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Firm claims software can raise reading age by over two years

A simple computer game developed by an Oxford University spin-off company can dramatically improve pupils' language abilities, its makers claim.

A group of 18 primary school children aged between eight and 10 of average literacy ability who used Phonomena for a month saw their word listening ages rise by 2.4 years. A control group of 12 that did not use the phonics-based software showed no improvement.

The trial was not a rigorous academic study, but nevertheless could indicate that the software has potential for improving children's literacy abilities.

Bruce Robinson, chief executive of MindWeavers, the company behind Phonomena, said the trial group continued to improve even after the experiment ended.

"Test results for 11-year-olds show current methods are failing. Our game could be a valuable tool in the Government's drive to raise literacy standards," he added.

The software is based on research by Professor David Moore of Oxford's physiology department, who is also MindWeavers' chief technology officer.

It is designed to boost phonological skills - our ability to distinguish between different phonemes, the individual sounds that form the building blocks of speaking, reading and writing skills.

Moore, who also heads the Medical Research Council's Institute of Hearing Research, said as many as 20 per cent of children have trouble distinguishing the differences between some sounds.

In the game, players hear one phoneme and then two more examples before being asked which one matches the first. The difficulty increases as the game progresses.

There are 44 phonemes in English and more than 1,000 pairings, but the software concentrates on 22 of the most common and similar-sounding pairs.

"Phonomena is sophisticated phonics training in the guise of an exciting, interactive computer game that cleverly adjusts to each child's ability," Mr Robinson said.

The initial version is aimed at pupils with language-based learning difficulties, and other versions designed for use at home and schools will follow early next year.

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