Dublin school using new technology to identify children who may struggle to read


ALPACA is a digital tool that identifies potential reading issues in children, which is hoped will slash testing time and save on teaching resources.

Pupils from St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon, Dublin – the largest primary school in Ireland – were among 1,000 four and five-year-olds across five countries who took part in a year-long pilot programme.

“Within weeks of starting school, our junior infants were engaged with working on iPads playing colourful, interactive, engaging, fun games, blissfully unaware that this was a means of assessing their emergent literacy skills,” Carol Murphy, the school’s Special Education Needs Co-ordinator said.

“The result of this assessment provided their teachers with reliable, evidence-based data on which to plan to meet the needs of the learners, allowing teachers to work on prevention of future difficulties by putting timely interventions in place.

Francis Villanueva and Joe Fernandez, founder of the early literacy screener ALPACA, at St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon. Pic: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

“ALPACA is very much a game changer for teachers allowing them to identify children who are showing evidence of future reading difficulties even before they formally begin to read,” she added.

ALPACA is a spin out of Learnovate in Trinity College Dublin and was awarded €330,000 at the start of last year under Enterprise Ireland’s Research Commercialisation Fund.

This funding supported an 18-month research project between The Learnovate Centre, Marino Institute of Education and the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin.

“The problem of undetected literacy difficulties goes beyond the clear disadvantages to the child and cascades out to overburdened and expensive remedial resources,” Learnovate Director Nessa McEniff said.

“This digital tool for early literacy screening and monitoring not only helps teachers to solve the problem of assessing early literacy skills in a time-efficient, consistent, and evidence-based manner, but provides the evidence to intervene early during the critical early years.”

ALPACA is to run further international pilots in the UK, the US, Canada, the UAE and New Zealand.

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.

It also takes four times less resources to intervene early than remediate the issues when they are eight years old or older.

Junior infants Anna Young, Francis Villanueva and Danny Molloy playing the ALPACA game at St Colmcille’s. Pic: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

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.

“The dedication and passion of skilled educators alone can’t bridge the void created by the lack of resources available to them,” ALPACA founder Joe Fernandez said.

“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.

“We want to give the power back to schools and parents early, where it matters most,” he added.



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293 thoughts on “Dublin school using new technology to identify children who may struggle to read

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