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Decoding letters into sounds is an important part of learning to read, but it is not sufficient for mastering the process. Recently, a video game was created that blends action video games with mini-games that teach several executive functions such as working memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, all of which are used while reading. The goal is to recreate the elements of an action game while avoiding the use of violence, making it suitable for young children.
Daphné Bavelier, a professor in the Psychology Section of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPSE) at the University of Geneva points out that “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.”
Angela Pasqualotto, first author of this study, explains “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 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. For example, 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 scientists then placed 150 Italian schoolchildren into two groups, aged 8 to 12. The first group played a video game created by the team, while the second one played Scratch, a coding game for kids. Attentional control and executive functions are required in both games but in different ways. The action video game encourages children to complete tasks in a set amount of time, such as remembering a series of symbols or reacting only when the Raku makes a specific 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 desired programming sequence, children must manipulate objects and logical structures.
The scientists repeated the tests on both groups of children shortly after the training ended. “We found a 7-fold improvement in attentional control in the children who played the action video game compared to the control group”, says Angela Pasqualotto. Furthermore, the trained children’s Italian grades improved dramatically over time, indicating a positive change in their learning capacity.
The game will be translated into German, French, and English as part of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Evolving Language project, in collaboration with Irene Altarelli (co-author of the study and researcher at LaPsyDE, University of Paris). It’s a groundbreaking national multidisciplinary research collaboration that brings together researchers from the humanities, language, computer science, social sciences, and scientific sciences on a never-before-seen scale.
“When reading, decoding is more or less difficult depending on the language. 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,” comments Irene Altarelli.
Will the advantages of action video games in terms of reading acquisition move on to more complicated learning settings such as French or English reading? The answer to this will be addressed by this study.