Video games are not only for entertainment, but also allow you to develop skills such as visual spatial intelligence and problem solving. However, a recent study claims that those that belong to the action genre also have the potential to help children learn to read.
Through a study by an Italian-Swiss team, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, it was revealed how children’s reading skills can be improved with an action video game dedicated to them.
To learn to read, decoding the letters into sound is a key point. However, that is not enough to master it. “Reading taps into several other essential mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about, like knowing how to move our eyes across the page or how to use our working memory to string words together into a coherent sentence,” said Daphne Bavelier, a professor in the Section of Psychology. from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) of the University of Geneva.
“These other abilities, such as vision, attention span, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, are known to improve with action video games,” added Angela Pasqualotto, first author of this study, which is based on his doctoral thesis at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Trento.
With this idea in mind, a video game was designed that combines action with mini-games, which train different executive functions, such as working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, functions that are used 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 mentioned.
The idea is to reproduce the components of an action game, but without incorporating violence, to make it 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. It’s a bit like what you find in 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 control game that teaches kids to code. Both games require attentional control and executive functions, but in different ways.
The action game requires 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.
On the other hand, Scratch, the control game, requires planning, reasoning, and problem solving. Children must 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 we also performed an attention test that measures the child’s attentional control, an ability that we know is trained with action video games,” Bavelier explained.
The children then continued training using either the action video game or the control game for six weeks, playing two hours a week under the supervision of the school. The children were evaluated there by doctors from the Laboratory for Observation, Diagnosis and Education (UNITN).
Shortly after the training ended, the scientists repeated the tests on both groups of children. “We found a 7-fold improvement in attention control in children who played the action video game compared to the control group,” Pasqualotto said.
And most notably, the research team saw a clear improvement in the children’s reading, not only in terms of speed when reading, but also in accuracy; in contrast, no improvement was seen in the control group. What is striking is that the improvement in literacy occurs even when the action video game does not require any reading activity.
“What is particularly interesting about this study is that we carried out three other evaluation tests at 6 months, 12 months and 18 months after training. On each occasion, the trained children performed better than the control group, showing that these improvements were sustained,” said Pasqualotto.
Furthermore, the trained children’s Italian scores improved significantly over time, showing a virtuoso improvement in learning ability. “The effects are therefore long-term, and are in line with action video games strengthening the ability to learn how to learn,” Bavelier said.
After the good results, the action game will be adapted to German, French and English, to see if the benefits extend to complex learning environments with languages that mean a different challenge than Italian. In addition, the new video game studies will be done entirely at home, along with the administration of reading and attention tests to supplement school lessons, rather than taking time away from school.