When Texting Helps Kids Read

January 17, 2015

Texting isn’t exactly what comes to mind in the discussion about how to improve toddlers’ reading skills. But some Stanford researchers say maybe it should be — only their suggestion is not to hand your iPhone to your kid, but rather to use it yourself.

Parenting is complex. Every decision mom and dad make has a ripple effect. And it’s near impossible to measure success. In an attempt to help simplify the whole thing, Susanna Loeb and Ben York — a professor and researcher respectively at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis — designed a program that sends parents of preschoolers in a low-income San Francisco school district weekly tips 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. “We have to make so many choices, and we often don’t know what to do in the moment,” Loeb says. Ready4K! takes away the guesswork.

The way it worked for the more than 500 families that signed up last year is every week half of them received three different messages pertaining to literacy. Monday’s text was a fact to generate buy-in; Wednesday’s was a specific tip; and lastly, Friday delivered a message of encouragement along with a tip. A suggestion text, for instance, might say something like: “Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy and healthy. Then a sk: can you hear the hhh sound?” The text messages start out simple and become progressively more advanced over time, with the topics being re-introduced throughout the year for reinforcement. Meanwhile, standard school-related announcements, such as vaccination reminders, were sent to the other half of the test group. 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, would be $1 per family.