University of South Florida


Virtual characters created at USF to teach emergent bilingual students English

A person using the USF-developed app designed to help bilingual students learn English

A new research-based app developed at USF will soon be accessible to K-12 students and teachers in an effort to bolster a more multilingual society.

The artificial reality character Ivan placed on a counter top

Sara Smith, assistant professor of ESOL and foreign language in the College of Education, created the patent-pending Multimedia Augmented Reality Vocabulary Learning (MARVL) app. The app is paired with special vocabulary cards by using the camera lens of a smartphone or tablet, which then activate two virtual characters who teach English to Spanish-speaking students. Ivan is a bilingual 13-year-old boy who acts as the app’s instructor, and Watson, a sloth, is his assistant. Together, they virtually appear on individual flashcards and provide vocabulary instruction using child-friendly definitions, animated visuals, sound effects and motion, which allow the students to better understand the meaning of a word through movement.

“We have a card for the word ‘thought,’ and when Ivan explains what it means to have a thought, thought bubbles pop up and float above his head. Children can see different animated thoughts that he’s having,” Smith said. “Our app uses augmented reality to add that magical element where you feel like you’re in an animated movie. Hopefully, we can capture that excitement that made kids love Pokémon Go and use it for learning. Children will learn a new word better with a definition in their first language, plus we want to support the child continuing to develop their vocabulary in their home language. MARVL is a resource for teachers to provide dual-language vocabulary instruction and support their classroom curriculum.”

The app was developed in collaboration with María Carlo, associate professor of child and family studies in the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences. Carlo helped create the research-based Spanish-English vocabulary materials. Smith also worked with graphic designers, animators and voice actors. The project is made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Bull Ring Accelerator Grant Program, a joint venture between the USF Foundation and USF Research Foundation.

Smith is working with RCMA Charter School in Wimauma, Dreamers Academy charter school in Sarasota and is in discussions with a Tampa Bay area school district. She’s also recruiting kindergarten teachers to serve as beta testers in their classrooms for spring 2021. According to the National Education Association, English Language Learners (ELLs) are the fastest-growing group of K-12 students. The NEA estimates that by 2025, their presence in public schools will grow to 25 percent.

“What is exciting about MARVL is that the children can work independently and interact physically with the vocabulary cards and these characters that come alive. That is a total innovation that I have not seen in schools,” said Geri Chaffee, founder of Dreamers Academy dual language charter school and board member for the Manatee Elementary Community Partnership School. “I also love the fact that we are validating the use of the child’s first language to support their English acquisition, which all studies show is a very effective additive model.”

Once the version for Spanish speakers is deployed, Smith will then focus on Haitian Creole, the 2nd most commonly spoken home language in Florida. She hopes to eventually build an expansive multilingual repository for MARVL.

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