‘Phonomena’ Computer Games Improve Language Abilities

Academic Expertise - Oxford University

20th September 2003

Trials conducted by MindWeavers Ltd, an Oxford spin-out company formed in 2000, show that its Phonomena computer game can dramatically improve children's language abilities.

Can computer games improve language?

As highlighted in New Scientist (28 August 2003), the trial results show that primary school children who used the Phonomena game for four weeks saw their word listening ages shoot up by 2.4 years. A control group who did not use the innovative, phonics-based software showed no improvement. Phonomena could play a key role in raising children’s literacy levels. Another huge potential market is with adults learning English as an additional language.

Bruce Robinson, MindWeavers’ Chief Executive, said: “Our Phonomena game was trialled with 8-10 year olds of average ability as part of their literacy training. We compared their word listening age scores before and after training on the game, using a standard literacy test. The trial group showed a dramatic acceleration in learning ability, with word listening ages up by an average of 2.4 years, and continued to improve even after the trials ended. Our game runs on standard computers so it could be a valuable tool in the Government’s drive to raise literacy standards in schools. Test results for 11 year olds (‘SATs’) show that current methods are failing. We also expect strong interest from parents, as children enjoy the game format so would happily play it at home as one of their computer games. We are making the product available and are in discussion with educational software companies.”

The software is based on research by Professor David Moore of Oxford University’s Physiology Department. It is designed to boost phonological processing skills – our ability to distinguish between different phonemes, the sounds that are the building blocks of speaking, reading and writing skills.

Mr Robinson explained: “If we can’t make out the different sounds in words then it is impossible to pronounce, read or write them. And poor literacy levels affect children’s confidence and prospects throughout life. Our Phonomena game is sophisticated phonics training in the guise of an exciting, interactive, computer game that cleverly adjusts to each child’s ability. It helps them sound out parts of words, training their brains to distinguish between the sounds of everyday English. The game constantly tracks the child’s performance, keeping them at their ‘edge of competence’. At this level, Professor Moore’s research shows that learning accelerates dramatically. At the same time, the child is absorbed in improving their score on the game. Other phonics games currently available are staid and repetitive. They are not take full advantage of a computer’s unique ability to provide a gaming format and adapt to different abilities.”

Both children and teachers praised Phonomena. One teacher who participated in the trials said: “My pupils loved playing Phonomena and volunteered for more. It had a remarkable effect on their literacy skills, which could only have been achieved by one to one tuition. For the first time, one of the boys explained how to spell two words (‘went’ and ‘really’) when someone else had misspelled them. Before the trial he wouldn’t have had the confidence.”

MindWeavers also plans to launch a version of Phonomena in the business market, where it will be used to teach English as an additional language.

Mr Robinson commented: “We are setting up trials with a company in Japan, where the software will be used in English courses for staff. It can help them pick out unfamiliar sounds in the English language, such as the difficulty that the Japanese experience with ‘r’ and ‘l’. Assuming that the results are positive, our primary focus here will be adults in the business sector. But there is clearly scope to extend it to Japanese children, for home use, as they start learning English early and adore computer games.”

MindWeavers is based in Oxford Centre for Innovation, part of a network of 13 innovation centres run by Oxford Innovation, housing over 250 knowledge-based companies.

Dr David Kingham, Chief Executive of Oxford Innovation, said: “We congratulate MindWeavers on their superb trial results. They are well-placed to turn their Phonomena software into a big commercial success. MindWeavers is a great example of the innovative companies that we support through our innovation centre and investment networks. Oxford University Innovation helped MindWeavers to get started by seconding someone to work on their initial business plan and by securing grant funding from the DTI and Europe.”

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