If you’re like most people, you bought a lot of video games as Christmas gifts. Also if you’re like most people, you’re torn over whether spending so much time playing those games is good for your child.
But what if video games could help children improve their reading abilities? Scientists at the University of Geneva have tested an action video game for children, created to enhance reading skills.
“Reading calls upon several other essential mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about, such as knowing how to move our eyes on the page or how to use our working memory to link words together in a coherent sentence,” said Daphné Bavelier, a professor in the psychology section of the faculty of psychology and educational sciences at the university.
Angela Pasqualotto, first author of this study, explained, “These other skills, such as vision, the deployment of attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, are known to be improved by action video games.” The study is based on her PhD thesis at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science of the University of Trento.
For the study, researchers designed a video game that combines action video games with minigames that train different brain functions, such as working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility — functions that are called on during reading.
“The universe of this game is an alternative world in which the child, accompanied by his Raku, a flying creature, must carry out different missions to save planets and progress in the game,” Pasqualotto said in a university news release.
The idea is to reproduce the components of an action game, without incorporating violence, so that it is suitable for young children. “For example,” she said, “the Raku flies through a meteor shower, moving around to avoid those or aiming at them to weaken their impact, while collecting useful resources for the rest of the game, a bit like what you find in action video games.”
The researchers tested the game with 150 Italian kids ages 8-12. The children were divided into two groups: one that played the study’s game and one that played Scratch, a game that teaches kids to code.
The action video game required children to perform tasks within a time limit — such as remembering a sequence of symbols or responding only when the Raku makes a specific sound — while increasing the difficulty of these tasks according to the child’s performance. Scratch required planning, reasoning and problem solving. Children had to manipulate objects and logical structures to establish the desired programming sequence.
“First, we tested the children’s ability to read words, non-words and paragraphs, and also we conducted an attention test that measures the child’s attentional control, a capacity we know is trained by action video games,” Bavelier said. The children then followed the training with either the action video game or the control game, for six weeks, two hours a week
After the end of the training, the scientists repeated the tests on both groups.
“We found a 7-fold improvement in attentional control in the children who played the action video game compared to the control group,” Pasqualotto said. The team also saw a clear improvement in reading, not only in terms of speed, but also in accuracy, whereas no change was noted for the control group. This improvement in literacy happened even though the action video game did not require reading activity.
“What is particularly interesting about this study is that we carried out three further assessment tests at 6 months, 12 months and 18 months after training,” Pasqualotto said. “On each occasion, the trained children performed better than the control group, which proves that these improvements were sustained.”
Not only that, the grades in Italian of the trained children became significantly better over time, showing an improvement in learning ability. “The effects are thus long-term, in line with the action video game strengthening the ability to learn how to learn,” Bavelier said.
The game will be adapted into German, French and English. Will the benefits extend to other languages?
“When reading, decoding is more or less difficult depending on the language,” study co-author Irene Altarelli said. “Italian, for example, is very transparent — each letter is pronounced — whereas French and English are quite opaque, resulting in rather different learning challenges. Reading in opaque languages requires the ability to learn exceptions, to learn how a variety of contexts impacts pronunciation and demands greater reliance on memorization.”
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