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Can Buddy Reading With a Bot Help Struggling Students?

Robot-child-article.jpg

Decades of research show students read better when they read with someone else, be it a parent, a peer, or even a puppy. Now a new study in the journal Science Robotics suggests social robots can join the ranks of successful study buddies.

University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers developed a social robot dubbed "Minnie" to guide one-on-one reading sessions with middle school students at home. Over two weeks, 10- to 12-year-old students were assigned to either print-based reading or at-home sessions with Minnie. The robot suggested books the children might like and listened while the students read, occasionally expressing interest, excitement, or fear at different parts of the story and asking questions of the student along the way. 

The study found students in both groups read about the same number of days, and students in the print group read for slightly longer time periods. But compared to students just using the print activity, researchers found more students working with the robot reported feeling motivated to read, comprehended their stories well, and were significantly more likely to discuss topics related to their books.

Joseph Michaelis, an education psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead author of the study, said social reading in general gets students more motivated, "and the hope is that if we can get a robot to behave socially enough, we can reap some of those benefits here. ... We don't really feel that the robot should be replacing human interaction, but it's not always the case that kids have the opportunity, particularly at home, to read with someone else."

Prior studies have also found students can understand more of what they learn by "teaching" robots subjects like handwriting, and Michaelis found similar results in the current study. "If you're reading a book with another person and that person makes a comment about what they see as happening in the book, that not only helps you better understand it, but it colors [the text] in a way that makes it more meaningful and vibrant."

Struggling readers also seemed to gain more confidence in reading aloud to the robot, which is not programmed to correct mistakes as the student reads. One student even noted a preference for sessions with Minnie because "I have someone to read to who doesn't interrupt." (Similar programs in which students read to dogs have shown similar effects.) 

Michaelis said the researchers were surprised that middle school students developed an emotional attachment to the robot even in as little as two weeks. One child even told the researchers they felt motivated to read with the robot more often "to make it happy."

The group plans to continue to study how the robot could help students improve their frequency and depth of reading, through things like asking more questions and integrating comments other children make when they read the same books.

Photo: A student reads with Minnie, a "learning-companion robot," at his home as part of a research study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Source: UW Continuing Studies and University Communications


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