iRead recruits a super-team of European experts to redesign how kids learn to read

iRead recruits a super-team of European experts to redesign how kids learn to read

Read brings together some heavyweight European academics and educators to shake up literacy with a new generation of apps.


The pitch

The iRead project is an open, scalable cloud-based software infrastructure that helps new app developers personalise learning for children’s reading skills in four different languages (English, Greek, Spanish and German) and for three different learner groups (early readers, children with dyslexia and children learning English as a foreign language).

Also available to EdTech companies, this infrastructure is being used by the project team to develop and evaluate several new innovations, including a literacy game that teaches children to practice reading in words and sentences; an e-reader that scaffolds children’s engagement with longer passages; e-books dynamically generated on the fly based on a child’s level; and a content recommendation system that matches books to a child’s skills.

"iRead will show the pedagogical value of personalised technology and also support new industry players in the literacy and language market by providing them with much-needed technical and pedagogical resources to help fast track their development," says Dr Laura Benton, research associate on the project.

The team

The €5.5m project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 innovation programme and is led by the UCL Knowledge Lab, with 15 other partners across industry and education.

The UCL Knowledge Lab is an internationally renowned centre for interdisciplinary digital research and design in education, and the project brings together members of the lab and wider UCL with expertise in interaction design for children, edtech design, adaptive learning, literacy learning. linguistics and inclusive education.

The iRead team brings together leading European universities and education providers from Sweden, Spain, Greece, Germany and Romania as well as assistive technology company Dolphin (UK), creative digital agency Fish in a Bottle (UK), adaptive language learning experts Knowble (Netherlands) and digital publishers Pickatale (FYROM) and Patakis (Greece).

What's the gap in the market?

"Evidence from prior research suggests that technology can support children’s reading skills, but the majority of existing reading technologies cannot be tailored to children’s specific reading level and varied support needs," Benton explains. "Moreover, these technologies typically address one component of the reading process, such as phonological awareness, letter-sound recognition, sight word reading or syntactic understanding, rather than supporting the integration of these different processes necessary for a child to become a fluent reader."

Informed by linguistic and education research, iRead aims to take a more holistic approach by addressing all of these skills, enabling both the personalisation of each child’s individual learning journey and the reading content they encounter.

Success so far

iRead is still in the design phase. Large-scale pilots involving 6000+ school children across Europe will begin early 2019.

"However, prototypes for some of our innovations, such as the game and the e-reader have now been developed," Benton reports, "with early trials involving both teachers and pupils showing the potential value of these technologies in the classroom. Teachers are particularly keen on the potential they offer for independent learning. Within a large class of pupils teachers can often struggle to provide the individualised support children need to continue to make progress with their reading, which children could access through these apps."

Biggest challenges?

"One of the biggest challenges to date has been in translating pedagogical, interaction design concepts into functional specifications that can apply to a complex system across the four languages of the project," Benton says. "The many exceptions to rules and idiosycracies that occur in different languages make this a particularly tricky task!

"A further complication is the distributed, and yet highly independent nature of the required teamwork. Given the scale of the project across multiple institutions and countries, partners have been jointly developing an approach for this translational work, often through iteration and reflection, with regular communication being absolutely key." 

Ultimate ambition?

The iRead project has two overarching goals. The first is to demonstrate the impact of personalised adaptive technologies for supporting children’s reading, through the large-scale pilot study. The second is to fast-track the development of literacy and language learning technology for new industry players through the provision of open, cloud-based software infrastructure which incorporates user modeling components, as well as domain knowledge and resources for reading.

"Our ultimate ambition is to utilise personalised technologies to inspire both young readers and educational app developers," Benton summarises.

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

'Wherever possible engage directly with appropriate experts and stakeholders. Approaches such as user-centred design provide ways to get feedback and input from the people who already have expertise and experience in the area, build on what has been done and learned previously, and then try things out with your target audience. They will help you to shape your innovation into something that would actually be usable and beneficial in the real world."

iRead is currently looking for open digital reading content that can be made accessible through the e-reader library and read as part of the two-year Europe-wide pilot (starting Jan 2019). Email iread@ucl.ac.uk.