Can a text message help bridge the ‘word gap’ for low income children?

January 28, 2015

By Meghan Walsh, OZY

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. Educators have so far been largely unsuccessful when it comes to finding ways to bridge the so-called “word gap.”

But researchers at Stanford University think they may have found a solution. Susanna Loeb and Ben York at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, founded Ready4K!, a program that sends parents of preschoolers in a low-income San Francisco school district weekly tips via text message 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.

Loeb and York tested their initiative last year with more than 500 families. Half of the families received three different text messages pertaining to literacy each week. A message might contain a tip, for instance: “Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Then ask: can you hear the hhh sound?” The text messages started out simple and became progressively more advanced, with the topics being re-introduced throughout the year for reinforcement. Meanwhile, the other half of the test group received standard school-related announcements, such as vaccination reminders. 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, is $1 per family.