Taking WordSmart to the world

Taking WordSmart to the world

As a teacher you are more likely to remember the kids that create ways to avoid doing work by acting out or becoming the class clown and of course you remember the ones that  shine. That’s how it was for Paul Blackman former primary  school teacher, Guidance Counsellor and Resource Teacher of Learning and Behaviour with 40 years experience in education.

 When Paul was in his second year of teaching he had a class of year 8 students. Two of the students tried very hard but for whatever reason had major issues with literacy. 

“My heart went out to them. I could have spent all day with them but I had 34 other students who I needed to spend time with and I didn’t know how to help them. I had no knowledge about dyslexia or any other learning difference.” 

That was 40 years ago and understanding what was happening in a child’s brain has been his passion and driving force ever since. This has led to running courses on the practical applications of Neuroscience for educators.

The logical next steps were to make this knowledge scalable. So he began a journey  dedicating 6 years to developing the Wordsmart application. WordSmart uses storytelling to mimic the way our brain naturally learns,  gamification to engage readers, and teaches the basics of reading. This includes CVC words ( three letter words), sight words, rhyming, decoding and the shapes of the letters. (Graphemes)

WordSmart has invented a new word by changing the word “dyslexia,” meaning difficulty with words, to “prolexia” meaning proficiency with words. Prolexic students are given a number of multi-sensory tools which enhance and accelerate their learning.

Using  Lexplore an assessment tool developed in  Sweden can track the children’s eye movements and record the words they fixate on to provide significant information on a students reading performance including their reading age, their percentile rank, position on a bell curve and by definition if they are dyslexic. All for a fraction of the price $20 and taking approximately  5 minutes.

 Lexplore also measures fluency which is needed for a student to achieve advanced levels of comprehension.It gives our tamariki the  ability to make inferences and critically evaluate text.

With the current situation in education, if parents want to get their child help from a teacher aide they require a private assessment from an educational psychologist the cost is somewhere between $500-$ 800.

 The outcome is generally that the child is assigned a teacher aide who often lacks the tools to remediate the child’s learning differences. The report diagnosing  dyslexia is often really challenging for a lay person to understand and the outcome doesn’t help the student.

 Initially assisted by a grant from the Callaghan Foundation, and a considerable sum of his own money.Paul’s intent was to help New Zealand meet its commitment to the United Nations conventions on The Rights of The Child. The desire was also to promote the best outcomes in literacy for all learners and this has proved to be the case.

 While he has engaged with New Zealand schools,and worked with individual children, Paul has also just returned from overseeing the deployment of WordSmart in Fijian schools with dramatic results.

 “Not everyone is wired to learn language the same way, but one of the most amazing things about our brains is that they are flexible. Neuro-plasticity, means the brain can adapt to change  the way we learn to read. 

 That ability is the focus of WordSmart’s tools and applications,resulting in profound changes for children diagnosed with dyslexia” says Paul.

 It follows then the World LiteracyFoundation would be interested in the work that Paul has been doing with WordSmart, and with that in mind, he submitted a proposal to make a presentation at their World Summit at Oxford University next year. 

 The summit will put WordSmart squarely in front of some of the World’s preeminent specialists in dyslexia and learning difficulties. 

 Taking WordSmart to the World Summit is obviously a massive opportunity for the company, and one that Paul relishes. “It’s exciting and gives us hope for our children’s future” 

 Little did Paul realise, when he submitted his proposal, that one of the organisers of the World Summit was Joe Ghaly. Based in Australia, has been working closely with Paul working to get Lexplore established in New Zealand and Australia. 

 “I have to be sure that the science is really solid. “Our goal to provide a bespoke solution to all learners is challenging and our solution aside from our app is to use assessment tools which offer the opportunity to provide targeted interventions. Lexplore is based on the work of 50 scientists over the last 30 years.

 Paul is  now a part of  the World Literacy Foundation Task Force, to help generate interest and funding to support the work of the Foundation.

 “The values of the task force we are part of, dovetails perfectly with our own. Education is fundamental to the economic growth and social wellbeing of our communities. It opens access to opportunities for all age groups and lifts the living standards. Wordsmart’s involvement will multiply our results.”

 This is not rocket science but what is needed is a vision which promotes and provides proven tools to achieve it. The World Literacy Foundation’s vision is to eradicate illiteracy Worldwide by 2040. New Zealand’s expertise will now become a part of this.

 Paul says in relation to the personal testimonies as with Nevaeh’s (opposite) and there are many. “We will of course always offer it to locals and Johanna and I are locals. The key thing I would love to see happen is related to assessment. We can pick up children with dyslexia issues in four to five minutes and then we need to execute proven techniques starting with a change in mindset to accelerate our country’s literacy standards”


Renee Dekker and daughter, Nevaeh, with WordSmart creator, Paul Blackman[/caption]“It was quite a few years ago and Nevaeh was attending MBAS.

WordSmart Informer

Renee Dekker and daughter, Nevaeh, with WordSmart creator, Paul Blackman

There was something not quite right with her progress in learning and we got some help from a lady called Erin Young (from Social Workers for Schools). She spent a lot of time trying to help us and Erin intuited that Nevaeh had a form of dyslexia. She worked with us for a year and in that time referred Nevaeh to have a sensory processing assessment. This was a process of assessing audio, movement and touch sensitivity and response.

From this we knew that Nevaeh was experiencing her class environment as overwhelming to the point that she was not able to process any material. For her, it was ‘fight or flight’ going into that environment. Erin was such a solid person during this time; she stayed with us determined to alleviate Neveah’s dyslexia and our concern. Erin remembered that one of her relatives Blair Murray was working on the graphics for a computer application called Wordsmart, for a man named Paul.

One thing led to another, and soon after, we met Paul and Johanna.(his wife). They were so willing to assist Nevaeh on her journey.

With this, we started schooling from home as Nevaeh had lost quite a lot of confidence, and her mindset was she was not good enough.

Paul set us up with a week’s worth of work based on Wordsmart. The change came quite quickly, in one or two months. We were blown away by her progress, with Nevaeh becoming proficient with words rather than disabled with words. Her spelling and reading kept on improving and she rapidly advanced. It is not just about literacy, but also confidence, self-worth and behaviour.”

Renee (Mother)



Year One Students Develop Skills Through TEL Project

Year One Students Develop Skills Through TEL Project

“Early reading skills tend to come more easily to bilingual children. They score higher on average on tests involving creative thinking or problem-solving and develop more flexible approaches to thinking through problems.”


The app that’s ‘gamifying’ reading to help improve kids’ literacy

The app that’s ‘gamifying’ reading to help improve kids’ literacy

Children learn best when they’re having fun. Ben Fahy spoke to the founder of an app that’s helping kids break through learning barriers. 

On Paul Blackman’s first day of school in Grey Lynn in the 1950s – “before Grey Lynn was so flash” – he sat in a class with 54 other kids and the teacher gave them something to read. 

“My dad always read to me, so when I got to school I was able to read,” he says. 

He read the passage out to the teacher in front of the class, but “instead of saying well done, she went off her rocker, gave me the strap and said I was showing off,” Blackman recalls. 

“When you have an event like that at that age it goes straight into the subconscious and it made me believe I should never go beyond myself or show off.”

Blackman was able to regain his confidence over the years, but that early experience stuck with him and has formed the basis of his own approach to teaching. He knows the early years are so crucial to how people’s lives play out and this can either be a vicious or virtuous cycle because “learning and behaviour are always linked”.

“Kids who think they’re dumb are not motivated to try, but the better kids get at reading, the more confidence they gain. We need to give kids confidence early so they don’t know they’re any different. We have to change their mindset.”

And that’s exactly what the literacy app WordSmart aims to do. 




Paul Blackman has dedicated his career as a teacher to improving reading and writing (Photo: supplied).

Text appeal

In evolutionary terms, reading hasn’t been around for very long. Before the invention of writing – first in Mesopotamia around 3400 BC and then again independently in three other places in the centuries to come – we relied on oral storytelling to pass knowledge on. 

“Not only do you have to recognise the shape of the letters, you need to connect it to a sound and then articulate that with your mouth. It’s not a natural thing,” Blackman says. But it’s the thing he’s dedicated his life to improving as a teacher and the thing that took him on a five year journey to improve it further with the help of modern technology. 

Perhaps because of this oral storytelling tradition, our brains are wired for stories. The WordSmart app taps into our human passion for stories to help develop reading skills. Developed by Stephen Knightly, COO of video game studio Rocketwerkz, the app takes users on an interactive adventure with the characters Tama and Tracey and tells stories about how different letters got their sounds (for example, ‘A’ is all about apples and ants) and then it gives users activities where they have to match the shape of the letters to the corresponding sounds. 

“The kids love it. The biggest problem we have is getting them to stop using it.”

As Tracey tells users of the app, we learn best when we’re calm. Mindfulness techniques help the students to concentrate and overcome stressful situations. Many of the kids Blackman deals with who come from difficult circumstances are often in “fight, flight or freeze mode” and are right in the middle of that vicious cycle where deprivation and stress affect the ability to learn. WordSmart is designed to help break that cycle. 

An OECD report from 2016 called Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, said “coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged family is the most obvious and perhaps strongest risk factor of low performance at school”. 

“When you’re upset or emotional at school because something’s going on at home, their brain goes out to lunch and nothing registers,” Blackman says.  

So, in addition to reading activities, WordSmart also offers kids ways to promote self-control or manage their emotions through things like breathing or tracing exercises. In a Covid-19 environment where the stress and disruption of lockdowns have been the background to all kids’ lives, WordSmart provides a tool to help students respond to these challenges, says Blackman.

Read it and weep 

While New Zealand is still in the top half of the OECD rankings for reading levels, our literacy stats have been trending down in recent years. There are a range of theories on why this might be the case, from a lack of focus on phonics to parents sitting in silence on their smartphones, but Blackman believes it is because we rely too much on the child-led Play Way approach in which play is “the valued mode of learning”. Blackman says it’s a question of balance, which is why Wordmart provides a structured approach where the games provide the scaffolding to achieve optimal learning outcomes. This is especially beneficial for children who don’t take to reading quickly. 

“My problem is that the kids who are dyslexic will just be behind from the start. What we need to do is get to them at an early stage and turn them around before they think they are any different.”

You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so screening for reading difficulties is crucial to addressing them. Blackman has established a partnership with a group of scientists from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden who have developed a tool called Lexplore that does just that. The product of 30 years of research, it uses eye movements to glean insights into reading levels – the eyes of those with reading difficulties tending to move more slowly and linger on words for longer. Lexplore claims to be 97% accurate when it comes to picking up reading difficulties and the artificial intelligence engine behind it means the more people who participate, the better it gets. 

The partnership was an easy sell, says Blackman: “I just emailed them and said I’m working on this app called WordSmart. I got an email back from them saying ‘we think it’s really impressive, would you be interested in being a partner?’”

He is now working with Lexplore in New Zealand and across South East Asia and is looking at ways to integrate the test into the WordSmart app. The most important aspect of Lexplore is the way it measures fluency. Fluency in simple terms is the ability to read smoothly and quickly and at the same time using the punctuation clues to add meaning to the text. Fluency is the key to the comprehension of the text.

“Every school we’ve been in with Lexplore we’ve picked up kids who have fallen through the cracks,” he says. “So it’s a major benefit to New Zealand schools.”

Dyslexia translates to ‘difficulty with words’. And, to his point about the inextricable link between learning and behaviour, the Dyslexia Foundation estimates as many as 90% of those in our prisons are dyslexic, compared to 10% of the total population. 

Currently, diagnosing dyslexia requires an assessment by an educational psychologist that costs around $500. “But we have the ability to do an assessment with these kids in three minutes [with Lexplore]. It’s a huge cost saving.” 

It’s not just saving money, it’s changing lives. 

Look and learn 

Research suggests that exposing children to books at a young age and reading to them is more likely to create lifelong readers and lead to more organic learningIf children see their parents reading, they’re also more likely to view it as something to be enjoyed. But in less privileged communities, parents may not have as much time to spend reading at home and often rely more on teachers to guide their children’s learning. 

Blackman says WordSmart is aimed at all parents who want their children to become successful readers including those with young children who haven’t started school yet or those with children who are experiencing reading difficulties – and also teachers and Learning Support Coordinators. 

“We want to cater to all students, regardless of wealth, ability or neurodiversity,” he says. 

One major piece of the reading puzzle, especially for older children, is finding a topic they are interested in, as Blackman, who has a background as a guidance counsellor and careers advisor, knows all too well.

For him, being a guidance counsellor “wasn’t just about careers. It was about finding out what they’re passionate about.” 

Platforms like The Khan Academy or YouTube have allowed anyone with an internet connection to access education and choose to learn about what interests them. And when your child finds that, Blackman says, it’s important to give them the relevant material and let them go for it. Another programme that he has partnered with called Literacy for Boys embraces this principle by using topics like mountain biking, skateboarding, hunting and surfing to get kids hooked into the words, sounds and cool stories associated with these topics. 

“If a kid isn’t really stimulated and can’t find something they’re interested in to focus on, we lose a lot of them.”

Blackman has seen this play out firsthand many times while working as a teacher. He recounts a story from his time at a school in Mangakino, which held the record for the largest student population in New Zealand in 1954, during the construction of the dam at nearby Lake Maraetai. 

“It was unbelievably deprived. But having said that, if you can find something they are passionate about it can make a difference and, in that case, it was a play about a Māori legend called Hatupatu. For the kids who were in it, their attendance improved along with their motivation to learn.”


WordSmart is aimed at all parents who want their children to become successful readers (Photo: supplied)

What’s the story?

Blackman admits he’s impatient by nature, so he wants WordSmart (and Lexplore) to become an integral part of our education system and has ambitions to take it global. But, as the story of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s research into what causes ulcers shows, while science is designed to be a meritocracy, it’s often hard to break people out of their existing habits and beliefs, even when confronted with clear evidence.

“I’m staggered by how difficult it is to get schools to buy into it. Why? I just don’t get it. The technology is way in advance of anything I’ve ever seen. I have a really good knowledge of what’s around and what we can use [to improve reading ability]. And this leaves anything else I’ve seen for dead.”

Much to his delight, the scientists from the Karolinska Institute – which, by the way, is responsible for handing out the Nobel Prizes for Physiology and Medicine – agreed. The partnership has allowed WordSmart to start to reach children who might otherwise struggle with reading and Blackman is excited about the possibilities that represents for New Zealand’s children.  

“I want the maximum number of kids to benefit from this. It’s a cliche to say the education system is broken. But I think the greatest good we can do is to invest in education. I get the most out of helping kids achieve and I get real satisfaction from turning things around.”


Published in the Spinoff, October 19, 2021.


To help dyslexic pupils, go to the root of how children learn

To help dyslexic pupils, go to the root of how children learn

Dyslexia isn’t just about bad spelling – teachers need to try a variety of strategies to build confidence. I have this issue with how I hear words, Gareth, a 31-year-old graphic designer, tells me. “So for example, while I was growing up, it was really hard to tell the difference between the words ‘girl’ and ‘grill’ because the ‘ir’ and the ‘l’ kind of overlapped in time unless you spoke really slowly. My teachers were always just flabbergasted that I couldn’t tell.” To most of us, it seems obvious that the “ir” sound in “girl” comes before the “l”, but for Gareth, like many dyslexic sufferers, a dysfunction in the processing of neurological signals relative to each other in time, means that the letters tend to slip. This problem snowballs when it comes to learning to read. It’s vital to be able to hear the sounds of the words and associate them with a symbol before you can decode them on a page. But like all neurological disorders, dyslexia is not a static condition. The brain has an astonishing capacity to adapt and overcome hindrances which may be present in our neurobiology when we’re born – an ability referred to as neural plasticity. This process works through a combination of repetition and feedback, in other words, practising. It’s the same way a violinist gradually learns to find finger positions on the strings. System is skewed against dyslexics Through persistence, and repeatedly trying to hear the differences between words, Gareth says he’s overcome many of the problems he faced when younger. But he feels that the education system is skewed against dyslexics. “From my perspective, the big problem is that schools teach everything by telling. A teacher tells kids, ‘here’s how the world works, here’s how you solve this type of problem – now go and solve problems just like it’. But that impedes deep understanding. And it’s even worse for dyslexic kids who have problems with language.” Indeed, many researchers say that the biggest problem for dyslexic children is not so much their condition, but that the current system – with its emphasis on memorising facts and meeting fixed milestones at young ages – leads them to lose confidence and their willingness to try. It’s something the Mind Research Institute in California is looking to tackle by implementing a new system of learning for primary school children. This revolves round interactive puzzles and games, which ask probing questions, and crucially, are designed to engage the brain’s natural learning mechanisms. “This game-based format is a way of guiding them along a path, without having to rely on language,” says Matthew Peterson, a neuroscientist who founded the institute back in 1998. “And it works because, from a neuroscience perspective, you really need to learn by doing. You need to be put in situations where you have to figure things out, learn from your mistakes, and that’s not happening. The principle goes back to Socrates. He says, don’t tell people things, ask them questions and leave them to build their own knowledge.” Learning through doing connects the back lobes of our brain – involved in sensing the environment – to the cognitive, emotional, and memory networks in the frontal areas. This “perception-action cycle” is the driving force behind learning. And it depends on making mistakes, recognising them, and then adjusting. “The education system right now is just engaging the perception part of the cycle,” Peterson says. “Kids are listening and watching, there’s no action going on. “And for dyslexics, it’s pretty common to have working memory issues. Language adds an additional level of working memory which makes learning even more difficult. If you directly engage the perception-action cycle through activities, it has a tighter loop and requires less working memory. Not just a reading disorder For many years, dyslexia was viewed simply as a reading disorder, rather than a multi-faceted neurological condition that can combine auditory, visual and memory-based language difficulties. As a result, many of the programmes for dyslexic children were fixated on phonics and distinguishing between the smallest sounds (phonemes) that go to make up words. Phonics are one side of a very complex story. It’s become increasingly apparent that dyslexia can manifest as a range of symptoms. These overlap with other disorders such as dyspraxia and dysgraphia because many of the same brain areas are involved. “The phonics approach often leaves out the idea of semantics,” says Anna Pitt, a researcher at the Dyslexia Research Trust at Oxford University. “The more contextualized the concept or word the child is trying to remember or spell, the easier it is for them to learn, because they go by the understanding rather than the memory. And phonics only works for regular words. If you try to apply phonics to the word island, you’ll come out with is-land. To recognise irregular words when reading, you have to use your visual memory.” Dyslexia researchers say that very often the visual aspects of the condition are ignored. These are more subtle but can be seen in the problems many dyslexics have with differentiating between the letters “b” and “d”. It’s common for dyslexic children to complain that words appear to move as they try to read. The visual problems dyslexics suffer sometimes result from an inability to control the convergence of the tracking of their eyes. This is believed to be due to a malfunction in one of the brain’s visual pathways. Some of these children can be helped by using coloured glasses or paper in the classroom to give them a more reliable representation of what’s on the page. A new programme has recently launched to help dyslexics learn to control their visual attention through classroom-based exercises involving body and eye movement. It’s based on the theory of embodied cognition, which suggests that improving motor control throughout the body can improve attention and problem solving ability. “We’re learning that tackling the attention side of things is often getting to the root of the problem far more effectively than just working on spelling,” Pitt says. “You have to be prepared to let children find a way which works for them. If you look at dyslexics like Einstein or Richard Branson, their condition forced them to challenge the norm and find a new way of doing things. Sometimes this results in a solution which is better than the regular one, leading to fantastic new ideas which is how society develops.” By David Cox, originally published in the Guardian / Mon 22 Sep 2014 14.35 BST — https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/22/teaching-pupils-with