched the SLS programme on TV in a group, read collectively, and wrote down the lyrics of songs (see picture below). Viewers who did not have basic reading proficiency skills felt motivated to learn to read after observing other people watching, reading, and singing lyrics. Some viewers, mostly teachers and parents, also said that they used the lyric booklets and SLS-based programmes as pedagogical materials for both child and adult literacy learning and instruction. In most cases, SLS-based songs and lyric booklets became important print resources in their mother tongue.

Singing to lyrics written from TV, Khodi village, Gujarat Singing to lyrics written from TV, Khodi village, Gujarat

A cost-effective approach to mass literacy provision

Compared with traditional national literacy programmes, the SLS programme is very cost-effective, especially in reaching out to those who live in rural areas. SLS usually needs less than one per cent of a state’s budgetary allocation for the ongoing costs of its adult literacy component. Furthermore, traditional national literacy programmes need to spend a significant amount of money and effort to attract interest in adult literacy learning and retention. In contrast, the SLS programme’s low annual cost of $0.004 per learner has enabled it to become a scalable project which aims to include all songs and all languages featured on TV, resulting in the provision of an opportunity to learn to read for an estimated 500 million early readers in India.

Monitoring and Evaluation

From the beginning, the SLS initiative was research-oriented and aimed to measure the impact of subtitling film-based songs on viewers’ reading and writing skills, and subsequent engagement with other reading materials such as newspapers. A baseline study was conducted prior to the implementation of each SLS programme to determine the audience’s literacy levels at that time. This baseline information was then used to assign those who intended to watch the programme regularly to SLS groups and those who would rarely watch the programme to non-SLS groups. The SLS programme was then implemented for a sustained period, following which a similar test was conducted to evaluate the impact of the intervention on reading skills. The analysis thus compared the improvement in reading skills of the SLS and non-SLS groups from baseline to endline.

Another way to monitor the programme was through the communication that occurred between SLS viewers and the TV stations that broadcast SLS programmes. Letters and postcards received from viewers showed whether or not the SLS programme was able to engage its target beneficiaries.

Impact and Achievements

SLS creates a context in which reading skills are practised automatically, incidentally and subconsciously by millions of children and adults. The findings from two studies on the impact of a pilot SLS programme in a classroom setting (Kothari et al., 2002), and on TV programmes in Gujarat state (Kothari et al., 2004), revealed that even limited but regular exposure to an SLS programme had a positive impact on the reading skills of children and adults. This finding was further corroborated by a longitudinal study on an SLS programme implemented on Rangoli, a TV programme of film-based songs broadcast nationwide, for nearly a decade (one hour per week, from 2002 to 2012). This study measured the reading skills of a randomly drawn sample of 13,000 people who initially could either read a little or not at all. The key findings are summarized below (see, Kothari and Bandyopadhyay, 2014):

  • The percentage of children and adults who became good readers is higher among those exposed to the SLS programme than the non-SLS group with a difference of 32 per cent among children and 9 per cent among adults
  • The percentage of children and adults who remained illiterate is higher among the non-SLS group than the SLS group with a difference of 13 per cent among children and 15 per cent among adults
  • There was a sharp increase in the number of people who claimed to be literate and read newspapers at least once a week (from 33.7 per cent at the baseline to 70 per cent at the endline, five years later); while among the self-reported illiterates, the percentage went up from 1.1 to 22.7 per cent
  • SLS is preferred on song-based programmes by 90 per cent of viewers; Rangoli gained a 13 per cent increase in its viewing figures and a 15 per cent in its ratings after SLS was added
  • Therefore, despite the fact that Rangoli was only shown for one hour a week, impressive gains in reading skills were made over five years of exposure. Regular exposure to SLS made a substantial and measurable contribution to the transitioning of weak readers into functional readers. Additionally, SLS programmes allowed many non-decoding viewers to become engaged in a lifelong reading process.

Currently, more than 18,000 songs have been subtitled and broadcast by SLS programmes. With availability in eight languages, SLS has become an innovative literacy programme provision accessible to children and adults, especially those who live in rural areas, which allows them to practise and sustain their literacy skills. SLS programmes also play an important role in nurturing a culture of reading, writing and learning in Indian society. The impact on its target learners in terms of their improved literacy skills and personal life are reflected in the following testimonies from viewers.


‘We not only enjoy watching Chitrageet but also enjoy reading it. We also like this scheme of sending the lyrics. Many women in our village are illiterate and we are training them to read and write.’ —Kanabhai Adedra from Porbandar

‘We enjoy Raas Garba. We join in the singing and dancing (see picture below) and also write down the lyrics shown on the programme.’—Sevantiben Gamit from Surat

‘We like to read the lyrics more than seeing the programme. It encourages the illiterate to learn to study.’—Barad Rakhman from Junagadh

‘You will be glad to know how much your Chitrageet has benefitted us. Many illiterate and semi-literate in our village have learned to read and write and we are very happy for this.’—Rakeshkumar Prajapati from Patan

‘Through the literacy mission and Chitrageet many people in our neighborhood have learned to read and now they can even sign for themselves; there is no need to use a thumb impression.’—Jayantibhai Defda from Amreli

‘I have a deaf sister. When you started Chitrageet I asked her to pay attention to the word strip. Since then she has started observing it carefully and remembers it – I test her with a paper and pen. She used to be able to write a few words but now she can write half the song.’—Manoj Matang from Kutch

‘Everyone at home loves to read and listen to songs, especially my mother. My brother has also learned to read from Chitrageet – previously he was not able to read words. ‘—A boy from Kendra

‘I am a Class X student. My sister was illiterate before watching this programme, but gradually she has learned to identify words. I am confident that with your Chitrageet and my efforts, I will be able to teach her to read and write.’—Sanjikumar Patel from Bharuch

Boys dancing to a Bollywood song Picture 3: Boys dancing to a Bollywood song

The SLS programme has gained popularity in India and become a globally known innovative approach to literacy instruction and learning. It has been presented at several international conferences, including the Sixth International Conference on Adult Education (CONFINTEA VI), the World Economic Forum in Davos, Durban, New Delhi and Tianjin, the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Clinton Global Initiative, TEDxCERN and MIPTV in Cannes, and at various universities, such as UC Berkeley, Stanford and Brown in the US. In addition, it has also been covered extensively by the international media, including the BBC, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Sydney Morning Herald, National Geographic (online), Deutsche Welle and SBS Australia, and has been brought to the attention of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. Moreover, the approach has also influenced other initiatives. For instance, Manchester Evening News recently reported that SLS work in India inspired the creation of a Turn-On-The-Subtitles (TOTS) campaign for children’s TV programmes in the UK.


The sustainability strategy of this programme is to promote policy changes in India that make the SLS approach to literacy instruction and learning mandatory on all song-based TV programming and available in all languages. In order to accelerate such a change and provide a context for policy dialogue, PlanetRead has been implementing SLS on pilot TV programmes in various languages. If these national broadcasting policy changes were guaranteed, the operational responsibility of SLS implementation would shift from PlanetRead to the TV and film industry. Until then, PlanetRead will continue to run pilot SLS programmes but not necessarily with the aim of incrementally increasing their number, since the sustainable scaling up of SLS on more than 800 TV channels in India requires more serious and sustained efforts within the industry.

PlanetRead has been in a dialogue with the Ministries of Information and Broadcasting, and Human Resource Development, to promote and scale up the SLS approach nationally to all songs in films that are broadcast on TV. In 2017, the programme published a policy white paper entitled, ‘A billion Indians reading, every day: A national scale-up of Same Language Subtitling (SLS) on TV’, which was based on the experience of more than 20 years of the SLS programme. Policy discussion on SLS is currently being spearheaded by the National Institution for the Transformation of India (NITI Aayog). NITI is one of the highest policymaking bodies in India and the prime minister acts as chairperson; it also has a vice-chairperson and four members with cabinet positions. One of the members convened two high level meetings on SLS (in May 2017 and Oct 2017) to determine whether SLS was a promising initiative to support reading and literacy, and language promotion and media access, among the deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) and, if so, how it could be scaled up nationwide.

Key achievements made by PlanetRead in bringing SLS to policy level include the following:

  • SLS achieved general acceptance for national scale-up from the key institutions mentioned above
  • A legal and rights-based framework for advancing SLS in all Indian languages on both national/state and private channels was adopted. For instance, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016, which was passed by parliament, emphasizes ‘ensuring that persons with hearing impairment can have access to television programmes with sign language interpretation or subtitles’
  • Ample evidence shows that SLS on TV would serve three major national goals:
  1. improved reading skills and literacy in the country,
  2. promotion of the languages of India, and
  3. media access among the DHH.

This trifecta of benefits provides a compelling justification for scaling up nationally

The successful implementation of SLS through policy changes in India would further serve as a case for expansion to other regions, especially Africa and other countries in South Asia, where music videos are popular and literacy levels are low. It is a cost-effective way to make reading fun and accessible and is, therefore, one of the most promising practices for the promotion of literacy in India and throughout the developing world.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Though the funding needs of SLS are minimal, the programme has not succeeded in establishing a steady source of finance because it has yet to make the transition from project to policy. Consequently, the SLS programme usually has sufficient funds for the year ahead only. Consequently, PlanetRead has made great efforts to win over the minds of policymakers and national agencies for education and broadcasting to include SLS as part of the national literacy strategy and obtain a stable funding source.

However, due to the inherent risk in expanding any innovation, government institutions are cautious to scale up the programme nationally even though SLS has received general acceptance from the government in principle. In order to mitigate the risk, PlanetRead hopes to effect this national scale up with start-up funding from outside donors. Once the government is convinced by the positive results of the programme, it is more likely to step in and sustain it.

Another issue is how to ensure a consistently high quality of subtitling, especially when SLS is scaled up to an increasing number of song-based TV programmes in an increasing number of local languages. Agencies involved in the business of subtitling, but not necessarily literacy, tend not to be as rigorous about spelling mistakes and the design aspects of SLS that best support the reading goal – for example, highlighting every word in perfect time – as is desirable for the programme’s efficacy. The government funding for SLS will have to include a sufficient budget for high-quality subtitling, with accuracy and design expectations clearly stated and applied in practice.



Dr Brij Kothari
Founder Director, PlanetRead
24, Saint François D'Assise Street,
Puducherry – 605012
E-mail: brij(at) planetread.org
Website: www.planetread.org

[1] For an overview of SLS, see this TEDx talk by Brij Kothari (2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRP4xfN89Ss

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 25 July 2017. Reading for a Billion: Same Language Subtitling, India. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 16 April 2021, 01:03 CEST)

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