In modern societies, training reading skills is fundamental since poor-reading children are at high risk of struggling both at school and in life. Reading relies not only on oral language abilities but also on several executive functions. Considering their importance for literacy, training executive functions—particularly, attentional control has been suggested as a promising way of improving reading skills. For this reason, we developed a video game-based cognitive intervention aimed at improving several facets of executive functions. This game is composed of mini-games that apply gamified versions of standard clinical exercises linked through a game environment with action video game dynamics. Here, in a study involving 151 typically reading children, we demonstrated that after this general-domain behavioural intervention reading abilities, as well as attentional and planning skills, were significantly improved. Our results showed that training attentional control can translate into better reading efficiency, maintained at a follow-up test 6 months later.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Code for figures and analyses of behavioural data are available from the corresponding author on request.
Parsons, S. & Bynner, J. Illuminating Disadvantage: Profiling the Experiences of Adults with Entry level Literacy or Numeracy Over the Lifecourse (NRDC, 2007).
Pape, K., Bjørngaard, J. H., Westin, S., Holmen, T. L. & Krokstad, S. Reading and writing difficulties in adolescence and later risk of welfare dependence. A ten year follow-up, the HUNT Study, Norway. BMC Public Health 11, 718 (2011).
Carneiro, R. & Gordon, J. Warranting our future: literacy and literacies. Eur. J. Educ. 48, 476–497 (2013).
Snowling, M. Dyslexia: a language learning impairment. J. Br. Acad. 2, 43–58 (2014).
Ziegler, J. C. & Goswami, U. Reading acquisition, developmental dyslexia, and skilled reading across languages: a psycholinguistic grain size theory. Psychol. Bull. 131, 3–29 (2005).
Elhassan, Z., Crewther, S. G. & Bavin, E. L. The contribution of phonological awareness to reading fluency and its individual sub-skills in readers aged 9- to 12-years. Front. Psychol. 8, 533 (2017).
Vellutino, F. R., Fletcher, J. M., Snowling, M. J. & Scanlon, D. M. Specific reading disability (dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 45, 2–40 (2004).
Franceschini, S., Gori, S., Ruffino, M., Pedrolli, K. & Facoetti, A. A causal link between visual spatial attention and reading acquisition. Curr. Biol. 22, 814–819 (2012).
Grainger, J., Tydgat, I. & Isselé, J. Crowding affects letters and symbols differently. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 36, 673–688 (2010).
Grainger, J., Dufau, S. & Ziegler, J. C. A vision of reading. Trends Cogn. Sci. 20, 171–179 (2016).
Strijkers, K., Bertrand, D. & Grainger, J. Seeing the same words differently: the time course of automaticity and top-down intention in reading. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 27, 1542–1551 (2015).
Ruz, M. & Nobre, A. C. Attention modulates initial stages of visual word processing. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 20, 1727–1736 (2008).
Verhoeven, L., Reitsma, P. & Siegel, L. S. Cognitive and linguistic factors in reading acquisition. Read. Writ. 24, 387–394 (2011).
Karbach, J., Strobach, T. & Schubert, T. Adaptive working-memory training benefits reading, but not mathematics in middle childhood. Child Neuropsychol. 21, 285–301 (2015).
Loosli, S. V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W. J. & Jaeggi, S. M. Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children. Child Neuropsychol. 18, 62–78 (2012).
Siegel, L. S. & Ryan, E. B. The development of working memory in normally achieving and subtypes of learning disabled children. Child Dev. 60, 973–980 (1989).
Gathercole, S. E., Willis, C. S., Baddeley, A. D. & Emslie, H. The children’s test of nonword repetition: a test of phonological working memory. Memory 2, 103–127 (1994).
Baddeley, A. Working memory and language: an overview. J. Commun. Disord. 36, 189–208 (2003).
Henry, L. A., Messer, D. J. & Nash, G. Testing for near and far transfer effects with a short, face-to-face adaptive working memory training intervention in typical children. Infant Child Dev. 23, 84–103 (2014).
Blair, C. & Razza, R. P. Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Dev. 78, 647–663 (2007).
Colè, P., Duncan, L. G. & Blaye, A. Cognitive flexibility predicts early reading skills. Front. Psychol. 5, 565 (2014).
Cartwright, K. B. et al. Cognitive flexibility deficits in children with specific reading comprehension difficulties. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 50, 33–44 (2017).
Cartwright, K. B., Marshall, T. R., Huemer, C. M. & Payne, J. B. Executive function in the classroom: cognitive flexibility supports reading fluency for typical readers and teacher-identified low-achieving readers. Res. Dev. Disabil. 88, 42–52 (2019).
Christopher, M. E. et al. Predicting word reading and comprehension with executive function and speed measures across development: a latent variable analysis. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 141, 470–488 (2012).
Reiter, A., Tucha, O. & Lange, K. W. Executive functions in children with dyslexia. Dyslexia 11, 116–131 (2005).
Locascio, G., Mahone, M. E., Eason, S. & Cutting, L. E. Executive dysfunction among children with reading comprehension deficits. J. Learn. Disabil. 43, 441–454 (2010).
Bejjanki, V. R. et al. Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 16961–16966 (2014).
Cardoso-Leite, P. & Bavelier, D. Video game play, attention, and learning. Curr. Opin. Neurol. 27, 185–191 (2014).
Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Pouget, A. & Schrater, P. Brain plasticity through the life span: learning to learn and action video games. Annu. Rev. Neurosci. 35, 391–416 (2012).
Bediou, B. et al. Meta-analysis of action video game impact on perceptual, attentional, and meta-analysis of action video game impact on perceptual, attentional, and cognitive skills. Psychol. Bull. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000130 (2018).
Dye, M. W. G., Green, C. S. & Bavelier, D. The development of attention skills in action video game players. Neuropsychologia 47, 1780–1789 (2009).
Franceschini, S. et al. Action video games make dyslexic children read better. Curr. Biol. 23, 462–466 (2013).
Franceschini, S. et al. Action video games improve reading abilities and visual-to-auditory attentional shifting in English-speaking children with dyslexia. Sci. Rep. 7, 5863 (2017).
Bavelier, D., Green, C. S. & Seidenberg, M. S. Cognitive development: gaming your way out of dyslexia? Curr. Biol. 23, R282–R283 (2013).
Łuniewska, M. et al. Neither action nor phonological video games make dyslexic children read better. Sci. Rep. 8, 549 (2018).
Peters, J. L., Losa, L. D., Bavin, E. L. & Crewther, S. G. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews efficacy of dynamic visuo-attentional interventions for reading in dyslexic and neurotypical children: a systematic review. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 100, 58–76 (2019).
Cardoso-Leite, P., Joessel, A. & Bavelier, D. in Handbook of Game-based Learning (eds Plass, J. et al.) Ch. 18 (MIT Press, 2020).
Anguera, J. A. & Gazzaley, A. Video games, cognitive exercises, and the enhancement of cognitive abilities. Curr. Opin. Behav. Sci. 4, 160–165 (2015).
Bavelier, D. & Green, C. S. Enhancing attentional control: lessons from action video games. Neuron 104, 147–163 (2019).
Franceschini, S. et al. Shall we play a game? Improving reading through action video games in developmental dyslexia. Curr. Dev. Disord. Rep. 2, 318–329 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40474-015-0064-4
Raven, J. J. in Handbook of Nonverbal Assessment (ed. McCallum, R. S.) 223–237 (Springer, 2003).
Cornoldi, C. & Colpo, G. Prove di Lettura MT per la Scuola Elementare-2 (Edizioni OS, 1998).
Cornoldi, C. & Colpo, G. Prove di Lettura MT per la Scuola Media Inferiore-2 (Edizioni OS, 1995).
Hendriks, A. W. & Kolk, H. H. J. Strategic control in developmental dyslexia. Cogn. Neuropsychol. 14, 321–366 (1997).
Trenta, M., Benassi, M., Di Filippo, G., Pontillo, M. & Zoccolotti, P. Developmental dyslexia in a regular orthography: can the reading profile be reduced to strategic control? Cogn. Neuropsychol. 30, 147–171 (2013).
Coltheart, M., Rastle, K., Perry, C., Langdon, R. & Ziegler, J. DRC: a dual route cascaded model of visual word recognition and reading aloud. Psychol. Rev. 108, 204–256 (2001).
Perry, C., Ziegler, J. C. & Zorzi, M. CDP++.Italian: modelling sublexical and supralexical inconsistency in a shallow orthography. PLoS ONE 9, e94291 (2014).
Rakhlin, N. V., Mourgues, C., Cardoso-Martins, C., Kornev, A. N. & Grigorenko, E. L. Orthographic processing is a key predictor of reading fluency in good and poor readers in a transparent orthography. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 56, 250–261 (2019).
Biancardi, A. & Stoppa, E. Il test delle campanelle modificato (TCM): una proposta di studio per l’attenzione in età evolutiva. Psichiatr. Infanz. Adolesc. 64, 73–84 (1997).
Sannio Fancello, G., Vio, C. & Cianchetti, C. Tower of London Test (Erickson, 2006).
Bisiacchi, P., Cendron, M., Gugliotta, M., Tressoldi, P. E. & Vio, C. BVN 5-11—Batteria di Valutazione Neuropsicologica per l’Età Evolutiva (Erickson, 2005).
Franceschini, S. & Bertoni, S. Improving action video games abilities increases the phonological decoding speed and phonological short-term memory in children with developmental dyslexia. Neuropsychologia 130, 100–106 (2019).
Double, K. S., Mcgrane, J. A., Stiff, J. C. & Hopfenbeck, T. N. The importance of early phonics improvements for predicting later reading comprehension. Br. Educ. Res. J. 45, 1220–1234 (2019).
Vidyasagar, T. R. & Pammer, K. Dyslexia: a deficit in visuo-spatial attention, not in phonological processing. Trends Cogn. Sci. 14, 57–63 (2010).
Facoetti, A. et al. The relationship between visuo-spatial attention and nonword reading in developmental dyslexia. Cogn. Neuropsychol. 23, 841–855 (2006).
Gabrieli, J. D. E. & Norton, E. S. Reading abilities: importance of visual-spatial attention. Curr. Biol. 22, R298–R299 (2012).
Goldin, A. P. et al. Far transfer to language and math of a short software-based gaming intervention. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 6443–6448 (2014).
Calao, L. A., Moreno-León, J., Correa, H. E. & Robles, G. in Design for Teaching and Learning in a Networked World (eds Conole, G. et al.) 17–27 (Springer, 2015).
Blair, C. & Raver, C. C. Closing the achievement gap through modification of neurocognitive and neuroendocrine function: results from a cluster randomized controlled trial of an innovative approach to the education of children in kindergarten. PLoS ONE 9, e112393 (2014).
Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E. & Dunning, D. L. Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Dev. Sci. 12, 9–15 (2009).
Bergman-Nutley, S. & Klingberg, T. Effect of working memory training on working memory, arithmetic and following instructions. Psychol. Res. 78, 869–877 (2014).
Judd, N. & Klingberg, T. Training spatial cognition enhances mathematical learning in a randomized study of 17,000 children. Nat. Hum. Behav. 5, 1548–1554 (2021).
Johann, V. E. & Karbach, J. Effects of game-based and standard executive control training on cognitive and academic abilities in elementary school children. Dev. Sci. 23, e12866 (2020).
Spencer-Smith, M. & Klingberg, T. Benefits of a working memory training program for inattention in daily life: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 10, e0119522 (2015).
Berger, E. M., Fehr, E., Hermes, H., Schunk, D. & Winkel, K. The Impact of Working Memory Training on Children’s Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills NHH Department of Economics Discussion Paper No. 09/2020 (SSRN, 2020).
Burgers, C., Eden, A., Van Engelenburg, M. D. & Buningh, S. How feedback boosts motivation and play in a brain-training game. Comput. Hum. Behav. 48, 94–103 (2015).
Eichenbaum, A., Bavelier, D. & Green, C. S. Video games: play that can do serious good. Am. J. Play 7, 50–72 (2014).
Martinovic, D., Burgess, G. H., Pomerleau, C. M. & Marin, C. Comparison of children’s gaming scores to NEPSY-II scores: validation of computer games as cognitive tools. Comput. Hum. Behav. 49, 487–498 (2015).
Mishra, J., Anguera, J. A. & Gazzaley, A. Video games for neuro-cognitive optimization. Neuron 90, 214–218 (2016).
Goswami, U., Ziegler, J. C. & Richardson, U. The effects of spelling consistency on phonological awareness: a comparison of English and German. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 92, 345–365 (2005).
Defior, S. in Handbook of Children’s Literacy (eds Nunes, T. & Bryant, P.) 631–649 (Springer, 2004).
Pazzaglia, F., Mammarella, I. C., Toso, C. & Cornoldi, C. BVS Corsi—Batteria per la Valutazione della Memoria Visiva e Spaziale (Erickson, 2008).
Fleiss, J. L. Measuring nominal scale agreement among many raters. Psychol. Bull. 76, 378–382 (1971).
Resnick, M., Maloney, J. & Hernández, A. M. Scratch: programming for everyone. Commun. ACM 52, 60–67 (2009).
We thank A. Siesser for his invaluable contribution to the design and development of SOM, as well as B. Meuleman and S. Cekic for their invaluable help with statistical issues. We thank the Italian Ministry for University and Research for their support of A.d.A. through the project ‘La Città Educante’ PON 2007-2013; we thank the Marie Curie Grant (no. 661667, Learning Determinants) for their support of I.A., the NCCR Evolving Language as well as the Klaus J. Jacobs Foundation for their support of D.B. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
D.B. is founding member and on the scientific board of Akili Interactive, Boston. A.P., Z.M. and D.B. have filled a patent which protects some of the mechanics of the video game SOM. The other authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Human Behaviour thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended Data Fig. 1 Means and standard deviations at T1 of neuropsychological measures for the two groups (SOM and Control).
All the variables are expressed in z-scores with the exception of reading errors [that is, number of errors over the total number of enunciated words (*100)] aχ2-score, bF-score; *sig. α = 0.05.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Demographic and IQ characteristics (Means, SD) of SOM group and Control group prior to intervention (T1).
The two groups were carefully matched for Sex, Chronological Age, full IQ. aχ2-score,bF-score; *sig. α = 0.05.
About this article
Cite this article
Pasqualotto, A., Altarelli, I., De Angeli, A. et al. Enhancing reading skills through a video game mixing action mechanics and cognitive training. Nat Hum Behav 6, 545–554 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01254-x