Cassidy MacNamara is conducting a screening for dyslexia among students at a Bridgeport elementary school with the help of an animated toucan named Pip.
MacNamara is a senior student at Sacred Heart University studying elementary education with a focus on STEM topics. Working alongside her professor Katie Cunningham and classmate Cassidy Lombardo, she has introduced students to Pip the Toucan, the star of EarlyBird, an award-winning diagnostic application developed by neuroscientists at Boston Children’s Hospital to screen for signs of dyslexia. Pip is the application’s mascot and interacts with students to keep the process engaging.
Pip, alongside an instructor like MacNamara, walks students through a series of exercises on a tablet or computer that take the form of simple games.
MacNamara said that she found the process useful not only for helping the children, but for furthering her own education.
“I feel it’s super helpful because it is taking what I’ve learned about the science of reading and how children learn to read and write and let me see it in action,” she said. “I can see where kids are falling behind and where kids may be succeeding. Students are set up with an iPad and the EarlyBird program is set up as a series of games, so the students don’t even know that they’re taking an assessment — they just think it’s a fun game.”
MacNamara explained EarlyBird contains different areas for the assessment, which begins with a game where students have to listen for letter sounds and then click which one it matches.
“Then they have to do letter naming and it moves on through language comprehension and vocabulary,” she continued. “Then the results are seen on a computer screen, and they’re generated right there in the program. It generates the results for us so we don’t even have to grade it by hand, and then it will flag students who perform low in certain categories.”
The students were screened at St. Ann Academy, a Catholic school in Bridgeport, although the project was a collaboration with The Southport School, which is specifically for children with language-based learning disabilities and difficulties. According to MacNamara, the expertise available through Sacred Heart’s connections to both schools was invaluable to helping students and exploring the potential of EarlyBird as a tool.
Details of the results from the screenings are private, but MacNamara said they will help a number of students succeed in school.
“It’s super important,” MacNamara said of the impact a diagnosis can have on providing the necessary support to students at a young age. “That’s why we’re doing it in pre-K to first grade, so that this intervention can be started earlier. Most of the time it’s not caught until the students are a lot older. The earlier it’s caught the sooner they can start the intervention and keep them from falling behind.”