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Impact of digital games on early reading skills in a developing country context

Reading is the basic component of learning that constitutes one of the first steps towards educational attainment. Amongst others, some of the pressing issues the developing countries face are lower literacy rates, education quality and access. Pakistan comes under the list of countries with appalling literacy rates, where 22.6 million children are out of school and have no access to education at all. Recent research indicates the use of digital technologies as a vehicle for change across developing countries in the world. The use of low-cost digital technologies offers opportunities for equitable access to quality educational experiences and the development of lifelong learning skills for marginalised factions of society. The present study explored the role of digital games using low-cost tablets in improving reading skills in multilingual societies within Pakistan- a developing country context, where Urdu is the lingua franca, and English is the second or sometimes third language, while the medium of instruction in schools, specifically at the textbook level, is English. This study considered English as the second language (L2) and Urdu as the first language (L1) in Pakistan. The study also intended to explore the factors essential to developing an effective digital game-based learning environment conducive to developing reading skills for students belonging to low socioeconomic status. Through the lens of constructionist epistemology and theoretical frameworks of pragmatism and transformative emancipation, this research utilised a multi-phase-mixed methods-embedded research design to investigate the effectiveness of digital game-based learning (DGBL) in developing reading skills in a multilingual developing country context. Data were gathered through multiple methods in different phases of the research, incorporating pre-post and delayed-post tests, surveys, classroom observations, student group interviews, and individual teacher interviews. A sample of 288 students was drawn from a population of out-of-school children of ages 7 to 16 years, enrolled from Grade 1 to Grade 5 on different campuses of a charity school in an urban setting of Pakistan. The results indicate that learning to read using a pedagogically balanced digital game significantly improved reading skills in English (L2) and Urdu (L1) with a large effect size. The results also indicated the cross-linguistic transfer of reading skills from English (L2) to Urdu (L1) using the digital game and long-term retention of reading skills after the digital games were removed. This study has furthered the understanding of the design and nature of an effective digital game-based learning environment (DGBL) in regards to the use of digital games, the arrangement of learners, and creating opportunities to transfer skills to the wider real-life context. The design of the DGBL environment influenced the social interactions, classroom discourse, identities, and social practices in the co-construction of knowledge and introduced transformation in teachers' roles at various stages of learning within a DGBL environment. The study indicated that social interactions in learning environments and the role of the teacher in designing an effective learning environment are crucial to fostering transferable skills in students that lead to emancipation and prepare students for the real world outside schools. These findings have important implications for policymakers, teachers and teacher educators, students and parents. Key implications associated with the use of digital games for reading development included the need to develop: a centralised DGBL unit in collaboration with the game industry, pedagogical experts, teachers, and researchers to develop pedagogically balanced digital games to suit the educational needs of the target populations; a mechanism to provide schools, students and their parents subsidised access to the digital games to improve reading skills; and teacher education and professional development programmes to train teachers in understanding their role transformations and implementing roles effectively in DGBL environments.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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