Irish Voice Tech Startup SoapBox Labs Teams with American Universities to Improve Child Literacy

SoapBox Labs will use its child-specific voice recognition technology to change how children learn to read. Florida State University’s Florida Center for Reading Research (FCCR) chose the Irish startup for a long-term partnership to create new ways to test and measure literacy in children as a critical step toward new ways of teaching kids to read.

Voice Tech for Kids

SoapBox Labs applies proprietary software to its own unique data sets of children’s speech. Children don’t speak the same way that adults do, and the difference can confuse standard voice assistants. The problems are only compounded when accents, dialect, and other variations come into play. While the increasingly frustrated child makes for good YouTube fodder, it also leaves an important gap in the technology that SoapBox is filling. A voice assistant that can interpret what a child is saying accurately, as seen in the demo video above, opens up new vistas for testing literacy rates.

“Rather than clicking or tapping assessment items on computers, or using paper-pencil assessments, students will be able to speak and interact with the assessment, fundamentally changing what can be learned, understood, and monitored,” FCCR associate director Dr. Yaacov Petscher said. “Speech recognition can help us think about overcoming biases in scoring oral production-based assessments, because children who use dialect variation or for whom English is a second language may be scored incorrectly on items simply due to the presence of dialect variation.”

Voice Tech for Academic Success

Measuring literacy in children is about much more than just their current reading ability. Identifying where they are in becoming readers can help educators accurately spot what students are struggling with and how to help them. As literacy is the bedrock for success in school and beyond, a reliable assessment could make a huge difference for children.

FCCR chose SoapBox to partner with after conducting a pilot study with children between kindergarten and second grade from a wide swath of the U.S. The arrangement brings SoapBox into the Reach Every Reader initiative, an organization exploring new ways to improve literacy. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, named by Mark Zuckerberg after his daughter, started Reach Every Reader in 2018 as an arrangement among FSU, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative. The financial details of the partnership were not revealed.

“We believe that speech recognition represents a step change, especially when it comes to kids and their education,” said SoapBox Labs founder and CEO Dr. Patricia Scanlon. “With FCRR we hope to use our proprietary kid-specific technology to make kids’ literacy assessments more accurate, scalable and objective.”


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