Can text messages boost child literacy?

November 12, 2014

Think of a technology that could help boost educational outcomes and social mobility. Some of you might point to massive open online courses, MOOCs, which hold the promise of offering cheaper, web-based higher education to exponentially more students, or perhaps just to the Internet itself. But here’s a technology you probably didn’t think of—text messaging.

A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released earlier this week looks at a program in San Francisco that used text messaging to boost child literacy. And the results are encouraging.

Recent academic studies highlight the importance of early childhood in kids’ lives. These studies find that high-quality preschool programs have large economic returns, but understanding what exactly drives those returns is incredibly important. But we have to remember a child’s home environment has a major effect on their educational development. Consider the famous “word gap.” Children from low-income households will hear 30 million less words than a child from a high-income household before the age of 3. This means that low-income children are already behind their peers higher up the income ladder before school even starts.

So interventions that help parents at home might be useful. In the new paper, economists Benjamin N. York and Susanna Loeb at Stanford University’s Center for Education Policy Analysis look at one such effort in San Francisco. The program, READY4K!, uses text messages to give parents tips on how to improve their children’s literacy. One example: a text message tells parents that pointing out words that start with the same sound can boost literacy and then gives examples to use with children.

York and Loeb evaluated the effectiveness of the program through random assignment. This way the researchers could compare children whose parents received text messages to similar children who parents didn’t get the texts. They find that READY4K! had a significant positive impact. Parents who received the text message were more likely to engage in literacy-promoting activities. They were more likely to tell stories, recite nursery rhymes, and work on a puzzle, among other activities.

Importantly, these activities appeared to get results. Children whose parents got text messages scored higher on early literacy tests. The increases in these test scores were particularly strong for black and Hispanic students.

Not only was the program effective, it was very cheap. The researchers estimate that it cost $1 for each family included in the program. The fixed costs of the program were fairly low. This means that scaling up the program wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive.

York and Loeb’s study shows that researchers and policymakers should be creative when thinking about how to increase human capital for children of low-income households. Increasing human capital development at the bottom of the income ladder can help boost economic mobility and possibly long-run economic growth. And given the lack of both in recent decades, any boost would be warmly welcomed.