Video games tested as treatment for dyslexia

Behind the Headlines

Friday March 1 2013

The children played the Wii game Rayman Raving Rabbids

"Video games help reading in children with dyslexia," BBC News reports. The news is based on a study that found that video games could be used to treat dyslexia in children.

The results of this study warrant further investigation. However, as it included only 20 children, it is too small to draw reliable conclusions from, and many questions remain unanswered.

Previous studies have shown that action video games could improve visual attention. So this study investigated whether an improvement in visual attention led to improvements in reading.

The study used a game called Rayman Raving Rabbids, which is not a game in the traditional sense, but rather a series of mini-games. These can be divided into:

  • fast paced mini-games requiring quick reaction times (known as ‘twitchers’) – these were described as action video games (AVG)
  • slower paced mini-games that don’t require quick reaction times – these were described as non-action video games (NAVG)

The study recruited 20 children with dyslexia, 10 of whom were placed in the AVG group and the other 10 in the NAVG group. The children played the games for a total of 12 hours in nine 80-minute sessions.

The researchers found that children in the AVG group had improved reading ability and attention skills after 12 hours, while no significant improvements were seen in the children who played the non-action games.

While video games may offer possible treatment for dyslexia, much more research is needed before this type of treatment could be safely recommended. Ideally, further research would take the form of a large randomised controlled trial.

Dyslexia is a condition that can cause several related learning difficulties, which can range from mild to severe between individuals.

 

In particular, people with dyslexia have difficulties with:

  • phonological decoding – the ability to recognise that words are made up of smaller units of sound (phonemes)
  • verbal memory – the ability to remember a sequence of verbal information for a short period of time
  • visual attention – how quickly a person processes and recognises familiar verbal information, such as letters and numbers

 

Read more about the symptoms of dyslexia

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Padua in Italy and was funded by grants from the CARIPARO Foundation and the University of Padua.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Current Biology.

The UK media reported the research accurately, cautioning that more research is needed before games could be considered a treatment for dyslexia and that the amount of time children spend playing video games should be limited.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was experimental research exploring the effects of action video games on the reading ability of children with dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty where a person has problems with reading and spelling words, despite having ‘normal’ intellect. 

It is estimated that around 10% of children may be affected by some degree of dyslexia.

It is recognised that one of the main features characterising dyslexia is a difficulty with auditory discrimination. This is the ability to hear the units of sound that make up words when they are spoken (phonological decoding).

Another area that the researchers report is likely to be involved is a difficulty with visual attention. This is the ability to look at written letters and make the correct association between the letter and the spoken sound (letter-to-speech integration).

The combination of both features means that many children with dyslexia have problems improving their reading skills.

The researchers considered that treatment of these deficits could be a key step in treatment strategies.

Video game training has been demonstrated to increase visual attention abilities in previous studies, so the researchers decided to investigate the effects of video games on children with dyslexia – specifically comparing action video game (AVG) training with non-action video games (NAVG).

The researchers predicted that improvements in attention and letter-to-speech integration from the games would help improve reading abilities.

 

What did the research involve?

This research included 20 children with dyslexia, 10 of whom were assigned to AVG and 10 to NAVG training. At the start of the study they measured their reading ability and their ability to decode words phonologically (letter-to-speech sound mapping). They also examined their spatial attention skills.

Reading ability was measured as a ratio between speed (defined as the time in seconds necessary to read the specific item, depending on the task) and accuracy (defined as the ratio between the correct response and the total number of items).

The two groups did not differ in their reading or attentional measurements at study start.

Each child was then given a commercial Wii to play the video game “Rayman Raving Rabbids”, which contains a series of single mini-games reportedly selected to create the action and non-action interventions.

The children played the games for nine sessions of 80 minutes per day.

After the total 12 hours, reading ability and attention skills were reassessed.

 

What were the basic results?

The researchers found greater improvement in reading ability in the AVG group than the NAVG group. The AVG group showed significant improvements in phonological decoding and word text reading compared with the NAVG group.

The AVG group showed increased reading speed without having a detrimental effect on accuracy.

The improvements in phonological decoding were reportedly higher than would be expected after one year of reading development.

They also retested the reading ability of six of 10 children in the AVG group after a further two months when they had received no intervention.

Though there was no further improvement, there was no deterioration.

Spatial attention skills were also demonstrated to improve in the AVG group after the 12 hours, but not in the NAVG group.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that, in support of previous reports, their findings show that video games have a favourable effect on attention.

This has also been shown to translate directly into better reading ability.

The researchers suggest that this could be a ‘new, fast, fun’ treatment for dyslexia or be a part of early prevention programmes to reduce the incidence of reading disorders.

 

Conclusion

This research has suggested that playing an action video game for 12 hours can improve the reading ability and attention skills of children with dyslexia compared with a non-action video game.

The researchers say that as all action video games display a high speed of transient events and moving objects, in addition to requiring a high degree of perception and response, then this may improve certain pathways in the brain that can help to improve reading ability.

This experimental study is a useful early research step into another possible intervention for dyslexia, alongside the range of educational programmes currently available.

However, it is important to realise that this experimental study was tiny and included only 20 children. This sample is too small to draw reliable conclusions from about how it might work in most children. Also, with such a small sample size the differences between the groups may be down to chance.

There also remain many unanswered questions, including:

  • what duration of any intervention would be required (for example whether games should be played daily, or for how long)
  • what sort of action games should be played – mini-games, first person shooters, racing games or others
  • how this would be combined with, or supplement other educational programmes for dyslexia
  • whether there may be any detrimental effects in the longer term on other areas of the child’s health or development

These questions cannot be answered without large randomised controlled trials to investigate the effectiveness of action video games in children with dyslexia.

Overall, this is a useful first research step into a possible treatment for dyslexia, but much more study is needed. 

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Links to the headlines

Video games 'help reading in children with dyslexia'. BBC News, February 28 2013

Video games 'teach dyslexic children to read'. The Daily Telegraph, February 28 2013

Video Games Can Be Good For Kids, Says Study. Sky News, February 28 2013

Links to the science

Franceschini S, Gori S, Ruffino M, et al. Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better. Current Biology, Published online February 28 2013

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Useful links

NHS Choices links

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a common type of learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in the reading and spelling of words. In this video, Daniel tells his story and an expert gives their advice on symptoms, causes and treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 21/10/2013

Next review due: 21/10/2015

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