Alpaca game

Learnovate spin-out’s literary screener predicts reading issues in children

Alpaca trialled across five countries took part in a year-long pilot programme
Life
Image: Learnovate

4 December 2023

An Irish company has launched a digital tool that can identify children who may struggle to read before they can read print.

Played on an iPad or other tablet device by junior infants in school, Alpaca is an evidence-based game that slashes testing time and saves scarce teaching resources while identifying potential future reading difficulties in children earlier.

It has been tested in a year-long pilot with 1,000 junior infant children in 30 schools across five countries. Some 90% of those on the pilot project have converted to paying customers.

An additional 5,500 infants have been screened since the start of this school year in 100 schools that have adopted Alpaca across Ireland, the US and the UAE.

The company is a spin out of Learnovate in Trinity College Dublin and has licensed the IP that underpins the tool.

The Alpaca project was awarded €330,000 at the start of last year under Enterprise Ireland’s Research Commercialisation Fund to support an 18-month research project between The Learnovate Centre, Marino Institute of Education and the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin.

Alpaca is now seeking investment of €550,000 to enter new markets, develop and trial the early dyslexia screener and to augment the existing platform with AI tools to support special education and classroom teachers. The company currently has four full-time staff with the plan to increase it to 15 within the next few years.

Next steps for Alpaca are to run pilots for the Early Dyslexia screener and its first AI support tool, as well as further international pilots in the UK, the US, Canada, the UAE and New Zealand. In addition, the company are on track to increase the numbers of infants being screened by the Alpaca Universal Early Literacy screener to 25,000 for the next school year.

During its initial pilot phase, research by Alpaca discovered that, despite early identification and intervention being key, 85% of four-to-six-year-olds in Ireland, the UK, the US and the UAE were not being assessed. Some 95% of infants in schools using Alpaca are now being assessed and for every one hour schools spend using Alpaca, they get back four hours for teaching and support.

If potential reading issues are identified and supported in a child between four and six years, the chances of the child reaching their potential increases by four-fold. It also takes four times less resources to intervene early than remediate the issues when they are eight years old or older.

Failure to identify such issues early can also lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame in later childhood and lead to them being at higher risk for anxiety and depression.

Alpaca founder Joe Fernandez explained: “The dedication and passion of skilled educators alone can’t bridge the void created by the lack of resources available to them. Children will keep falling through the gaps until we embrace teachers and parents as researchers and listen carefully to them. At Alpaca we aim to transform the education system from ‘wait-to-fail’ to ’embrace-and-support’ by giving educators and parents the evidence-based tools they need to advocate for the individual child in front of them.

“There is a skills shortage in both the education and health sectors; while screening and diagnostic instruments are built for domain experts, who are in short supply. We are developing tools that anyone can use, as we showed in some cases in the pilot, when Transition Year students supervised infant assessments, leaving skilled educators with time and insights to build relationships with those who need support. We want to give the power back to schools and parents early, where it matters most, and change how we resource the education and health systems of tomorrow.”

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