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.