Parents who received literacy prompting texts spent more time engaged in literacy activities with their kids.

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Can Texting Help Improve Childhood Literacy?

Digital messaging has the ability to transform the lives of low-income kids.

Parents often have the best intentions to work with their young kids on the alphabet, rhyming words, and other literacy skills. But with the rush to make dinner and get the kids to bed, it can be difficult to carry through on those intentions.

In an effort to provide assistance, Stanford University researchers have developed a program that sends texts providing literacy-development tips to parents of preschoolers, and now, a new study shows that participating in the program improved the kids test scores. At a cost of less than $1 per parent, it’s an affordable intervention that catches parents at moments during the day when they just might find five minutes to squeeze in reading a book with their kids.

The researchers implemented a pilot program, called READY4K!, during the 2013-2014 school year at 31 San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) preschools. These facilities that have long collaborated with Stanford as a sort of learning lab — testing the latest education techniques that the researchers develop. Of the 440 families with four-year-olds that participated in the program, half were sent literacy activity and fact texts three times a week such as, “By saying beginning word sounds, like ‘ttt’ in taco & tomato, you’re preparing your child 4 K,” or “Let your child hold the book. Ask what it is about. Follow the words with your finger as you read,” according to Motoko Rich of the New York Times. The other half received texts with school announcements and other placebo messages.

The results? Parents who received the literacy prompts spent more time engaged in reading-related activities with their kids than those in the control group did. Plus, their kids achieved higher scores on literacy tests than did kids in the control group, and that group of parents engaged with teachers more, too.

Susanna Loeb, the director of Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, tells May Wong of Phys.org, “The barrier to some of these positive parenting practices isn’t knowledge or desire, but it’s the crazy, busy lives. It’s difficult to have the time or focus to make all these choices as parents, and we’re helping parents do what they know they should do and what they want to do.” She also notes, “We know that changing parental behaviors has proven to be very difficult, so to get these positive effects from our texting program was very exciting.”

What might be even more exciting is the fact that this technique works for low-income and minority families, whose children often enter kindergarten with a significant vocabulary gap compared to higher-income peers.

“Parents really are the first teacher that a student has and are the most important teacher at that [early] age,” Loeb tells Wong. “They don’t have to do it the way teachers do it; they just have to work things in with their daily life.”

MORE: A Training Program That Improves Preschoolers’ Attention Spans

Source: Phys.Org, New York Times

Jenny Shank is a fiction writer and journalist in Boulder, Colo. Her first novel, “The Ringer,” won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, McSweeney's and The Guardian.