Dyslexia: thinking outside the box

Prof. Rilla Khaled from the Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about a newly developed game aimed at helping children with dyslexia, while learning difficulty experts suggest that oral exams are the way forward for helping dyslexic children in education

The game Words Matter – part of the One Tablet Per Child initiative – aims to help children with dyslexia by challenging their word-skills in an engaging way
The game Words Matter – part of the One Tablet Per Child initiative – aims to help children with dyslexia by challenging their word-skills in an engaging way

Words Matter, a game being made available to children as part of the government’s One Tablet Per Child initiative, will pit users into a stylized environment resembling the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration, as the player is set tasks aimed to test their reading and word-processing skills in an encouraging and engaging way. 

“The world relies on a special substance – ‘word matter’ – that only the player can extract. Different areas of language difficulty are mapped to game characters, exercises are mapped to world locations, and activity recommendations are mapped to event invitations,” Prof. Rilla Khaled, Associate Professor at the Institute for Digital Games at the University of Malta, says. 

She explains how the game – which was conceived under the ILearnRW initiative within the Institute – came about after research conducted with Greek and British counterparts, and aims to help young children with a profile of dyslexia to overcome self-esteem issues. 

“The game is about strengthening literacy skills if you are dyslexic. We chose a game world setting in which the player is the only character around with any semblance of literacy skills – in this way we wanted to make the player feel like a hero, because low self-esteem is frequently associated with dyslexia,” Khaled says. 

Prof Rilla Khaled: “It’s extremely important for educators to recontextualise the game into everyday reading and writing activities”
Prof Rilla Khaled: “It’s extremely important for educators to recontextualise the game into everyday reading and writing activities”

Khaled explains how previous research shows that best practice teaching for dyslexia involves ‘explicit phonics teaching’, which is often performed through multisensory drill and practice activities. 

“Part of our design challenge therefore became to present versions of these activities within a motivating frame. In particular, we sought to pique enough interest in players such that they would return to the activities repeatedly, with the game featuring no set ending point.”

She adds that the game, which is aimed at children between the ages of nine and 11, also focuses on the social aspect of dealing with dyslexia, as players are allowed to compare themselves to those with different literacy skills. 

“These friendships are strengthened by performing learning activities. So the primary motivation for learning in the game becomes to form friendships and help out your friends, leveraging young people’s deep understanding of social media and social interactions. We have our own version of Facebook in the game, in fact – called Ghostbook!”

Khaled however also stresses that the game can’t be expected to help children with a dyslexic profile “in isolation”, and that educators are expected to guide their students as they play, so as to maximize the game’s benefits.

“We have designed our game such that it can be used in a guided way (such as in a classroom) or in a more exploratory way (such as at home). What is extremely important, though, is that the learning skills practised in the game be recontextualised in everyday reading and writing activities – and this is where educators outside the game itself become absolutely crucial,” Khaled says. 

While stopping short on commenting on the Words Matter game in particular, learning difficulty experts Dr Ruth Falzon and Dr Rachael Agius both stressed how the educational system would greatly benefit from some ‘out of the box’ thinking when it comes to children with a dyslexic profile. Both of the experts agree that the educational system is far too rigid, particularly when it comes to the examinations process. 

In fact Falzon, together with Educational Psychologist Juan Camilleri, submitted a petition to the Minister for Education last October, which suggests that written exams at MATSEC level be done away with entirely for students with a dyslexic profile. Instead, Camilleri and Falzon propose that these students be exclusively assessed through oral examinations, since they believe this option would not compromise the assessment process in and of itself. In other words, since exams challenge students to show their innate knowledge of the subject at hand, penalizing them on spelling misses the point, unless it is spelling in particular that is being assessed. 

“In both [oral and written exams], students have to answer to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject in order to pass the examination.  As such, examination objectives are not compromised if aural input and oral output are used, unless reading and spelling themselves are being assessed,” Camilleri and Falzon write in their petition, adding that even our automatic assumption that ‘essay’ implies a written format should also be questioned. 

“In dictionaries, an essay is usually defined as a ‘short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative’. No definition of ‘essay’ includes that an essay must have been written/typed by the author,” they write, adding therefore that, “One would need a good speller to proofread documents but this is different from the ability to transform thoughts, creativity and ideas into readable linguistic communication for others to access in another time and space.”

Camilleri and Falzon also pointed out that oral examinations should in no way be considered the ‘easy option’ since they require just as much – if not more – preparation as written exams do. Additionally, they point out that PhD candidates defend their work during a viva voce – which is in fact an oral examination. 

“During an oral examination one cannot revisit what was said as in a written paper.  Orals require mental planning which is a skill in itself, so that one’s answer is structured and cohesive. In the PhD candidate’s favour is the fact that the document would have been prepared beforehand. Younger students sitting for their MATSEC will not have this advantage,” Camilleri and Falzon write. 

While agreeing with Camilleri and Falzon that oral exams are the way forward for dyslexic students – “after all, exams are meant to test knowledge of a subject rather than the medium with which they have to present that knowledge” – fellow learning difficulty expert Dr Rachael Agius also stressed the importance of considering the bilingual context of Maltese culture and education. While English is considered a ‘deep’ language because its written form differs substantially from its spoken form, Maltese is ‘transparent’. 

“It is therefore incorrect to test a Maltese child on a test that is standardized on English speaking monolingual children,” Agius says.