Attention training might trump language practice in treating dyslexia, and video games might provide just that, according to a recent study in Current Biology. Researchers at the University of Padua in Italy found that 10 kids with dyslexia who played an action-filled video game for nine 80-minute sessions increased their reading speed, without introducing mistakes. These reading gains lasted at least two months and outpaced gains measured in 10 children with dyslexia who played a nonaction version of the same game, as well as trumping the expected improvement that naturally occurs in a year for a child with dyslexia.

Though small, the study bolsters evidence that dyslexia stems in part from problems in focusing attention onto letters and words in an orderly way. Last year the same team reported that preschoolers who struggled to quickly and accurately shift their attention—which can be thought of as a spotlight—were likely to have reading difficulties three years later. Because action video games require players to constantly redirect their attention to different targets, neuroscientist Simone Gori and his colleagues thought the video games might fine-tune that spotlight so as to avoid jumbling letters on a page. [For more on the cognitive benefits of video games, see “Brain-Changing Games,” by Lydia Denworth; Scientific American Mind, January/February 2013.]

The training honed visual attention skills and reading hand in hand, and the reading improvements even exceeded those obtained in children after traditional therapies for dyslexia, which focus on building language skills. Gori does not advocate abandoning the older methods but says that training visual attention could be a vital, overlooked component. He also notes that kids are prone to quit traditional dyslexia therapies, which he says can be demanding and even boring; not a problem in his video-game experiment. “Our difficulty was in getting the kids to stop playing,” Gori says.