Public Release: 

Virtual playmates help real children with language

Northwestern University

Can "virtual" playmates -- what the Northwestern University researcher who created them calls "embodied conversational agents" -- help "real world" children develop language and literacy skills?

Justine Cassell, professor of communication studies and director of the Program of Technology and Social Behavior program at Northwestern University, thinks so.

Friday, Feb. 17, Cassell will present a paper describing her work with "Sam," "Alex" and other chatty, fidgety computer-generated cartoon children who move about on a screen at the annual Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis.

Built on a unique methodology that relies on data about children's natural development, Cassell's "virtual peers" are capable of interacting with children and engaging in collaborative storytelling. Her AAAS paper is titled "What we can learn from watching real children play with virtual children."

"Children often first acquire language and literacy skills in social contexts such as language play and storytelling," explains Cassell, a linguist and psychologist who calls her laboratory the Articulab.

"The listener -- the people with whom children talk and interact -- plays an essential role in building language and literacy skills in youngsters," Cassell says. "That's why kindergarten teachers engage in sharing time, round-robin storytelling and other student-to-student activities."

And that's where virtual peers have an advantage, says Cassell. "Real world classmates can be disruptive, disengaged or lack the language skills that we adults want children to acquire. Virtual peers look and act like a playmate but have the capabilities of an adult and therefore can help to build children's learning skills," Cassell adds.

The Articulab has created Alex, a virtual playmate who speaks African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to provide a "cultural modeling framework" for AAVE speakers. Work with "Storyteller Sam" has been found to assist children in developing important literary skills. In a study looking at "Collaborative Sam," Cassell finds that children willingly interrupt, criticize and otherwise tightly engage with virtual peers.


The research reported in Cassell's AAAS presentation is based upon work supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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