Improving literacy with action video games

Video games improved the reading skills of Italian schoolchildren...
29 January 2022


View of a person's head from behind with headphones on playing a video game.


Playing action video games boosts children's reading skills by training their ability to focus attention on the right words and avoid distractions, a new study has revealed...

Video games are often regarded with scepticism by parents, but according to new evidence, action games where the player has to make decisions under time pressure, switch between different states of attention, and divide their attention between different tasks might assist in literacy development.

According to University of Geneva researcher Angela Pasqualotto, these mechanics are crucial for training attentional control: the ability of the player to choose what to concentrate on and what to ignore. “All these action video games require the need for prediction and for variability. In this sense, all the activities that are part of these action mechanics are diverse enough to avoid the automation of all the skills that the player is using.”

What does this have to do with reading? Whilst reading is a linguistic skill, it doesn’t just rely on oral language abilities. It also uses a number of executive functions: cognitive processes that allow us to control our behaviour, such as working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Chief among these is attentional control, which Angela explains is crucial for focusing on the right words, grouping them into sentences, and moving from one line to the next. “Reading calls for an efficient extraction of the visual information from the page. It puts special demands on eye movement and the attentional system.”

That’s why Pasqualotto and her colleagues have designed Skies of Manawak: a child-appropriate action video game that is not only entertaining, but also trains attentional control, and other executive functions. To investigate the effect of action mechanics on reading skills, Italian schoolchildren aged 9-12 played one of two video games during their lessons. The action game Skies of Manawak, was compared to the non-action game Scratch, which teaches children programming in an entertaining way. The children that played Skies of Manawak showed improved reading speed and accuracy, and improved attentional control, compared to those that played Scratch. “What is interesting to notice is that these improvements were maintained 6 months later, after the end of the training, and also influenced school grades in Italian, 18 months after the end of the training.”

Would these reading improvements be seen in other languages? Pasqualotto explains that the next step is to translate the game into German, French, and English. “We would like to understand how to alleviate the different roadblocks to literacy acquisition, because all these languages are very different in terms of orthographic characteristics.”

Orthography is the spelling system and written convention of a language. Italian is an orthographically transparent language, which means that each letter typically sounds the same in every word. English is not a transparent language - it’s opaque. Take the “ough” group of words as an example: though, trough, tough and thought. These words share a lot of the same letters, but are pronounced in very different ways. These differences might mean that the effectiveness of the game at improving reading skills will vary between languages. “We expect our game to be beneficial, however the extent of [how] these differences in terms of transparency and the writing systems [impact the effectiveness of the game] is still an open question.”

So video games might not be as terrible as they’re often made out to be. But exactly how much and what types of games we should play is yet to be established. “There is no clear specific answer that we can give, but what we can say is that the right amount of these kinds of action video games is certainly producing a positive effect on cognition. So it is worth considering that there are positive impacts in playing video games.”


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