Bad Subtitles – a quick and easy microlistening task

This post is a quick reflection on a task I learned about on twitter called “Bad Subtitles“. Before describing the task and student reactions, I need to first mention how awestruck I am on the power of twitter. I saw a tweet from Matthew Noble referencing the previously linked to blog post on April 25. I liked the idea and immediately saw how to use it in the classroom, and I did…the very next day! I find it amazing how quickly one person’s idea can go from tweet to taught in so little time. OK. On with the subtitles.

Task and Procedure

The task is quite simple, though mine is much modified from the original idea. Basically, students watch a video with incorrect subtitles and must find the mistakes. Paying attention to these mistakes gets students practicing their decoding skills/bottom-up processing skills, which have been shown to be quite important for comprehension.

The original post has teachers making bad subtitles, but there is no need for that! Most YouTube videos have “Automatic Captions”, which are captions automatically generated from the audio. Naturally, these have numerous errors as they are computer-generated, not human-generated. Therefore, you can easily do this activity with minimal prep.

Here’s a simple procedure to follow

  1. Find the YouTube video you want.
  2. Under the video, you will see “… More”. Click this and click “Transcript”
  3. Make sure the transcript says “English (Automatic Captions)”.
  4. Highlight and drag until the bottom of the captions. Copy the text.
  5. Open up your word processing program and paste.
  6. Remove the times.
  7. Done! What did that take, 2 minutes?

You have just made a simple worksheet to get students listening carefully. From here, its up to you what to do next. You can add tasks and activities or just give the worksheet as is. That’s what I did. I played the video once, had students confer with each other, played it again, and they went through line by line with the students.

Student Reaction

After finishing the activity, I asked whether or not they thought this was useful. In a class of 10, about 4 or 5 found it useful, while several others preferred to do something related to the meaning of the listening, not just the words. While I agree that working on meaning is important, without good decoding skills, meaning could easily become lost. It’s important to note that doing such a lesson as a one-off task likely won’t lead to any student improvement. It must be done numerous times, combined with other bottom-up microlistening tasks, and meaning-focused tasks as well.

I also showed students how they could do this themselves, especially if they find a video with human-generated proper captions (the captions would just say English). They can still choose the auto-generated ones and then compare their changes to the proper English ones. Boom – an intensive, bottom-up listening activity students could do at home over and over again, especially with listening journals.

Thanks to Matthew Noble for the share and paulw for the original post!

Here is a link to numerous YouTube channels with subtitles.


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