WIMTACH and Elementary Curriculum Digitizers Inc. have partnered to support English literacy for young readers

Photo: Element5 Digital

While reading can afford many people with an escapist experience and a channel to a new world, it can also be hard to learn. So, when Eileen White, CEO and founder of Elementary Curriculum Digitizers Inc. decided to create supports for developing literacy in English, she hoped to arm young students with tools to access the answers they urgently need, on-demand, and independently.

The inspiration for this idea was brought on by the help frequently requested by her elementary school students. In 2018 during her retirement, White reflected on ideas that would have made her job easier to help students. Over her 31 years of teaching students in elementary school, she found that many students asked similar questions as they practiced reading and writing skills. However, often, she did not have the time to answer immediately, because she was working with other students. As a result, she was motivated to make English literacy skills more accessible. In early 2019, White launched Elementary Curriculum Digitizers as a response to this need. “I think that students’ ability to find their own answers is severely overlooked. So, I wanted to make digital apps and so on, that kids can find their own answers for literacy,” she said.

One skill of literacy is spelling. When students were learning to spell in the classroom, they had access to lettered play cards that accounted for phonetic English sounds. This encouraged students to independently select the phonetic sounds for different words. “Kids could take those cards and they could learn to figure out what sounds they needed to spell a word and they were quite capable of doing that independently and doing far more independently than I was expecting,” she said. “So, I thought, wouldn’t it be so great to give them audio and/or visual feedback on whether they were spelling the word correctly?” White partnered with WIMTACH to create an innovative digital tool for students to immediately gain the feedback required as they were learning. This tool combines digital frameworks and tactile learning tools to enable young children as little as 3-years old to learn how to spell.

Professor Salima Amlani is leading the WIMTACH research team in developing White’s vision with a focus on two features: creating an image reader to understand and recognize spelling aid blocks and then linking those images to audio or video files which support spelling skills. The goal is to develop an easy process to support students to learn about the words they have made once they take a picture of two blocks together. So far, with the help of Student Researchers Harsh Kansara and Krunal Parmar, the WIMTACH research team have been able to successfully develop a working prototype which is now available on Apple’s TestFlight. “To be able to have a machine ready 24/7 that can give you feedback when you don’t have a parent or teacher available, that will be enormous,” said White. She hopes that the design concept of her tool, which integrates tactile and digital learning features, will enable young spellers to have an easier spelling experience. “If they had a tablet, it would be kind of like cloning me for each child to get them the help they need at that opportune time,” she said.

White anticipates that her tool will eventually enable students to receive feedback about their spelling. “We made a good start,” she said. “With the technology and several stages, this is what kids will be able to do without having a teacher or a parent to help them. So, a real game changer.” With this technology, young spellers can be introduced to words like “oat” and “shell” and combine blocks to form other words.

Still, looking back, White wasn’t initially certain if it would be possible for a machine to interpret letters and respond with audio and visual feedback. She explained that the team was able to exceed her expectations after seeing the results that the prototype was able to achieve so early in the development stage of her project. “To find out that that was actually possible was huge and Professor Salima [and Centennial College students] did that fairly quickly,” she said. “It’s just wonderful.”

As a result of a smooth partnership, White is pursuing another project collaboration with WIMTACH to enhance her digital learning tool. “They really were committed to listening and making sure that they understood what I was looking for and could really put themselves in the shoes of the children that they were working towards,” she said. White is so pleased with the work of the WIMTACH research team, she believes that it is important to recommend WIMTACH to other organizations. “WIMTACH seems to be making an effort to stay at the leading edge of where technology advancements are and what is actually possible,” she explained. “It’s a wonderful partnership.”

For more stories, please visit: https://wimtach.centennialcollege.ca/news/