An Italian-Swiss team demonstrates that children’s reading skills can be improved with a new kid-friendly action video game.

What if video games, instead of being an obstacle to literacy, could actually help children improve their reading skills? A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) has teamed up with scientists from the University of Trento in Italy to test an action video game for children, which would improve reading skills. The results, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, show an improvement in reading skills after only twelve hours of training.

Notably, these gains persist over time, to the point that language school grades improve more than a year after the training ends. Decoding letters into sound is a key point in learning to read but is not enough to master it. “Reading calls on several other essential mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think of, such as knowing how to move our gaze on the page or using our working memory to link words together in a coherent sentence”, specifies Daphné Bavelier, professor at the Psychology section of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) of UNIGE. “These other skills, such as vision, attention span, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, are known to be enhanced by action video games,” explains Angela Pasqualotto, first author of this study, which is based on his doctoral thesis at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences of the University of Trento under the supervision of Professors Venuti and De Angeli.

A kid-friendly action video game to support learning

With this in mind, a video game has been designed that combines action video games with mini-games that train different executive functions, such as working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility, functions solicited when 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”, adds Angela Pasqualotto. The idea is to reproduce the components of an action game, without incorporating violence, so that it is suitable for young children. “For example, the Raku flies through a meteor shower, moving to avoid them or aiming at them to weaken their impact, while collecting useful resources for the rest of the game, much like what is found in the action video games.”

The scientists then worked with 150 Italian schoolchildren aged 8 to 12, divided into two groups: the first played the video game developed by the team, and the second played Scratch, a game that teaches children to code. . Both games require attentional control and executive functions, but in different ways. The action video game asks children to perform time-limited tasks such as remembering a sequence of symbols or responding only when the Raku makes a specific sound while increasing the difficulty of these tasks based on the player’s performance. the child. Scratch, the control game, requires planning, reasoning and problem solving. Children must manipulate logical objects and 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, an ability that the we know driven by action video games”, explains Daphné Bavelier. The children then trained with either the action video game or the control game for six weeks, two hours a week under school supervision. The children were tested at school by clinicians from the Laboratory for Observation, Diagnostics and Education (UNITN).

Long-term improvement in reading skills

Shortly after the training ended, the scientists repeated the tests on the two groups of children. “We found a 7-fold improvement in attentional control in children who played the action video game compared to the control group,” explains Angela Pasqualotto. More remarkably, the research team observed a marked improvement in reading, not only in terms of reading speed but also accuracy, while no improvement was noted for the control group. This improvement in literacy occurs even though the action video game does not require any reading activity.

“What is particularly interesting in this study is that we carried out three complementary evaluation tests at 6 months, 12 months and 18 months after the training. Each time, the trained children performed better than the control group, proving that these improvements were long-lasting,” says Angela Pasqualotto. Moreover, the Italian grades of the trained children improved markedly over time, showing a virtuous improvement in learning ability. “The effects are therefore long-term, in line with action video games that reinforce the ability to learn to learn,” says Daphné Bavelier.

As part of the PRN Evolving Language and in collaboration with Irene Altarelli (co-author of the article and researcher at LaPsyDE, University of Paris), the game will be adapted into German, French and English. “When reading, decoding is more or less difficult depending on the language. Italian, for example, is very transparent – ​​every letter is pronounced – while French and English are quite opaque, resulting in quite different learning difficulties. Reading in opaque languages ​​requires the ability to learn exceptions, to learn how a variety of contexts affect pronunciation, and requires greater confidence in memorization,” comments Irene Altarelli.

Will the benefits of action video games on reading acquisition extend to learning environments as complex as reading in French or English? This is the question that this study will help answer. In addition, the video game will be available entirely at home, remotely, as will the administration of reading and attention tests, in order to supplement school lessons, rather than taking time out of class hours.

Reference: Pasqualotto A, Altarelli I, De Angeli A, Menestrina Z, Bavelier D, Venuti P. Improving reading skills through a video game combining action mechanisms and cognitive training. Nat Hum Behav. Published online January 17, 2022:1-10. doi:10.1038/s41562-021-01254-x

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