Text messaging program helps boost language skills in preschoolers, study finds

November 15, 2014

By May Wong

Stanford researchers found that the texts, which prompted parents to engage in literacy activities with their kids, had a positive impact on learning.

When it comes to spending quality family time together, text messaging doesn’t have to be a villain. It could be an enabler.

Stanford researchers have created a promising new text-messaging program that is designed to support parents in their efforts to teach their children their ABCs and prepare them for kindergarten. The program, called READY4K!, sends weekly cell phone texts to parents of preschoolers to give them bite-sized tips and easy, specific actions related to developing early literacy skills.

“Texting is the medium du jour,” said Benjamin York, a doctoral student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who created the texting program with Professor Susanna Loeb. “That could change, but for now, it seems to be the best strategy.”

A successful pilot of the texting program was conducted during the 2013-2014 school year at 31 preschools in the San Francisco Unified School District. The district, which has a robust, ongoing partnership with Stanford to integrate research with real-world practices, has been seeking ways to boost family engagement.

“I believe that all families want to be involved in their child's learning, but many feel they don’t have the time or perceive that supporting their child’s learning might be labor intensive or something that the teacher is better at,” said Meenoo Yashar, Executive Director of Program Quality & Enhancement at SFUSD. “The texting program offered some simple nuggets around literacy strategies and validated that families do want to be involved, if given information that is easy to receive and useful.”

An accompanying study of the pilot, found that the texts, on average, helped increase the frequency with which parents engaged in home literacy activities, such as telling stories, going over words that rhyme, or completing puzzles together. Participating parents also showed higher levels of engagement by asking teachers questions about their children’s growth.

Perhaps most importantly, the increases in parental activity and involvement translated into learning gains for children, York said. The children of parents who participated in the eight-month pilot and received the READY4K! texts scored significantly higher on a literacy assessment than those within a control group of families who received only placebo texts of school-related announcements.

“Our text messages had enough of an effect on the parents that it trickled down to the children, which is really encouraging,” York said. “But it’s not parenting-by-text. The texts are there to just help facilitate authentic parenting.”