By Heather L. Russo, MEd, MFA

PBIDA members know that over 60% of Pennsylvania’s fourth graders are not reading at grade level. This fact makes it harder to find the 15-20% of students who have dyslexia. With so many struggling readers, how can teachers distinguish those who struggle due to a specific learning disability? What would really help is a way to screen all preschool students before they begin school formally,

Student using EarlyBird-dyslexia screener

some kind of tool that could identify not only dyslexic students but could also indicate which students would have difficulties in certain areas of reading. EarlyBird Education’s Early Literacy Screening App is one such screening device. It can be used to help identify learners with dyslexia as well as non-dyslexic learners who are struggling and can pinpoint which areas of reading are most troublesome for each learner. In addition, EarlyBird offers methodology for teachers and training.

When Carla Small was Executive Director of Innovation at the Digital Health Accelerator at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, she oversaw many projects that aim to improve people’s lives. The early literacy screening app, created by Dr. Nadine Gaab, a cognitive neuroscience researcher who currently teaches at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, was one of those many projects that Carla managed. Dr. Gaab had collaborated with professors from Tufts University, Northwestern University, and MIT to do the foundational work upon which she could build the screener. Their work was the READ Study and was published in the journal of Developmental Science, 2017. Under Carla’s supervision the resultant screening app was vetted and underwent a three-year study with students nationwide to validate its efficacy. This particular project caught her eye because one of her children is dyslexic. Having experienced the complicated road to help her child, Carla knew that the opportunity to screen all children could make an incredible difference in many people’s lives.

At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, Carla left her position at the Digital Health Accelerator to co-found EarlyBird Education in partnership with Dr. Gaab and Dr. Yaacov Petscher, an Associate Director of the Florida Center for Reading Research (FCRR) and the Director of the Quantitative Methodology and Innovation Division at FCRR. In the past three years, despite the challenges of the pandemic, EarlyBird Education has been approved by many state Departments of Education as a research-based screening tool for dyslexia and reading difficulties. In its first year, it was used to assess over 20,000 students. Forty states have instituted a law requiring that schools have screening protocols in kindergarten to identify dyslexia. Pennsylvania currently doesn’t have a law requiring early screening.

How does the app screen children? It combines gamification, artificial intelligence, and brain science, and it doesn’t require reading. Children, ages 4-8, use a tablet to play an interactive 20-50-minute game in which they meet a variety of animal characters that take them through several challenges. The challenges assess the child’s performance in regard to six early literacy milestones:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonological short-term memory
  • Rapid automatized naming
  • Knowledge of letter names and the sounds they make
  • Vocabulary
  • Oral listening comprehension

The data generated from the app provides a comprehensive profile of the child’s strengths and weaknesses across all of these literacy and pre-literacy milestones. The app then directs the teacher to research-based resources to begin to address the areas of difficulty. Links to lesson plans, proven intervention techniques, and professional development videos give teachers additional support. Links to books and apps direct and inform parents. EarlyBird Education offers workshops as well and professional development opportunities outside of the classroom.

The EarlyBird Education’s screening app doesn’t provide a diagnosis of dyslexia, but it can flag students with propensities for dyslexia. The EarlyBird Technical Manual explains how the app arrives at a target for dyslexia. Students are flagged for dyslexia based on an EarlyBird algorithm that uses a weighted combination of subtests to predict whether they would perform poorly on the Phonological Processing subtest of the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (KTEA-3). Upon learning a child has been flagged, the teacher is given feedback on instruction and next steps.

Because traditional screening is time-consuming, requiring a teacher to work one-on-one with a student on a paper and pencil assessment, the app’s ability to allow students to work independently within a short amount of time is helpful. It also reaches more youth in a more focused way. For underserved children, whose families may not seek outside tutoring or additional testing, the app can identify those with risk for a learning disability and target how to help, giving teachers and parents valuable information on how to proceed.

Already EarlyBird Education’s Early Literacy Screening App is being used in 20 states. Both parents and schools can purchase the app through EarlyBird Education’s website. While Pennsylvania doesn’t have a screening law in place, EarlyBird Education’s screening app is currently being implemented in at least ten schools and organizations in the state. Beyond school districts, EarlyBird is now available at home. With EarlyBird Families, children can play the game in the convenience of their home, and parents receive a comprehensive report of their strengths and weaknesses and a private consultation with a literacy specialist to develop a next steps action plan. Ultimately, EarlyBird would like to see pediatricians use it during well-visits prior to the start of school since the emotional implications for students with unidentified and untreated dyslexia are significant. EarlyBird Education seeks to reach as many children as possible, as their website states, “with a proactive, preventive model – that identifies children at risk earlier than ever before – and allows for interventions in the window of greatest efficiency and efficacy,” that is, before school begins or at the start of kindergarten.

This story was originally authored by Heather L. Russo, MEd, MFA, and posted on
Heather L. Russo is an English teacher who has taught in private and public schools and at the college level. She currently works at Kutztown Area High School and is one of the editors for the PBIDA Focus Blog.

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