Irish project developing digital tool for early literacy screening secures funding

ALPACA tool will help teachers identify reading difficulties in children earlier
Archie Ó Dúill from Kilpedder, Co. Wicklow at the launch of ALPACA in Trinity College Dublin. Credit: Paul Sharp

10 January 2022

An Irish team has secured €300,000 in funding to develop a new digital tool to help teachers identify reading difficulties in children earlier and more consistently.

Aimed at those beginning reading, the ALPACA digital tool is designed to identify any potential issues with reading at a very young age. It will also increase assessment accuracy and reduce time being spent by teachers on current paper-based assessments. 

ALPACA is a gamified, highly visual tool to engage all children. It is hoped that ALPACA will be ready to test in schools at the start of the next school year, in September 2022.




The 18-month project is a collaboration between The Learnovate Centre, which is a global research and innovation centre in learning technologies, Marino Institute of Education and the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin. The €300,000 funding was granted under Enterprise Ireland’s Commercialisation Fund.

Current practices for assessing young children’s early literacy skills rely primarily on time-consuming, traditional, paper-based assessment.

Typically, a teacher withdraws a child from the class and administers individual early literacy assessments on a one-to-one basis. Each assessment can take up to 30 minutes which means, in a class of 30 junior infants, valuable instructional time is lost. Ideally, classes require screening and monitoring of early literacy skills up to three times per school year. 

The ALPACA tool will allow for quick, accurate assessment of early literacy skills to be carried out on all pupils in infant classes. It can also be administered within special education settings and with older struggling readers.

Earlier this year, Enterprise Ireland funding allowed the team to carry out a feasibility study among teachers which validated the need for such a tool in Irish primary schools. The demand was ‘overwhelmingly’ enthusiastic.

The ALPACA team is led by principal investigator Dr Jennifer O’Sullivan, who is a lecturer in literacy at Marino Institute of Education. O’Sullivan created the assessment and the innovative digital delivery format that ALPACA will be based upon as part of her PhD study.

Dr Ian O’Keeffe, a senior researcher at Learnovate, will support and guide the development of the digital technology and Commercial Lead is independent consultant Joe Fernandez who has extensive experience bringing digital tools to market in the primary schools’ space.

Learnovate academic director Dr Ann Devitt from the School of Education in Trinity College will take up the role of Learning Advisor on the project supporting the design of the assessment and learning approach and the classroom-based evaluation of the technology.

Principal Investigator Dr O’Sullivan said: “This digital tool focuses on prevention rather than remediation of reading difficulties. ALPACA aims to provide support to children as early as possible in their reading journey, as delayed reading intervention can negatively affect many aspects of a child’s progress through school. We want to identify children who are showing evidence of future reading difficulties before they begin to formally read. While this assessment tool is designed for use with beginning readers, it can also be used to identify children struggling with reading in older classes.”

“The problem of undetected literacy difficulties goes beyond the clear disadvantages to the child and cascades out to overburdened and expensive remedial resources,” said Learnovate director Nessa McEniff. “This commercialisation project will provide a digital tool for early literacy screening and monitoring to primarily help teachers, Special Education Teachers (SETs) and principals to solve the problem of assessing young children’s early literacy skills in a time-efficient, consistent and evidence-based manner.”

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