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Can Text Messaging Bridge the "Word Gap" in Our Kids?

We've seen text messaging take on a number of practical roles in secondary and post-secondary education, but did you know it can be used to bolster the education even of young children? More specifically, a text messaging program founded by Stanford University researchers may offer a means of improving literacy in low-income children.

Susanna Loeb and Ben York, researchers at Stanford's Center for Education Policy Analysis, aim to address a problem known as the "word gap." By the age of four, children of low-income families hear about 30 million fewer words than their higher-income counterparts. This issue is easily understood when one considers that the amount of quality time children can have with their caregivers depends in large part on how much time parents can afford to take off work to be with children, what sort of resources parents can afford to invest in for their children's education, and what sort of care parents can afford for their children while they have to work.

Importantly, because this word gap emerges before even the early age of four, low-income children are at a disadvantage before they even reach public schools, which are zoned and funded in a way that the education of children from low-income families is already often more poorly funded than that of children from higher-income communities. Clearly, low-income youth face many unfair hindrances in their education--but what can we do to begin to level the playing field?

Loeb and York turned to text messaging for an answer. With text messaging holding great popularity as a mode of communication across social class, SMS is a promising medium by which to reach low-income parents. Loeb and York developed a program called Ready4K!, which sends text messages three times weekly to subscribers offering tips to improve children's literacy in the time the parents have with their children. The texts started with simple tips and gradually moved to more advanced recommendations, and the topics they covered were periodically reintroduced for reinforcement.

The researchers ran a pilot of their program with more than 500 San Francisco families in 2014, with half of the families receiving three weekly texts for the year, and half of the families comprising a control condition that received only texts containing standard school-related announcements, such as reminders of vaccine requirements. The children of participating families were tested at the end of the study period, without their parents' knowing in advance that they would be tested.

The test results spoke clearly: the children whose families received the educational text messages performed as though they had gained an extra two to three months in the classroom over the children whose families did not get the texts. Also of note is that these improvements were even stronger in children of Black and Latino families, who face greater marginalization and also among whom texting is most popular.

The success of Ready4K! comes in large part from the convenience and reach of text messaging as a medium. Many similar initiatives involve attending lengthy training sessions, which may be a strain for low-income families to attend in the first place, and after which many simply return to their old routines by habit, failing to make the recommended changes. Text messaging, however, offers a quick and easy way to reach people and can bring the training into the home, breaking the barrier between home and school. The design of Ready4K! also uses text messages to break training into small, discrete pieces that are easy to enact immediately, making people more likely to actually follow the tips they are offered.

While Ready4K! stands as a promising initiative and offers further evidence for the power of texting to bolster education where it is most needed, it is important to consider the other factors at play in the study. The families that received the text messages were also part of a larger program endeavoring to improve literacy that provided them with reading materials. One roadblock that many low-income families face in their children's education is access to reading materials, so Loeb and York's study may not perfectly reflect the efficacy of Ready4K! in more typical conditions.

With this in mind, however, it is sure that Ready4K! is a powerful and promising model. Even if our excitement should be cautious and measured, excitement is warranted; the potential text messaging holds to improve education from young ages and address inequality is indeed great, and surely something to be explored in future research and development.

About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage, Inc. a software company for communication software solutions. http://www.notepage.net

 


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