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Action video games may help you improve your reading abilities


What if, instead of being a barrier to literacy, video games might really help youngsters improve their reading skills? Scientists have put a children’s action video game to the test in order to improve their reading abilities. After just twelve hours of instruction, the findings show that reading skills have increased. Notably, these advantages are sustained over time, with language school grades improving more than a year after training is completed.

Decoding letters into sounds is an important part of learning to read, but it is not sufficient for mastery. “Reading calls on several other essential mechanisms that we don’t always 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,” says Daphné Bavelier, a professor at the UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE). “Action video games are known to improve these other skills, such as vision, attention deployment, working memory, and cognitive flexibility,” explains Angela Pasqualotto, first author of the study, which is based on her PhD thesis at the University of Trento’s Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science under the direction of Professors Venuti and De Angeli.

A learning aid in the form of a kid-friendly action video game

With this in mind, a video game was created that blends action video games with micro games that teach several executive functions, including working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, all of which are used when reading. “This game’s premise is an alternate world in which the youngster, accompanied by his Raku, a flying creature, must complete various tasks in order to preserve planets and advance in the game,” Angela Pasqualotto explains. The goal is to recreate the elements of an action game while avoiding the use of violence, making it acceptable for young children. “For instance, the Raku flies through a meteor shower, moving about to dodge them or aiming at them to decrease their effect, all while gathering vital materials for the remainder of the game, similar to what you’d see in action video games.”

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The scientists then worked with 150 Italian students aged 8 to 12, who were split into two groups: one played a video game created by the researchers, while the other played Scratch, a coding game for kids. Attentional control and executive processes are required in both games, albeit in different ways. The action video game encourages children to complete tasks in a certain amount of time, such as memorizing a series of symbols or reacting only when the Raku makes a particular sound, with the complexity of these activities rising as the child’s performance improves. Scratch, the control game, needs forethought, logic, and problem solving. To create the required programming sequence, children must manipulate objects and logical structures.

“First, we assessed the children’s ability to comprehend words, non-words, and paragraphs,” adds Daphne Bavelier. “We then performed an attention test that assesses the child’s attentional control, which we know is learned by action video games.” The kids subsequently practiced with either the action video game or the control game for six weeks, two hours a week at school, under supervision. Clinicians from the Laboratory of Observation Diagnosis and Education assessed children at school (UNITN).

Long-term gains in reading abilities

The scientists repeated the tests on both groups of youngsters shortly after the training ended. According to Angela Pasqualotto, “we discovered a 7-fold improvement in attentional control in the youngsters who played the action video game compared to the control group.” Even more impressive, the study team saw a significant increase in reading, not only in terms of speed but also in terms of accuracy, while the control group showed no gain. This increase in literacy happens despite the fact that the action video game does not need any reading.

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“The fact that we conducted three additional assessment tests at 6 months, 12 months, and 18 months following training is very fascinating about this research. The taught youngsters outperformed the control group on every occasion, demonstrating that the gains were maintained “According to Angela Pasqualotto. Furthermore, the educated children’s Italian grades improved dramatically over time, indicating a positive change in learning capacity. “The impacts are therefore long-term,” Daphne Bavelier explains, “in accordance with the action video game enhancing the capacity to learn how to learn.”

The game will be translated into German, French, and English as part of the NCCR Evolving Language project, in conjunction with Irene Altarelli (co-author of the study and researcher at LaPsyDE, University of Paris). “Decoding is more or less difficult while reading, depending on the language. For example, Italian is quite clear — each letter is spoken — but French and English are fairly opaque, posing distinct learning obstacles. Reading in a cryptic language requires the capacity to remember exceptions, as well as the ability to understand how a range of circumstances affects pronunciation. It also necessitates a larger dependence on memory “Irene Altarelli adds her two cents. Will the advantages of action video games in terms of reading acquisition transfer to more complicated learning settings like French or English reading? This is the question that this research will attempt to address. In addition, the video game, as well as the administration of reading and attention exams, will be offered totally at home, rather than during school hours, to supplement school courses.

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