• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 01st July, 2011

The Finns have a remedy for at-risk readers: more computer games

A computer game may be better than humans at helping young at-risk readers catch up with their peers. Seven-year-old Finnish children at risk of reading disability reached the level of their peers – and by some measures, passed the mainstream children – with the help of an educational computer game that trained them on phonetics. Notably, when the same reading intervention was carried out without the computer-assisted training, it failed to produce similar positive effects.These are the findings of a randomized control trial that followed 166 Finnish elementary-school children from school entry to the start of the third grade. Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, compared a regular reading intervention to an intervention that combined human elements with the use of a computer game designed for children at risk of dyslexia.To identify children at risk of reading disability, psychologist Nina Saine and colleagues screened all the children on pre-reading skills. The lowest achieving 30% of the children were offered remedial reading intervention. Half of the children who had a reading difficulty (25) received a regular reading intervention. The other half (25) received exactly the same intervention – except that it was enriched with a computer program called GraphoGame. Instead of practicing letter-sound connections through exercises with a teacher, they did the training by playing 15 minutes on a computer game. Both interventions consisted of four 45-minute sessions each week for 28 weeks. They were delivered to groups of five children at a time by the same trainer, who specialized in children’s reading disabilities. On top of the interventions, both groups took part in regular mainstream literacy lessons in their own classrooms.Those who had received the computer enriched program reached the level of mainstream children in letter knowledge, reading accuracy, fluency and spelling and continued to progress equally with the mainstreamers in the post-intervention follow-ups at 12 and 16 months. Interestingly, while children in the regular intervention group also made progress, they did not catch up with the mainstream children.According to Saine, there were two factors the computer game has over the human trainer who delivered the regular reading intervention. First, the computer program is able to provide highly individualized drilling on basic phonetic skills. The GraphoGame (“Ekapeli” in Finnish) is programmed to automatically adapt the difficulty of the task according to the progress of the player, avoiding the frustration for children of either progressing too fast or too slowly. The impartiality of a computer program may also help the children avoid the feeling of being singled out or judged if they need more repetition than others to learn the same skills.Second, a game-like reading environment may make learning more stimulating and fun, and is more likely to keep children who are struggling with reading engaged and motivated to practice reading. This is particularly important in the case of at-risk children, who are most likely to benefit from frequent repetitive practice but are often unmotivated to read.As promising as the results are, Saine warns against hasty generalizations. Compared to English and several other languages, Finnish has an extremely regular orthography: each phoneme (sound) corresponds to just one grapheme (letter) and vice versa. Hence, with adequate teaching a child can learn to read and spell Finnish accurately within a year. In more complex orthographies such as English, in which nearly every sound can be spelled in more than one way and all letters can be pronounced in more than one way, spelling problems often persist.For a computer program such as GraphoGame to be adopted in practice, studies with larger groups of pupils and in languages that are not as regular in their orthography as Finnish are needed. An ongoing EU-funded large-scale investigation in Finland, Switzerland, Holland and Britain will help determine if versions of the game in other languages are as successful.Furthermore, while the benefits of the game in this study were clear, teachers are anything but obsolete in teaching children with learning disabilities to read; indeed, the successful computer-based intervention also had a large human teaching component. It takes a teacher to understand children’s needs, to nurture their confidence and to plan how to best support their development. What the study does imply, however, is that more use can be made of computer technology as a tool that can capture the attention of children, making learning more interactive and highly individualized without being stigmatizing – particularly when it comes to children at risk of falling behind the rest, who may not be able to get the best out of traditional classroom teaching. ReferenceSaine, Nina L., Marja-Kristiina Lerkkanen, Timo Ahonen, Asko Tolvanen, and Heikki Lyytinen. 2011. ”Computer-Assisted Remedial Reading Intervention for School Beginners at Risk for Reading Disability.” Child Development 82(3): 1013–1028.Links:To download free versions of the Ekapeli game (in Finnish) go to:http://www.lukimat.fi/lukeminen/materiaalit/ekapeliFor playable demos of the English-language GraphoGame go to:http://info.graphogame.com

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