Gamers gain points in English

February 6, 2016 - 05:26

It might seem like a lot of bang-bang nonsense to parents, but Swedish and Norwegian teens drawn to action and role-play computer games have been found to progress in English.

Studies show that Scandinavian youngsters intrigued with computer games are at least picking up one useful skill – they tend to expand their English vocabularies. Shown here: “The Gathering” in Hamar, Norway. (Photo: NTB Scanpix)

Children and adolescents often spend much of their extramural time engaged in computer games. Parents, teachers and researchers can be concerned that such digital distractions can lead to less homework and poorer grades.

But a mounting number of studies in non-English speaking countries show that an affinity for gaming can also have at least one useful outcome. Many of these kids pick up surprising skills in English.

Five hours per week

A Swedish study of ninth graders shows that those who play computer games at least five hours per week tend to lead their peers in English. The study was carried out by Associate Professor Pia Sundqvist and Doctoral Candidate Peter Wikström at Karlstad University.

“The ones who game a lot use more three-syllable English words in their responses. They also get better grades than those who don’t play,” says Sundqvist.

World of Warcraft

Many of these teenagers play violent action games like “World of Warcraft” and “Counter-Strike”. These are in English and the researcher thinks they broaden the pupils’ vocabularies.

“A person has to read English and build up a vocabulary to make progress in these games,” says Sundqvist.

The study only involved 77 pupils, so the Swedish researcher points out that more extensive studies are needed to attain more insights about the connection between English language computer games and proficiencies in English as a foreign language.

A broader assessment

“I think the Swedish study came up with some intriguing results,” comments Associate Professor Lisbeth M. Brevik at the University of Oslo’s Department of Teacher Education and School Research. She has conducted two studies on this theme based on pupils in Norwegian high schools. 

One of the studies showed that high school kids who were under par when reading in Norwegian could be well over average in their English reading skills. They all had Norwegian as their primary language but some of them were actually reading English considerably better than Norwegian. 

The findings are reminders that pupils in the danger zone because of substandard results in reading skills can excel in other subjects.

“So we need to see the pupil’s competence level in a broader scope,” suggests Brevik.

A small group stands out

Standardised Norwegian high school tests of Norwegian and English reading skills comprised the point of departure for a study she made along with colleagues Rolf Vegar Olsen and Glenn Ole Hellekjær. The researchers assessed results among over 10,000 first-year high school pupils nationwide.

A total of 463 of these teenagers scored below 20 percent in the test of their Norwegian reading abilities but simultaneously scored 60 percent or more in English. A score of only 20 percent or less is critically low. Some of these pupils were in vocational studies while others were pursuing a college-oriented path. Together, they represented 4.5 percent of the pupils in the study.

“It’s fine that some pupils use a lot of English outside of school hours. These studies show that pupils who are weak in some subjects can still be strong in others. We need a broader perspective regarding these kids,” says Researcher Lisbeth Brevik at the University of Oslo. (Photo: University of Oslo)

The boys in vocational studies outnumbered the others who displayed this surprising gap between their reading skills in Norwegian and English.

This perked the curiosity of the researcher and compelled her to initiate a new study of this subgroup.

Over three hours per day

Brevik identified all the pupils at a large high school who had scored below 20 percent in Norwegian reading and over 60 percent in their reading of English. All of them had Norwegian as their primary language and were engaged in vocational rather than college-oriented studies. All were boys.

She interviewed them to find the reason for their gap in language skills.

“They explained that they were dedicated computer gamers and play online games in English on average upwards of three hours per day. They read the instructions and use the chat functions actively to write and converse with their fellow players from all over the world,” explains Brevik.

Extramural English

It turned out that they all spent much of their time out of school engrossed in English. These boys watched English language films and TV and listened to English language music. But that wasn’t all: 

“They also had English newspapers in their news feed on Facebook. They only read Norwegian web news sporadically,” she says.

“It seems that this group has chosen an English language future. I think it’s great for them to use plenty of English outside school hours,” says Brevik.

She thinks it essential for us to recognise that a pupil who is struggling in one subject can be a resourceful contributor in another. She thinks these findings confirm the study from Sweden, even though the latter only involved a small sample.

Brevik stresses that these findings do not mean that pupils should be allowed to game at school. But in educational contexts a smart teacher might try to make use of the kids’ commitments to games.

The study is under publication in the book “Digital expectations and experiences in education”, edited by Professor Eyvind Elstad at the University of Oslo.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

Translated by
Glenn Ostling