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Television Decoder Touted as Reading-Instruction Aid

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At least once a week, Milton Goldman uses a television and a closed-caption decoder to give his students at Alexander Hamilton High School a powerful reading lesson.

The Los Angeles reading teacher shows the students, all of whom have poor reading skills, a videotaped episode of "The Cosby Show" or another popular television comedy. Two or three minutes into the program, he turns off the sound, forcing the students to read the captions on the screen in order to follow the story.

"What I have found," said Mr. Goldman, "is that the students will watch the screen with more intensity than they ever will when they're reading a book."

Strategies like Mr. Goldman's are lending new weight this year to the national effort to give all television viewers the capability to watch closed-captioned programming in their own homes. Advocates say the closed-caption decoders, once seen primarily as a device for assisting deaf and hearing-impaired individuals, can also be a powerful educational tool for millions of others--including illiterate adults, young children who are learning to read, non-English-speaking immigrants, and remedial readers like the teenagers in Mr. Goldman's class.

The current focus for much of this national effort is S 1974, a bill that would require all new television sets with screens 13 inches or larger to have built-in decoder circuitry for displaying closed captions. Having languished for much of 1989, the measure is gaining momentum this year--in part, advocates say, due to the backing of a wide range of education groups.

A hearing on the House version of the measure, HR 4267, was held last month. The Senate communications subcommittee is scheduled to take up the Senate bill at a June 20 hearing.

Priced at about $180, television decoders typically resemble the converter boxes used to bring cable programming to television sets. When switched on, the devices decode a signal broadcast along with the programming. Currently, about 400 hours of network and public-television programming each week carry the closed-caption signal.

The National Captioning Institute, a nonprofit corporation that manufactures decoders and provides about 80 percent of closed captioning in this country, estimates that decoders are now available to only a fraction of the 24 million deaf and hearing-impaired adults across the nation most in need of them. About 300,000 decoder boxes are currently installed, providing captioned viewing for an estimated 1.3 million people, according to NCI.

"A lot of deaf people cannot afford decoders," said Jamie Lowy, a deaf federal-government worker who is active in national efforts to promote captioning for both television and prerecorded videotapes. As a teenager, Ms. Lowy recalled, she had to save babysitting money for six months to buy her decoder.

The legislation pending in the Congress seeks to make the technology more affordable by requiring manufacturers to install tiny "superchips" in their sets. About the size of half a stick of chewing gum, the microchips cost $5 each. NCI, which expects to manufacture the chips, estimates they will add no more than $30 to the price of a TV set in the first year of manufacture and less later on.

The bill grew out of a recommendation by the Commission on Education of the Deaf, a Congressionally mandated panel. In its 1988 report to the Congress, the commission called decoders "the most significant technological development for persons who are deaf" and recommended that decoding capability be required in all television sets.

Legislation incorporating that recommendation was first introduced in November 1989 by Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has a brother who is deaf.

As Senator Harkin examined the proposal, said William McCrone, an aide to the Senate Subcommittee on Disability Policy, which Mr. Harkin chairs, "it just became clear there were all kinds of constituencies that would benefit from this."

Mr. Goldman's approach is one of the best-known applications of the technology to hearing individuals. His unorthodox strategy has won him local and national teaching awards. More important, he believes it has helped his students, whose reading skills range between the 4th- and 7th-grade levels, read more.

"I know they are practicing reading and that is what helps improve reading skills," he said.

Carolyn Parks, a Maryland educator, uses the decoders to teach English to elementary-school students for whom English is a second language. She shows them noncaptioned segments of the public-television children's shows "Sesame Street" and "3-2-1 Contact." Then she stops the tape for discussion and introduces picture cards with the vocabulary words the television characters are using.

As a final step, she shows the segments again--this time with both sound and closed-captioning.

The students also take dictation from the tapes and do role-playing based on the shows they have seen.

"It's a four-skills approach," said Ms. Parks, who teaches at Deerfield Run Elementary School in Prince George's County, Md. "The kids love it."

Donald Thieme, executive director for public relations at the NCI, said a handful of research studies over the past few years have pointed to the benefits of using captioned television with hearing schoolchildren and non-English-speaking immigrants.

"The researchers are finding two key points," he said. "One is that captioned television--even in noninstructional, incidental use at home--has been found to improve the speaking skills of non-English speakers." Forty percent of the institute's sales of decoders in recent years have been to Hispanic- and Asian-Americans, he noted.

"The other key point is that it has tremendous motivational power," he said.

The potential educational value of the medium has helped the legislation win the backing of a number of national education groups, including the National Education Association, the National PTA, the Council for Exceptional Children, and Literacy Volunteers of America, according to Mr. McCrone.

But opposition to the measure has come from groups representing television manufacturers.

Speaking at a May 2 hearing on the legislation, Thomas Friel, vice president of the consumer-electronics group of the Electronic Industries Association, said the bill would limit consumers' choices and impose "what amounts to a regressive excise tax" on television buyers.

"Consumers of limited means who formerly paid less than $100 for a simple black-and-white television set with no special features will now find themselves paying 20 percent more for a feature they may or may not want," he said.

Deaf advocates of the measure, however, point out that they have no use for the mute and volume controls now found on television sets.

With or without the legislation, said Mr. Thieme of NCI, the advent of the less expensive superchips will increase access to captioned television. He said the microchip will become available by the end of the year and discussions are already under way with individual manufacturers interested in using it.

"By the end of the century," he predicted, "decoder capability will probably be available to all educators and all homes."

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