One Step at a Time: The Effects of an Early Literacy Text Messaging Program for Parents of Preschoolers

November 19, 2014

Robert Pondiscio

By recording every utterance in a few dozen homes with small children and doing a little math, University of Kansas child psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley uncovered a startling and sobering fact twenty years ago: Children of professional classes hear about 30 million more words by the age of three than the children of families on public assistance. That’s before any of them, rich or poor, set foot in kindergarten for the first time. The constant patter of verbal adults sets off a virtuous circle of language growth for affluent kids (the more words you know, the easier it is to learn even more), but for the poor it’s a vicious one. Since then, various intensive and expensive interventions—from programs in pediatricians’ offices to home visits—have attempted to get low-income parents to speak, read, and engage in more home literacy activities with their children. A cheaper and more effective plan may be at hand—actually, in your hand. The National Bureau of Economic Research finds significant positive effects of READY4K!, a text-messaging program designed to encourage parents of preschoolers to support their children’s literacy development. Participating parents receive three text messages each week during the school year suggesting they try a particular early literacy skill (“Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy & healthy. Ask: can you hear the ‘hhh’ sound in happy & healthy?”). The texts increased the frequency that parents told stories, pointed out rhyming words, or engaged in similar home activities—and their kids performed better on various early literacy tests. Effective parenting interventions have tended to place significant demands on parents’ time and effort and can cost upwards of $10,000 per family, but texting is cheap. “For the entire school year,” the researchers note, “we spent less than one dollar per family to send text messages.” And there’s no “digital divide” issue: nearly 90 percent of U.S. adults have cell phones. “Black and Hispanic adults, who often exhibit the highest dropout rates in parenting programs, send or receive texts more frequently than their white counterparts,” the study notes. What’s more, “virtually all text messages are opened.” In all, a promising idea that deserves further exploration.