When Texting Helps Kids Read

When Texting Helps Kids Read

Why you should care

Technology may finally provide a way for educators to expand their influence from the school to the home. 

Texting isn’t exactly what comes to mind in the discussion about how to improve toddlers’ reading skills. But some Stanford researchers say maybe it should be — only their suggestion is not to hand your iPhone to your kid, but rather to use it yourself.

Parenting is complex. Every decision mom and dad make has a ripple effect. And it’s near impossible to measure success. In an attempt to help simplify the whole thing, Susanna Loeb and Ben York — a professor and researcher respectively at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis — designed a program that sends parents of preschoolers in a low-income San Francisco school district weekly tips on how to improve their children’s literacy. The initiative is designed to fit within the lives of families, rather than adding yet another burden. “We have to make so many choices, and we often don’t know what to do in the moment,” Loeb says. Ready4K! takes away the guesswork.

Kids whose parents received advice scored about a third better on early literacy tests later in the year.

The way it worked for the more than 500 families that signed up last year is every week half of them received three different messages pertaining to literacy. Monday’s text was a fact to generate buy-in; Wednesday’s was a specific tip; and lastly, Friday delivered a message of encouragement along with a tip. A suggestion text, for instance, might say something like: “Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Then a sk: can you hear the hhh sound?” The text messages start out simple and become progressively more advanced over time, with the topics being re-introduced throughout the year for reinforcement. Meanwhile, standard school-related announcements, such as vaccination reminders, were sent to the other half of the test group. The end result: kids whose parents received advice gained the equivalent of two to three months of classroom time. (The parents didn’t know ahead of time their children would be tested.) The program proved to be especially effective with black and Hispanic families — groups that according to the study tend to be more active texters. The estimated cost for schools to roll it out, researchers said, would be $1 per family.

Educators have so far been largely unsuccessful when it comes to finding ways of bridging the so-called “word gap.” Studies show that by age four, kids from low-income households will hear 30 million less words than their more affluent counterparts, who get more quality face-time with caretakers. That means the already disadvantaged are falling behind before the academic race has even begun.

Intervention programs often require parents to sit through multi-hour information-intensive workshops, but once they leave, Loeb points out, there is inevitably little follow-through. Not because parents don’t care — but because they fall back into their natural routines. “This program utilizes technology to bring school and home closer together,” says Pam Allyn, an international literacy expert and author of several books on the subject. “It goes right to the source.” And, sure enough, with prompting in the moment, parents were more likely to do things like tell their kids stories, work on puzzles with them or stop and point out words that start with the same letter.

A man with his child on his lap

Source Mango Productions/Corbis

Still, Timothy Shanahan, the former director of reading for the Chicago Public Schools and an education professor at the University of Illinois, says he’s only “cautiously” optimistic. He points out that families receiving messages were also part of a larger literacy outreach that provided reading materials as well. And much of the word gap stems from disadvantaged households not even having access to books and other texts. Plus, there are language barriers with immigrant parents. But what interests Shanahan is that unlike most of the technology he sees being developed that is aimed at creating resources, this system stimulates people to use what’s already out there. “It looks like a technology with real power,” he says. Small steps indeed.

This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 2, 2014.

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