Practicing oral language skills supports children’s later ability to process written text. Low socioeconomic status children receive lower levels of quality home language input, which negatively affects language development. Many children already suffer from a significant deficit in reading comprehension by the time they begin formal education, a deficit they may never overcome. This EArly Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) project will investigate improving children’s home language environment with pedagogical learning agents, animated story characters and a child-like narrator who carry on a dialog with a child while telling a story. Story characters will talk directly to the child, tell the story from different perspectives, ask the child questions, phrase those questions in different ways using different vocabulary, and thus engage the child in understanding the story and improving their social language and listening comprehension skills. Pedagogical learning agents are a cheap and easily deployable technology that could readily be provided to children in any socioeconomic group.
This project will develop technology for expressive interactive storytelling agents that model human conversational storytelling with a high level of social engagement. This will require methods to effectively manage a spoken dialog with a child, using speech recognition and text-to-speech output. The project will scaffold from a deep computational representation of narrative to generate different dialogs around the same story. Novel algorithms for natural language generation will support asking different types of questions at different story points and generation of story events with first person and direct speech to allow the characters to talk. The humanoid child narrator will model high immediacy nonverbal behaviors shown to increase engagement and positive affect. The project’s prototype will be informed by regular evaluation by children at the UC Davis Reading and Academic Development Center, as the project assesses the promise of this exploratory technology to improve social language and comprehension skills.