What do aliens have to do with learning to read

by Seb Timpson

The pressure that is put on teachers to administer government initiatives is often a topic of debate. Everyone understands that teachers are under enormous time pressure and many feel the last thing they need is another test to administer and prepare for.

Last weekend, my friend Dan and I joined the Zzish Edtech Hackathon to tackle the challenges created by the latest government test for primary school children, The Phonics Screening Check. This is a compulsory test for Year 1 that was introduced in 2012 and aims to asses a child’s ability to read by decoding words using phonics, rather than relying on their memory of familiar words.

If you didn’t quite understand that, don’t worry. The key problem with the test is that it generates additional work for teachers, as well as creating anxiety in children — they are only 5 or 6 after all. We needed a classroom app that would help teachers save time and allow kids to prepare for the test. Cue Alien Phonics.


Alien Phonics is a mobile app that lets a child practice for the test independently of the teacher. Basically it does what a teacher does — it instructs, listens and gives feedback. It uses voice recognition to allow the child to read words out loud and then gives feedback on how well they read.

Over the weekend we planned a number of games, and built one for a demo, the Tongue Twister Challenge. You can see from the screenshot below that it isn’t pretty, but we successfully demonstrated the ‘child’ (Dan as the most childish stepped in to demo) creating his own tongue twister, attempting to read the tongue twister, and being given a score showing how well he did. Being able to recognise and score a reading attempt in this way is, we believe, unique and opens up a tremendous opportunity for independent learning.

So why aliens? Well, firstly, children love aliens! And also, one of the quirks of the test is that it introduces pseudo or ‘alien’ words to read, the idea being that if a child can read these words they must be decoding. Aliens also allow for a lot of design opportunities. (See screenshot below)

Enough about aliens, let me tell you about the hackathon itself. Well, we won, which was obviously amazing, and the organisers Zzish (good alien name by the way) did a fantastic job. This was their first hackathon, but they clearly understand what makes a good one. There was a good mix of skills to form the teams and we had the help of some fantastic young talent. The organisers provided a steady supply of mentors to bounce ideas off and get feedback from and, most importantly, a set of prizes that shows they understand what a startup needs to get, well, started.

As winners we get £5k of development time to get the app to a decent MVP stage, we get mentoring from some highly experienced people and, most exciting of all, Zzish will promote the app to their users in 118 countries. This will give us a tremendous opportunity to validate the idea with real customers.

And what of the future? Well, although this app has a narrow focus, it is a great little beachhead market and with the help of the Alien Phonics team formed during the hackathon we are going to build it. More importantly though, Dan and I believe that a business built on intelligent tutoring apps that use natural language processing to allow children to learn independently is a huge opportunity. Not to mention the wider global market of teaching English as a foreign language, which has opportunities in some very big markets like India and China.

Thanks to a great team for making it happen. Agnes, Wen, Amin, George and Tim.

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