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WordsWorth Learning: helping kids with and without dyslexia

School pilot shows significant improvements far above what would normally be expected

Rita Treacy is the developer of WordsWorth Learning, a system that helps children and adults overcome dyslexia as well as reading and spelling disorders.

Rita Treacy was diagnosed with classic dyslexia in 1986. Then a first-year remedial linguistics student at Trinity College Dublin, she began thinking about learning techniques that could help her get through college successfully. Six years later she used this experience to develop WordsWorth Learning (WWL), a system that helps children and adults overcome dyslexia as well as reading and spelling disorders.

Treacy first started work on WWL when she was practising as a clinical speech therapist in Australia and feeling very frustrated by the paucity of suitable remedial materials. Initially she used WWL to help her own clients, but it soon became clear that it had wider potential as it could accelerate the acquisition of reading and spelling skills in all children, not just those with a specific learning difficulty.

Technology shift

What Treacy wasn’t expecting was that within three years of launching the then paper-based system in 2008 she would have to completely reinvent the product almost overnight to cope with the rapid shift to digital technology. And the reinvention didn’t stop there. Treacy is now in the throes of a second major product revamp to incorporate newly emerging technologies such as augmented reality and gamification into the online learning tool.

“Children now are very tech savvy and they want everything to be fast, graphic and interactive, and this is driving changes in learning styles,” Treacy says. “Students don’t all learn the same way so learning really needs be both personalised and customised to give them all an equal opportunity to reach their academic potential. In the future, schools will have to become more ‘student centric’. Online learning will provide the technology that will make this possible.

“For us, it’s not enough to keep pace with these changes. We have to be ahead of the curve and focused on what’s coming next,” Treacy adds. “An example of this is voice recognition. When we started out, voice-recognition products for our purposes were expensive and were functionally troublesome when catering for dialects and accents. Now the software has improved so much that it is becoming possible to use it at reasonable cost. As such it becomes another potential level of engagement to be factored into our learning tool.”

Treacy has remained active as a therapist while also running WWL with her business partner, David Ross, who is the company’s technical wizard. “The practice has supported the development of WordsWorth Learning financially but also from a content point of view as I am constantly updating it to reflect the learning difficulties I see children encounter every day. This speed and depth of response makes us unique in the marketplace.”

Funding

Treacy estimates that more than €200,000 has been invested in WWL since its formation with initial support coming from Enterprise Ireland under Cord/high potential startup funding and the rest from personal resources. “When we first started the research for our digital model – just before the economic crash – we could see that there was certainly a huge market for mainstream education products but not a big demand for so-called ‘remedial’ educational products. Furthermore, there was certainly no access to funding at that time for disruptive products in education. We decided to self-fund and over a two-year period built a web-based working prototype that contained online video tutorials and interactive exercises. This was launched in 2011.”

With practically no budget for marketing, the product was sold mainly via word of mouth, at Treacy’s practice and through social media channels. “We continued to add functionality to the programme such as multiple-choice questionnaires that track and report on user progress and we have introduced a basic adaptive learning functionality that tells a user with difficulties where to revisit and what aspects to revise,” Treacy says.

Potential market

Looking at the statistics from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, there appears to be a sizeable potential market for the WWL product. Of the 975,000 students in primary and secondary education here, more than 300,000 have reading results of below or well below average. “Parents should note that only a fraction of children are eligible for additional learning support. The rest are left to struggle through the education process,” Treacy says.

“Standard school tests do not test for reading accuracy ability; they test for vocabulary knowledge and silent reading comprehension,” she adds. “In addition, many schools don’t use standardised spelling tests so the incidence of spelling difficulties is unknown – this needs to change. From my clinical experience the underlying problem is that these students have a disconnect with the way literacy is being taught in school and need a different approach.”

School pilot

It has been parents rather than schools who have been the company’s biggest customers to date although Treacy says this is starting to change as more schools cotton on to WWL’s advantages. “We have recently completed a pilot in a school in Greystones, Co Wicklow, using the WordsWorth Learning programme as the basic teaching tool. The results show significant literacy improvements far above what would normally be expected. WordsWorth Learning is a disruptive product that could easily be retro-fitted into mainstream education pedagogy if the appetite was there,” Treacy says.

The product is sold as a single user licence at a cost of €100 a year and is suitable for children from the age of six up to adulthood. The system is multisensory and learning-style agnostic which means it combines auditory, visual and oral kinesthetic (feedback) to allow each user to learn in a way that suits them best.

In addition to starting on a system redesign, WWL is also about to participate in two large-scale learning-related initiatives including an EU-funded project to introduce augmented reality technology for teaching students with ADHD and a UK-based pilot that will use the company’s system to teach literacy skills in prisons.

“We are at a pivotal stage now as the exponential growth in broadband access and speed and the modernity in design and function of the latest web and app products has encouraged us to redesign our product and service to add in games and puzzles as well as adaptive learning features to improve individual learning outcomes,” Treacy says.

“We expect to launch the new product within a year and to expand our team to focus on developing both the product and the commercial sides of WordsWorth Learning. We are also interested in a joint venture or partnership with a company that could add skills such as marketing or gaming experience, to bring the business to the next level. It has been difficult at times. But we keep picking ourselves up and persevering because we have a product that is making a difference and that can be scaled.”

Rita Treacy’s new book, Dyslexia Unravelled: An Irish Guide to a Global Problem, has just been published by Orpen Press.