Publishers of software for children with special educational needs pride themselves on developing products that are accessible. But what if your first language isn’t English?

If the title of this article was shown as Проблеми са енглеским језиком for those unable to read Serbian, which is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, it would be just a series of incomprehensible symbols. For professionals working with children with special educational needs from non-English speaking countries the language barrier they face when trying to use most educational computer games is often the same. A lot of these games are now available, to buy or access online, but the majority of them are in English. As I explain below, this is a problem for the professionals working with these children and for the children themselves.


For professionals the problem is twofold

Cartoon adult

Cartoon adult

First, there is the English language and terminology used. Today a working knowledge of English is often assumed. To successfully surf the internet (no matter what the subject) all you need to know is how to write a search term. If what you write is less than perfect the browser will correct you and/or suggest possible options. The chances are that sooner or later you will find what you are looking for.

But is this level of understanding of English good enough when you are trying to find computer games to use with children with special educational needs? Practice shows that a good knowledge of everyday English is insufficient, because not knowing the terminology that is being used in computer games makes it extremely difficult to find the game needed to produce the intended stimulation. Bear in mind that professionals working with children with special educational needs are special educators, psychologists and social workers. They are not professors of ICT.

Second, there is the issue of free online computer games versus those you can buy. All children find computer games great fun. Through their use of pictures, sounds, movies, computer games provide a multi-sensory stimulation that can capture a child’s attention and promote fast and easy learning. The use of computer games positively influences the cognitive, visual and motor development of children with special educational needs, and allows them to master abilities that will make them more independent and encourage richer organisation of their free time.

When working with children with special educational needs you can never say with certainty if a child will be interested in a particular computer game, nor can you predict how a child will react to specific stimuli. Our task, as professionals working with such children, is to try, to represent, to offer, in the course of which the child will show us if their interested in the specific computer game and if so where we should direct our common effort. All this means that for the digital inclusion of children with special educational needs you have to have a wide range of different computer games for the child to choose from.

On the internet you can find a lot of free computer games that in interesting ways support the learning of colours, letters, numbers, shapes… and if they don’t have sound or text, they can be used by just about anyone. Free computer games rarely have the option of adapting sound and text for non-English speakers, hence their use is limited. Another disadvantage of these games is that they contain a lot of advertising and hyperlinks that can lead a child to unwanted and/or inappropriate content.

On the other hand, the first problem with computer games that can be bought is their price. But here again we have a problem with the predominant use of the English language and terminology. Computer games and software that are intended for working with children with special educational needs are invariably purchased directly from their country of origin, so arrive in non-English speaking countries without any kind of translation or manual. And the fact that an expert likes a computer game does not mean that a child will also like it. Only when you start to use it can you see if the child is interested. So again you need a lot of computer games if you are going to succeed in digitally including children with special educational needs.

Overcoming barriers to accessing information, so that all the members of society can benefit from the digital world, is the goal of digital inclusion. Does not knowing the terminology make us (experts from non-English speaking countries) digitally marginalised? And if those who are working with children with special educational needs are digitally excluded, how can we hope to succeed in digitally including the children themselves?


For children with special educational needs there is a similar set of problems

Cartoon Child

Cartoon Child

In their everyday activity children with special educational needs depend on their environment to provide them with information. Likewise the digital inclusion of children with special needs depends on information and content made available through ICT. A child that can organise his or her own time independently (as far as possible) is a happy and satisfied child. And why should a child that can do less than others, be denied the opportunity of playing the music, computer game, movie of their choice, or of engaging in any of the other activities that internet access allows us to do? Computer games can be used in education, as well as in therapy, which is to say they can be used to stimulate a child’s development. With computer games we can:

  • Develop and stimulate attention,
  • Stimulate understanding of cause and effect,
  • Develop and stimulate visual-motor coordination,
  • Stimulate and develop speech,
  • Stimulate learning to read and write, counting, calculating…,
  • Explore understanding the laws of nature, biology, anatomy…,

For children to be able to learn by themselves, so they can develop and extend their use of computer games, they need to understand what the computer games are saying, what commands they are giving. How do computer games communicate with us? They use:

  • Pictures – through certain animations (eg a picture that is blinking) computer games can show us a spot where we should click or where we need to bring the pointer of our mouse,
  • Sound – audio messages,
  • Text – written messages.

Is a child with special needs able to understand these kinds of message? This is a question that can’t be fully answered because every child is unique and it depends on his or her abilities and the computer game in question. But we can seek out and use those computer games whose messages the child will understand. A computer game that exclusively uses pictures to communicate can be used successfully no matter what language its author has used.

But what about a computer game that primarily communicates with a child through text or audio messages that are in English – or any other language that isn’t the child’s native tongue? These games, to be frank, are unusable. Why? Well, if the goal of the computer game is to teach colours (and therefore to stimulate and develop speech), and within that game there are audio messages in English, it will be inappropriate, ineffectual and will only confuse the child.

For example, the child will learn that a certain colour is called ‘red’ (which is not the name of that colour in Serbian, it is ‘crvena’) and a child will proudly try to use that word when communicating. But will those around him understand what he or she is saying? I doubt it. Can these obstacles be overcome? I think so. In the next issue of Special World I will offer some suggestions. Maybe you have some of your own…

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About Contributors

Sanja Denić is a special educator in Belgrade, Republic of Serbia and co-author of Obrazovanjem do digitalne inkluzije dece sa višestrukim smetnjama u razvoju (Education by digital inclusion of children with profound/multiple disabilities) published by the University of Belgrade.

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