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New digital tool to identify children who may struggle to read

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New digital tool to identify children who may struggle to read

New digital tool can identify children who may struggle to read - before they can read print. 

  • ALPACA – a spin-out of Learnovate in Trinity College Dublin – has developed the early literacy screener
  • 1,000 4 and 5-year-olds across five countries took part in a year-long pilot programme
  • Investment of €550,000 being sought to enter new markets and develop new products


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 per cent 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 continues to partner with The Learnovate Centre, a global research and innovation centre in learning technologies, which supports the ALPACA team with continued access to its EdTech experts. 

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, says: 

“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.”

Learnovate Director Nessa McEniff says: 

“The problem of undetected literacy difficulties goes beyond the clear disadvantages to the child and cascades out to overburdened and expensive remedial resources. This digital tool for early literacy screening and monitoring not only helps 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, but provides the evidence to intervene early during the critical early years.”

One school which is using ALPACA is St. Colmcille's Junior School in Knocklyon, Dublin, the largest primary school in Ireland with 180 junior infants. Carol Murphy, the school’s SENCO (Special Education Needs Co-ordinator), says: 

“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. 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. 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.” 


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