A large body of research has shown that the literacy gap between children is well-established before formal schooling begins, that it is enormous, and that it predicts academic performance throughout primary, middle and secondary school. Indeed rather than closing this gap, there is much evidence that formal schooling exacerbates it: once behind in reading and vocabulary, children read with lower comprehension, learn more slowly and have lower motivation than their more language-able peers. Many national organizations like National early literacy panel, National Centre for Family Literacy and NIH recognize the essential role of early literacy in a child’s later educational and life opportunities. The figures below show the vocabulary use at age 3 against scores for Test of Language Development (TOLD) at age 9, for 30 children who were part of a research study on effects of pre-school literacy on long term performance. (More details on the study can be found in the book “Meaningful differences in lives of young American children” by Hart and Risely.)

Given the literacy gap, and its future implications, we are trying to explore natural interactions for pre-schoolers that would involve them in game-like activities that involve short follow-up conversations. We are hoping to make interventions that use speech-enabled technologies in various forms aimed towards early childhood literacy that happens through conversations, and primarily question-answer sequences.

The aim is to build interactive toy technology that involves children in natural (sometimes floor-based) interactions. These would generally consist of short follow-up conversations. The aim of the project is to give pre-schoolers access to rich language features and knowledge that they might sometime lack, in an under-resourced environment. The figure below, is our realization of the form that this technology could take.

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Technologies to support early child literacy