Sounding out letters is an important part of learning to read, but the ability to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions, or attentional control, is also important. Playing video games may offer one good way to help early readers hone these skills, a new study finds. It noted that playing action video games helped children develop their reading skills.

“Reading calls upon several other mechanisms we don’t necessarily think about, such as knowing how to move our eyes along the page and how to use our working memory to link words together in a sentence,” explained Daphne Bavelier, one of the coauthors of the study.

Studies have shown playing action video games helps adults and children enhance their reading skills by improving their attentional control, working memory and other cognitive skills. However, this research often focused on children with learning challenges such as dyslexia.

Action video games strengthened children’s ability to learn how to learn, including learning how to read.

Bavelier and a team of Swiss and Italian researchers wanted to see if action video games had similar benefits for children without learning challenges.

They designed a game called Skies of Manahawk that exercised working memory and cognitive flexibility, the ability to think about multiple concepts at once or switch between thinking about two different concepts as children played.

Over 150 Italian school children with no learning challenges were enrolled in the study. All went through six weeks of training on either Skies of Manahawk or Scratch, a game that teaches children how to code. They tested all the children’s ability to read words, non-words and paragraphs; and gave each a test that measured the child’s ability to control or maintain their attention.

The 79 children who played Skies of Manahawk showed a seven-fold improvement in attentional control and a better ability to remember the relationship to objects relative to one another compared to the 72 children who played Scratch.

The improvements in reading skills and attentional control in those who played Skies of Manahawk were maintained after six months, and small improvements in Italian, a core subject, were still seen after 18 months. “The effects are thus long-term, in line with action video games strengthening the ability to learn how to learn,” said Bavelier, a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva.

The researchers plan to adapt the game into German, French and English so they can determine if the benefits of video games on reading skills extend to other languages which present different challenges from Italian. An at-home version of Skies of Manahawk and tests of reading and attentional control will also be available to allow the game and pre- and post-training tests to be done at home, rather than taking time out of the school day.

The study is published in Nature Human Behaviour.