Closed Captioning

Although students won’t create anything new for this project, writing closed captions is a great way to focus on sentence structure, particularly regarding the where a phrase or clause begins or ends within a larger sentence.  In addition, students might be exposed to more vocabulary, will practice spelling, and can use descriptive language.

Once you explain the project and discuss its guidelines, this project is probably best done as homework.  Note that this project isn’t about translating; student start with spoken English and finish with written English.


Not Simply Transcribing

Writing subtitles or closed captions probably seems straightforward at first.  All you have to do is write down what you hear, right?  Clearly, that’s the base task, but it’s not as easy as it seems, and it doesn’t end there.

The Right Words

One problem you may run into is deciphering the correct word.  Hopefully, most of the words spoken will be clear.  But it’s not uncommon to hear something that could be one of multiple words that sound similar.  Or perhaps the speaker was speaking too quietly, fast, or incoherently that the inarticulate sounds are difficult to make out.  If you can narrow the possible word down to a few options, deciphering the right word first comes down to knowing which part of speech is appropriate, then, understanding which word makes the most sense in context.  Students might even need to turn to a dictionary for help on issues like these.

Caption Breaks

The more prevalent issue is figuring out when to close one block of text and open another.  We use the term ‘block’ here to mean all of the text that is displayed at the same instance.  One block of text appears as a speaker starts talking, then stays on the screen for a few seconds.  Once the speaker reaches the last word of the text, another block appears as the speaker continues.  Each block should have one or two lines of text.

A line, by the way, should contain a maximum of 42 characters.

An average sentence (depending on the speaker, the topic, and the milieu) might take the full length of a single line, or might spill over into a second line.  Therefore, a block of text is often one sentence.

Shorter sentences might stand on their own, or they could be bundled with an average-length sentence before or after, meaning that block of text would contain two sentences.  A block might even have three or four sentences if they are very short and all in a row.

The longer sentences are the tricky ones.  If you try to put them into one block, they might spill into a third line, or possibly even more.  Since it’s bad practice to have more than two lines of text in a block, you’ll need to break that sentence into two (or possibly even three) different blocks.

The question is, then, how do you break a sentence into two (or more) blocks?  Even with medium-length sentences, where should the line break go?

Obviously, a break shouldn’t come in the middle of a word.  But it shouldn’t come in the middle of a phrase, either.  If it’s possible, try to place the break between clauses.  Since that’s not always feasible, students will have to consider other places to put line breaks and block breaks.  Check out Netflix’s guidelines for more details on what to do and what not to do.  Once you’ve shown your class the list of Line Treatment principles, you may want to review some of the parts of speech (or even the Intro to Clauses) with your class.

Subtitles vs. Closed Captions

Subtitles display everything in written form everything that is spoken in the video, and that’s it.  Closed Captions include not only the spoken words, but sounds as well, including music and sound effects.  With closed captions, student will need to describe the sounds they hear,

It’s up to the teacher whether the students should do full closed captioning or just subtitles.


Selecting the Video

Each student should write the captions for a different videos, and the videos should last somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes long (if the full video is longer, students can just consider a section of it).  Ideally, the content of the videos would interest the students, and the language would be at a level a little above the students’; take into consideration the speed of speech, the length of the average sentence, and the type of vocabulary (is it too technical?).  But it’s important that the original audio be spoken by native English speakers or people who are otherwise fluent in English.

It’s also good for the video to have at least a few longer sentences (otherwise the challenge is gone).  Video aimed towards younger kids, therefore, are probably not the best here.

If you have access to YouTube in your part of the world, your students can actually add subtitles to uploaded videos if the creator allows it.  (As of this writing, YouTube is preparing to change it so that you’d have to contact the creator first, and they’d confirm you as a reliable source before granting access to their subtitles).  If this is not an option for your class or if this isn’t your preference, students can simply write captions in a text file (like a Word document) so long as the line breaks are clear, and there is a gap between one block and the next.  One benefit of using a text file is that it’s easier to assess how well the students did without watching a video and needing to pause frequently, and another benefit is that students don’t have to worry about timing.  Also, there’s a wider range of video options, including scenes from the students’ favorite movies.



We’d recommend giving students a couple days after introducing this project to work on this for homework.  Once they turn in their first drafts, give them some feedback, then have them take another couple of days to make some adjustments before turning in their papers (or links to videos) again.  Both times you receive their work, you might also want to make note of some longer or trickier sentences that were handled well, then show them to the rest of the class (both in praise for that student’s work and as an example of what students should aim for.

At the end, ask students what types of situations (or even specific sentences, if they can remember them) made them think (i.e. the solution of how and where to place line and block breaks was not immediately obvious).  Hopefully, this will give you a picture of what grammar areas might need more attention, as well as what students may have learned through this project.



If for whatever reason you cannot access videos/movies or don’t want to do so for this project, you can still get your students to practice the core concept of this project – breaking sentences apart to better understand phrases and clauses – without the videos.  Simply take any chunk of text (aim for 250 to 500 words long) and get students separate it into chunks as explained above, using the same rules.

Doing so might be less fun for your students, but it’s a much quicker activity that essentially accomplishes the same thing.

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