Can TV subtitles help teach reading?

The NYT has a run-of-the-mill article on Finland’s high PISA test scores. Here’s something interesting that my Finnish commenters have brought up before:

Besides high-quality teachers, Dr. Sahlberg pointed to Finland’s Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

The notion that subtitling TV shows might improve reading doesn’t strike me as obviously absurd. It seems like the kind of thing that could be tested in a controlled experiment: give 100 poor families with a first grader a big flat screen TV with subtitles permanently turned on and 100 poor families a TV with subtitles permanently turned off. Check back each year for a few years to make sure they haven’t sold it or broken it and track reading scores. Not a cheap experiment, but hardly overwhelming for, say, the Gates Foundation to pay for.
In the meantime, Univision should be required to subtitle all its Spanish language programming in English.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for theUnited States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogenous population — 5 percent are foreign-born — and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

But according to Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 decision in the Grutteraffirmative action case, a “homogeneous” student body makes for lousier learning.
By Steve Sailer on 12/13/2011