© Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
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In Germany, between five and ten percent of the population suffer from reading and spelling difficulties. For around 40,000 children per year, these shortcomings lead to learning problems at school and affect their self-confidence. This frequently goes so far that they completely lose the desire to learn.

Linguists, computer scientists and psychologists from the University of Tübingen and the Tübingen Institute for Learning Therapy (Tübinger Instituts für Lerntherapie, TIL) have now developed the digital educational game ‘Prosodiya‘ for tablets and smartphones to help children who are struggling. “Many children with dyslexia have problems recognizing the rhythm of speech and where the stress lies in word syllables,” says Heiko Holz, one of the developers and a research associate at the Seminar for Linguistics and a doctoral student in the LEAD Graduate School & Research Network at the University of Tübingen.

Learning in a fairytale landscape

These difficulties are a real impediment to learning to write, the researchers explain. That is because the stress given to syllables plays a major role in applying important spelling rules. “For instance, in stressed syllables, long vowels in German are denoted by an ‘ie’ or an h , (e.g. ‘fehlen’, ‘Biene’), while short vowels are indicated by ‘ck’ (‘packen’) or double consonant letters (‘rennen’). Anyone who hasn’t mastered these rules for signalling vowel lengths is missing a crucial building block of German orthography,” he goes on to say.

Which is where Prosodiya comes in. In the fictional country of “Prosodiya,” a colorful fairytale landscape, the children practice dividing individual words into syllables step by step and recognizing the stressed syllables. They learn to distinguish syllables with long and short vowels and ultimately to apply the spelling rules to them. At the beginning of the game, though, Prosodiya seems to be shrouded in a murky fog. This only lifts once the children gain the “power of words” with the help of the ” balls of lights”. The round toy figures help the children learn the syllable patterns and how to spell words.

The big green ball of light jumps on the stressed syllables of the words, the small yellow one on the unstressed ones. A red ball of light with its mouth open marks the long vowels, a blue ball of light with its mouth closed marks the short vowels.

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Prosodiya writing exercise © Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen

It has already proven to be effective

Prosodiya can be played by children at home without the help of adults. This is especially important for children with a migrant background whose parents do not know enough German to help them, Heiko Holz explains. The plan is for the children to play three to five times a week for fifteen minutes each time over a period of ten weeks. The lessons are gradually unlocked so that the young players do not “devour” the episodes one after the other, which would lessen the impact it has on their learning.

An initial study had already demonstrated the app’s effectiveness. In 130 schoolchildren from second to fourth grade – many of whom had reading and spelling difficulties – it was shown that the app significantly improved their spelling skills and their awareness of how syllables are stressed. In fact, as a bonus, many of the children were also able to read much better.

Still free of charge

Die ganze „Macht der Worte“ haben die Kinder am Ende des Spiels jedoch nicht, da es in dem ersten Prosodiya-Modul vor allem um die Grundformen der Wörter geht. „Die Herausforderungen zusammengesetzter, abgeleiteter und gebeugter Wörter – zum Bespiel „sieht“ mit ie und h – müssen die Children don’t actually master all the “power of words” by the end of the game, of course, as the first Prosodiya module focuses primarily on the basic forms of words. “The challenges of composite, derivative, and inflected words – for example, ‘sieht’ with ‘ie’ and ‘h’ – are something that the children still have to master.” A second module, incorporating inflection patterns and word families, is already in the works.

The educational game can be downloaded as an app and is still available free of charge until the end of this school year. After that, the Tübingen Institute for Learning Therapy (TIL) will launch the app on the market as a spin-off. The project was developed as part of a project funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. It was also funded by the Media and Film Society of Baden-Württemberg and the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Title image: Prosodiya exercise for accentuation © Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen