Research finds computer programme may aid reading

Research by the Department of Psychology at Swansea University into the effects of a computer-based reading programme has found that it can produce rapid gains in reading ability for poor readers.

Two studies have shown that just two months working with the programme, for only three hours a week, produces gains in reading age equivalent to six months.

The research, undertaken in schools in Wales and in South East England, found that the pupils responded positively to the programme and showed improvements greater than those seen in their usual classroom lessons.  The studies also found that, in addition to increases in reading ability, some pupils showed evidence of reduced behavioural problems. 

The programme – ‘uSelfLearn, Read and Spell’ – uses a system called ‘phonics’, which teaches pupils to link the sounds of words to their written forms, and allows the youngsters to work at their own pace through a series of increasingly difficult stages. 

The pupils are rewarded after each stage, according to their performance, with the chance to play specially-designed video games of their choice.  In this way, ‘uSelfLearn, Read and Spell’ gives pupils one-to-one support, allows them to work at their own pace, and it can be used to support children’s literacy at school, under the supervision of a teacher, or at home.

The two evaluation studies of the phonics programme were conducted by J Antony Hughes and Professor Phil Reed, of Swansea University, and were published in the international journal PLoS ONE and in the British Journal of Special Education. 

The programme was designed by entrepreneur, Gordon Phillips, based on his personal experience of being severely dyslexic. 

Mr Phillips said: “Being unable to read and write can lead to feelings of frustration and isolation – as I know from personal experience. My life-long battle with dyslexia inspired me to want to help others in similar circumstances.”  

Professor Reed added: “Reading difficulties are not only problematic in themselves, but also can produce huge frustration, often associated with depression or aggression, or both.  Finding ways in which to effectively tackle this problem, which extends beyond just the reading itself, that people are willing to engage with, is a real need.”

In fact, poor reading is a major concern for the UK Government and for the Assembly Government in Wales, where 40% of pupils entering secondary school are unable to read at their appropriate age-level.  It is estimated that poor literacy costs the UK about £81bn per year, including approximately £23bn in social-care costs and loss of potential future earnings.  Poor reading also increases the costs associated with the health services and the criminal justice systems.

Professor Reed added: “So far, the studies have targeted those pupils who are suggested to have reading problems by their schools; we don’t know whether it would help every child, and there are some differences between the impacts on boys and girls – the boys often doing better on the programme – which need to be further investigated. 

“However, it is a very encouraging start, and a nice example of the positive side of computer use.”