Video games take aim at dyslexia

Controversial study suggests attention problem at root of reading disorder

Children with dyslexia may read better after playing action video games that stress mayhem, not literacy, a contested study suggests.

Playing fast-paced Wii video games for 12 hours over two weeks markedly increased the reading speed of 7- to 13-year-old kids with dyslexia, with no loss of reading accuracy, says a team led by psychologist Andrea Facoetti of the University of Padua, Italy. Reading gains lasted at least two months after the video game sessions. The gains matched or exceeded previously reported effects of reading-focused programs for dyslexia, the researchers report online February 28 in Current Biology.

“These results are clear enough to say that action video games are able to improve reading abilities in children with dyslexia,” Facoetti says. Although the new study includes only 20 children with dyslexia, its results build on earlier evidence that many poor readers have difficulty focusing on items within arrays, Facoetti holds. By strengthening the ability to monitor central and peripheral objects in chaotic scenes, he says, action video games give kids with dyslexia a badly needed tool for tracking successive letters in written words.

But evidence for Facoetti’s conclusions is shaky, asserts psychologist Nicola Brunswick of Middlesex University in London. The researchers tested word reading ability two months later but failed to test reading comprehension, she says. What’s more, they did so with a mere six of 10 kids who played the action video games.  

Ten participants in a comparison group played video games that didn’t require constant scanning of frenzied scenes. These kids showed no reading improvement. All games in the study came from a Wii product called Rayman Raving Rabbids.

Action video games deserve scrutiny as possible dyslexia fighters, says cognitive neuroscientist Bruce McCandliss of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But the new study doesn’t necessarily prove their worth in allaying severe reading problems, he says. For instance, children made many errors when reading nonsense words before and after playing action video games, although they did so in less time following the intervention.  

Action video games may particularly help bad readers of straightforward languages such as Italian, in which written letters usually stand for single sounds ( SN: 3/31/01, p. 205 ). Facoetti’s group — Padua colleagues Sandro Franceschini, Simone Gori and Simona Viola, as well as Milena Ruffino and Massimo Molteni of Scientific Institute E. Medea in Lecco, Italy — plans to study action video games as a dyslexia treatment for speakers of English and other tough-to-read languages, in which written letters can correspond to multiple sounds.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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