Exploring Social Robots as a tool for Special Education to teach English to Iranian Kids with Autism

Document Type : Technical Note


1 Faculty of Humanities, Islamic Azad University, Tehran-West Branch, Tehran, Iran

2 Social & Cognitive Robotics Laboratory and Languages and Linguistics Center, Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran


This case study investigates the effects of Robot Assisted Language Learning (RALL) on English vocabulary learning and retention of Iranian children with high-functioning autism. Two groups of three male students (6-10 years old) with high-functioning autism participated in the current study. The humanoid robot NAO was used as a teacher assistant to teach English to the RALL group. Both RALL and non-RALL programs consisted of 12 sessions held within a 2-month period. Using a pre-test, mid-test, immediate post-test, delayed post-test design, this study measured the learning gains of the participants. The RALL group outperformed the non-RALL group in the designed tests which showed the effectiveness of RALL. This was further supported by comparing and contrasting the RALL and non-RALL groups’ parents’ feedbacks as well as the results obtained from the qualitative analysis of the video records. The findings of this study could be a starting point for a new line of research in second/foreign language education specific to children with autism.


[1] Barua, M., & Daley, T. C. (2008). Autistic spectrum disorders:  A guide for pediatricians in India. Publications Division of the National Centre for Autism. Action for Autism, New Delhi. Retrieved from www.autism-india.org.
[2] Scassellati, B., Admoni, H., & Mataric, M. (2012). Robots for use in autism research. Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, 14, 275-294. doi: 10.1146/annurev-bioeng-071811-150036
[3] Alexander, J. L., Ayres, K. M., & Smith, K. A. (2015). Training teachers in evidence-based practice for individuals with autism spectrum disorder: A review of the literature. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 38(1), 13-27. doi: 10.1177/0888406414544551
[4] Able, H., Sreckovic, M. A., Schultz, T. R., Garwood, J. D., & Sherman, J. (2015). Views from the trenches teacher and student supports needed for full inclusion of students with ASD. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 38(1), 44-57. doi: 10.1177/0888406414558096
[5] Stichter, J., Herzog, M., Visovsky, K., Schmidt, C.,Randolph, J., Schultz, T., & Gage, N. (2010). Social competence intervention for youth with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism: An initial investigation. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 1067-1079. doi: 10.1007/s10803-011-1249-2
[6] Tapus, A., Mataric, M. J., & Scasselati, B. (2007). Socially assistive robotics [Grand challenges of robotics]. Robotics & Automation Magazine, IEEE, 14(1), 35-42. doi: 10.1109/MRA.2007.339605
[7] Goodrich, M. A., & Schultz, A. C. (2007). Human-robot interaction: a survey. Foundations and Trends in Human-Computer Interaction, 1(3), 203-275. doi: 10.1561/1100000005
[8] Dautenhahn, K., & Billard, A. (2002). Games children with autism can play with Robota, a humanoid robotic doll. Universal access and assistive technology, 179-190. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4471-3719-1_18
[9] Kim, E. S., Paul, R., Shic, F., & Scassellati, B. (2012). Bridging the research gap: Making HRI useful to individuals with autism. Journal of Human-Robot Interaction, 1(1). Retrieved from http://www.scazlab.com/publications.php
[10] Kim, E. S., Berkovits, L. D., Bernier, E. P., Leyzberg, D., Shic, F., Paul, R., & Scassellati, B. (2013). Social robots as embedded reinforces of social behavior in children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, Springer, 43(5), 1038-1049. doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1645-2
[11] Leyzberg, D., Spaulding, S., Ton Eva, M., Scassellati, B. (2012). The physical presence of a robot tutor increases cognitive learning gains. Paper presented at 2012 Cognitive Sciences Conference, Sapporo, Japan. Retrieved from http://www.scazlab.com/publications.php
[12] Meghdari, A., Alemi, M., Pouretemad, H.R., & Taheri, A.R. (2013, December). Clinical Application of a Humanoid Robot in Playing Imitation Games for Autistic Children in Iran. Paper presented atthe 2nd Basic Clinical and Neuroscience Congress, Tehran, Iran.
[13] Meghdari, A., Alemi, M., & Taheri, A.R. (2013, December). The Effects of Using Humanoid Robots for Treatment of Individuals with Autism in Iran. Paper presented at the 6th Neuropsychology Symposium, Tehran, Iran.
[14] Scassellati, B. (2007). How social robots will help us to diagnose, treat, and understand autism. Robotics research, pp. 552-563. Springer, Berlin Heidelberg. doi: 10.1007/978-3-540-48113-3_47
[15] Taheri, A., Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., Pouretemad, H., Basiri, N. M., & Poorgoldooz, P. (2015). Impact of Humanoid Social Robots on Treatment of a Pair of Iranian Autistic Twins. Proc. 7th Int. Conf. on Social Robotics, pp. 623-632, Paris, France.
[16] Oda, T. (2010). Tutoring an American autistic college student in Japanese and its challenges. Support for Learning, 25(4), 165-171. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9604.2010.01462.x
[17] Þráinsson, K. Ó. (2012). Second language acquisition and autism (Unpublished BA essay, University of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland). Retrieved from www.skemman.is
[18] Wire, V. (2005). Autistic spectrum disorders and learning foreign languages. Support for Learning, 20(3), 123-128. doi: 10.1111/j.0268-2141.2005.00375.x
[19] Yahya, S., Yunus, M. M., & Toran, H. (2013). Instructional practices in enhancing sight vocabulary acquisition of ESL students with autism. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 93, 266-270.
[20] Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., Basiri, N. M., & Taheri, A. (2015). The Effect of Applying Humanoid Robots as Teacher Assistants to Help Iranian Autistic Pupils Learn English as a Foreign Language. Proc. 7th Int. Conf. on Social Robotics, pp.  1-10, Paris, France.
[21] Han, J. (2012). Emerging technologies: "Robot Assisted Language Learning." Language and learning technology, 16(3), 1-9. Retrieved from http://llt.msu.edu/issues/october2012/emerging.pdf
[22] Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., & Ghazisaedy, M. (2014a). Employing humanoid robots for teaching English language in Iranian junior High-Schools. International Journal of Humanoid Robotics, 11(03), 1450022. doi: 10.1142/S0219843614500224
[23] Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., Ghazisaedy, M. (2014b) The effect of employing humanoid robots for teaching English on students’ anxiety and attitude. In: Proc. of the 2nd RSI/ISM Int. Conf. on Robotics & Mechatronics (Corm), Tehran, Iran, pp. 754–759, October 2014 

[24] Alemi, M., Meghdari, A., & Ghazisaedy, M. (2015). The impact of social robotics on L2 learners’ anxiety and attitude in English vocabulary acquisition. International Journal of Social Robotics, 1-13. doi: 10.1007/s12369-015-0286-y
[25] Chang, C. W., Lee, J. H., Chao, P. Y., Wang, C. Y., & Chen, G. D. (2010). Exploring the possibility of using humanoid robots as instructional tools for teaching a second language in primary school. Educational Technology & Society, 13(2), 13-24. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/jeductechsoci.13.2.13
[26] Han, J. (2010). Robot-aided learning and r-learning services. In D. Chugo (Ed.), Human-Robot Interaction. Retrieved from   http://www.intechopen.com
[27] Lee, S., Noh, H., Lee, J., Lee, K., & Lee, G. G. (2010). Cognitive effects of robot-assisted language learning on oral skills. In INTERSPEECH 2010 Satellite Workshop on” Second Language Studies: Acquisition, Learning, Education and Technology.
[28] Meghdari, A., Alemi, M., Ghaazisaidi, M., Taheri, A. R., Karimian, A., & Vakili, M. Z. (2013, September). Applying robots as teaching assistant in EFL classes at Iranian middle-schools. Paper presented at 2013 International Conference on Education and Modern Educational Technologies, Venice, Italy. Retrieved from www.europement.com
[29] Nakata, R., Frazier, K., Hoskins, B., & Graham, C. (2012). LET’S GO 1 (4th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
[30] Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of language teaching and learning. White Plains, NY: Longman.
[31] Mitchell, R., & Myles, F. (2004). Second language learning theories (2nd ed.). London: Hodder Arnold.