US dyslexia breakthrough for Irish tech firm SoapBox

Dyslexia screener incubated at Boston Children’s Hospital leverages speech recognition to help educators identify reading challenges sooner.

Dublin speech recognition company SoapBox Labs has won further ground in the US education market with its technology powering a new dyslexia screener system.

The system was incubated at Boston Children’s Hospital and is now being rolled out in US schools.

Through a partnership with EarlyBird Education, developer of game-based early literacy assessment, the integration of speech recognition technology allows educators to use the EarlyBird dyslexia screener to quickly and accurately assess pre-reading students’ oral language skills, and in turn, identify the challenges facing struggling young students before they even start reading.

“The implications for our youngest learners — and their dedicated teachers — is really exciting”

Developed and scientifically validated at Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with faculty at the Florida Center for Reading Research, EarlyBird brings together all the relevant predictors of reading in one easy-to-administer assessment.

The age-appropriate assessment, powered by voice technology, helps educators identify and support children at risk for dyslexia and other reading difficulties — even before they learn to read. In its first year of serving schools, more than 2,500 teachers in over 100 school districts are using EarlyBird, impacting 20,000 pre-kindergarten through first-grade students.

Proactive reading support via AI

Woman standing behind a bench on which a man is sitting.

SoapBox chair Dr Patricia Scanlon with CEO Dr Martyn Farrows

“Our mission is to change the learning trajectory of pre-readers with a proactive approach to reading support — and speech recognition enables educators to do that, consistently and without bias,” said Carla Small, co-founder and CEO of EarlyBird Education.

“Not only does speech recognition technology enable educators to assess oral language skills much earlier and faster, the technology intentionally draws upon a diverse set of young accents and dialects, to help mitigate racial bias and subjectivity in assessment. SoapBox Labs was an obvious partner for us — they share our commitment to developing innovative edtech tools that are grounded in the science and embrace evidence-based practice.” 

Unlike consumer speech technologies, the SoapBox voice engine is built specifically for young children’s unique speech patterns, and processes differences in accents or dialects, reducing implicit bias in learning.

SoapBox is the first and only automated speech recognition solution to demonstrate that it can deliver accurate and equitable assessments, receiving the Prioritising Racial Equity in AI Design Product Certification by global education nonprofit Digital Promise. 

By powering its reading assessments with the SoapBox voice engine, EarlyBird provides teachers with a much more comprehensive picture of a student’s reading proficiency, at a much earlier age.

EarlyBird assessments are administered three times a year. A friendly robot character appears on the screen, holding out a microphone when it’s the child’s turn to speak. AI technology provides automatic scoring, so teachers get immediate results in the dashboard. 

“Speech pathologists perform high-quality assessments that include oral responses, but teachers rarely have access to tools with that level of sophistication. Unfortunately, they’re missing data that would help them to identify potential reading difficulties in young children,” said Dr Martyn Farrows, CEO of SoapBox Labs.

“Our partnership with EarlyBird makes this gold-standard approach to reading assessment more readily available at scale to teachers. The implications for our youngest learners — and their dedicated teachers — is really exciting.”

EarlyBird is available for pre-K through first grade today (17 November), and is expanding to include assessments of second- and third-graders.

SoapBox Labs recently revealed plans to scale rapidly in the next two years from 30 to 80 employees. The company last year Dr Martyn Farrows as CEO while previous CEO and founder Dr Patricia Scanlon became chair of the company.

Driving the company’s innovation vision and strategy, Dr Scanlon was named one of the world’s top women in tech by Forbes magazine.

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.



Patricia Scanlon voices the sound future of tech

Identified last year by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s “top 50 women in tech”, Soapbox Labs CEO Dr Patricia Scanlon is one of a number of Irish women shaping the future of technology and is addressing a global education problem using speech recognition.