Text messaging gets a bad rep for reducing our thoughts to a stream of emojis, LOLs, and other silly shorthand. But several innovative programs actually use SMS technology to advance our literacy rather than dumbing it down. Texting has already proven successful in behavioral change programs such as weight loss and smoking cessation, so literacy training is another logical step.
Even if they don’t have a smartphone, most people with basic phones can send and receive SMS messages, making the technology widely available. “One of the nice aspects to the approach is it’s really low cost and super easy to scale,” says Ben York, executive director of CEPA Labs, a branch of the Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) at Stanford University.
York collaborated with Stanford professor Susanna Loeb to create Ready4K!, a text-message-based program aimed at the parents of 4-year-olds. When they looked at existing early literacy programs, Loeb and York found that in addition to the scheduling challenges of getting to an in-person workshop, parents struggled to retain the amount of information provided in “one fell swoop,” as York puts it. So they set out to “use technology to address the access issue and take a new approach by breaking down the complexities of parenting,” York explains. “It became clear very quickly that text messaging was the ideal technology.”
Ready4K! sends parents a short text on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Each week’s three texts build on a single concept, such as helping kids recognize letters, then making letter recognition into a game. Following a successful pilot program at 31 preschools in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) during the 2013-14 school year, Ready4K! has expanded to more than 30,000 families in 20 states. The program has also moved beyond early literacy to cover early math and social emotional learning.
Lyn Stone, proprietor of Lifelong Literacy, an Australia-based education consultancy, says this approach could be especially helpful to lower-income families. About 90 percent of the families in Ready4K!’s initial pilot received financial assistance for preschool attendance costs, and most of the families served today are low income. “In many cases they cannot afford to buy tablets and laptops either, so it makes sense to attempt to provide prompts for parents that can be accessed through cellphones,” she says. “Initiatives like these have the potential to reach an otherwise elusive population.”
Other text-based literacy programs focus on demographics that can be elusive for different reasons. Cell-Ed helps recent immigrants and other adults who lack literacy skills (a 2013 report estimates that 36 million adults in the United States fit that description).
Many adult learners find it inconvenient or nearly impossible to study in a classroom because of work and family obligations. Partnering with state governmental agencies, adult training organizations, and companies with low-literacy employees, Cell-Ed provides education via voice recordings and text messages.
“People can just do it a few minutes a day, en route to work or [while] folding laundry,” Cell-Ed CEO Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami says. “Critically, more than 75 percent of learners finish the program, compared to 20 to 50 percent in traditional adult education classes.” The English to Go course takes students from low levels of English to proficiency in a few months, according to Rothenberg-Aalami. The Citizenship to Go course prepares them for the naturalization test.
Another concept, iCorrect, is targeted to kids, a demographic known for being avid texters. Miami Ad School student Michael Weisburd teamed up with classmates Emily Berger and Heinrich Schnorf for a student competition around technology. After brainstorming around texting, the trio came up with the idea for iCorrect, a tool that would help users improve their spelling and grammar as they write texts.
The idea is still in the conceptual stage, but Weisburd believes it could be built into the restriction settings of an iPhone or iPad to help improve literacy. “The child will not be able to send a text message until all spelling and grammar is correct,” he says. The user would then have the chance to correct the text and, barring that, a drop-down menu would explain the issue.
“The behavior of texting is not going anywhere,” Weisburd says. “We didn’t want to break the habit, but we want to use this platform where these kids are writing more than ever and help them use proper spelling and grammar.”
While texting may not allow for the same immersive reading experience as other platforms, its portability and easily digestible format offer huge potential as a teaching tool. “In this digital age, even those who struggle to read are getting crucial exposure to the written word through texting, thus inevitably increasing their skills,” Stone says. “In the past, many who struggled to read abandoned print altogether. Social media and texting have brought print to many more people than books and newspapers ever could.”