The journey of GraphoGame literacy app in Brazil and its initial research

We are excited to present a three-part blog series featuring an exclusive interview with Augusto Buchweitz, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut and Affiliated Scientist at Haskins Labs. In this series, Professor Buchweitz delves into the fascinating story of how GraphoGame made its way to Brazil, its current availability and impact on children’s education, and the exciting developments planned. Join us as we explore the journey and evolution of this groundbreaking educational tool and its ongoing mission to enhance literacy for children in Brazil.

GraphoGame: How did you learn about GraphoGame, and why were you interested in contributing to its research base?

Augusto Buchweitz: I first found out about GraphoGame in an international conference on Dyslexia, in Brazil, where I met Ken Pugh and other world-renowned early literacy researchers from the Haskins Labs. At the time, we were setting up a study of early literacy for children who struggled to learn to read, in Brazil. As a result, families of children who were not learning to read would always ask us about what to do to improve their children’s reading skills. GraphoGame was thus a way of integrating our scientific goals with more actionable ones.

I became interested not only because of the potential of GG, but also because I was impressed by the evidence base it had across the globe and in developing countries. As I found out that GG did not have a Brazilian Portuguese version, we jumped at the opportunity. Our interest emerged from the combination of opportunity and a desire to integrate science with results by working with researchers who had already blazed some of that trail for us.

GG: Why do you think Brazil needed an evidence-based literacy app?

Augusto Buchweitz: I want to underscore two critical factors: First, the scarcity of evidence-based educational technology in the country (especially freely available ones) and, second, the possibility of developing an APP with the potential to reach thousands of children.  Education technology in developing countries need to, first, be effective, of course, but they must also be sustainable, more so than in developed countries where the funds for educational tools are more readily available. Hence, we were trying to bring to Brazil a low-cost literacy tool that potentially could reach children who have little if any, access to evidence-based, systematic instruction involving letter-sound mapping. I always like to underscore that GG could never replace in-person instruction; we always made that clear. But in the absence of evidence-based, systematic instruction for early literacy, it could help mitigate some of the challenges faced by children in Brazil.

GG: What was the role of the university in the research?

Augusto Buchweitz: We had the credentials and structure of a top university that provided support for our early research efforts. For example, our first seed grant for the development of GraphoGame was made possible by a partnership between the university and a third-sector foundation. Being able to rely on the lab structure and undergraduate and graduate students’ assistance was fundamental for early stages of development of GraphoGame Brazil, and for keeping the project and its goals alive until we finally released the first version, some five years later from our first contact with GraphoGame.

GG: How does a researcher make an evidence-based literacy app?

Augusto Buchweitz: There are well-known steps that need to be taken to develop sound pedagogical material at the level of early reading. However, I think the more, say, interesting aspect of the process involve the challenges of bridging evidence with actionable products. One such challenge comes with the realization that knowledge about the evidence base alone does not mean knowing how to implement and develop usable materials, like an APP, that have potential for impact (to begin with, materials that are not only pedagogically sound, but also minimally attractive, for example); second, there is the challenge of learning how to interact with different stakeholders and being open-minded, as an academic.

As if the hard work of designing levels that go into the app was not enough, we learned how to interact with the third sector, government, school districts, among other stakeholders, to amass funding, partnerships, and to make inroads.  We were fortunate that GG and the university offered us support, flexibility (and a lot of patience) throughout the process. After the development of the prototype, there was a long period of stagnation in development, which changed once the COVID-19 pandemic started to result in school closures.

GG: What did the research prove? How could the evidence be stronger?

Augusto Buchweitz: The existing evidence that GG can have an impact on early literacy skills is quite robust, as the studies published in several languages clearly show. On our end, we published a study carried out during the pandemic in which we were able to show that who GraphoGame helped mitigate losses during school closure. It was a challenging project carried out during school closure by one of our research partners from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. We have since then replicated the study in other cities and received a research grant to continue to test the app in the field.

I would highlight an aspect of the evidence we published but, first, let me describe some features that are unique to the Brazilian Portuguese version. It has mouth articulation pictures to help children distinguish sounds such as “n” and “m,” which are very similar, especially in isolation. The pictures depict, for example, “m” being articulated with pursed lips. Another feature, which is one of my personal favourites, is that GraphoGame Brazil integrates learning uppercase and lowercase letters. Why did we add levels that help children match lower- and uppercase letters?

For some strange reason and with no support whatsoever from any research on the field, Brazil and several Latin American countries teach children to read with uppercase letters only. The underlying assumption is to avoid “confusion.” This assumption has no basis in any evidence, and it doesn’t make intuitive sense, since lowercase are more frequently found in text than uppercase.

This practice results in VERY STRANGE UPPERCASE TEXTS BEING USED UP UNTIL THIRD GRADE (uppercase emphasis here to illustrate the awkwardness). In our study, children who played GG maintained better upper- and lower-case letter recognition performance. For the evidence to be stronger, we would like to have more field studies, and to integrate the use of the APP with classroom practices.

In terms of next steps. we hope to continue to develop unique features, from the early articulation pictures to, hopefully, actual moving images of the articulation of sounds; we also hope to further develop the in-app tests and levels, which now include sentences.