Parents Boost Their Preschoolers’ Literacy Skills With Texted Tips

What’s the most cost-effective way to prepare toddlers for school? Turns out it might involve texting parents. A new study by Stanford researchers confirms what early studies were showing: Texting parents early childhood learning tips and reminders boosts preschoolers’ literacy skills. And it costs approximately $1 per family.

Research has repeatedly found that kindergartners from low-income families are already behind their more affluent peers on the first day of school. The well-known “word gap” study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley 20 years ago showed that by the time children from low-income families turn 3 years old, they’ve heard approximately 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers have heard. And the gap in processing skills and vocabulary is evident as young as 18 months, according to some newer research.

In 2013, Stanford doctoral student Benjamin York and Professor Susanna Loeb developed a text messaging program called READY4K! aimed at supporting parents in teaching their preschoolers literacy and language skills and narrowing this gap. For eight months, the researchers tracked 440 families with 4-year-olds in public preschools in San Francisco—most of whom had low incomes. One-half of the parents in the group received texts with district announcements on registration or vaccinations. Meanwhile, the other half received three texts per week with tips and ideas for boosting language skills.

For example, the simple texts suggested, “By saying beginning word sounds, like ‘ttt’ in taco & tomato, you’re preparing your child 4 K,” or “Let your child hold the book. Ask what it is about. Follow the words with your finger as you read.”

Another set of texts encouraged parents to turn bath time into a teaching moment by encouraging kids to point out letters on shampoo bottles.

Turns out, the texts had an impact. The parents who received the simple tips spent more time doing literacy-related activities than the parents in the control group did, and the former were more involved in their child’s preschool experiences— asking teachers, for example, what they were doing to build literacy in the classroom.

That involvement led to gains for kids. After being tested on letters and letter sounds, scores showed preschoolers whose parents received the literacy texts were approximately two to three months ahead of kids in the control group. Because the only difference between the treatment group and the control group in a randomized experiment like this one is the intervention, researchers can be certain the texting is the reason for the difference, not something else going on at home or with the individual child.

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

This isn’t the first research on text reminders. Northwestern researchers studied a somewhat similar six-week program called Parent University, which tracked 260 parents whose children attended the same Head Start program in Chicago. The researchers who studied the program found that after the six weeks, parents who received the texts were significantly more likely to do planned activities, such as reading or playing make-believe, than the parents who didn’t receive texts were.

The parents who received the simple tips spent more time doing literacy-related activities than the parents in the control group did.

Alexiss Evans was one of the parents enrolled in Parent University. She told EdCentral that even if she couldn’t do a suggestion that day, she’d often go back and read texts days or weeks after they were sent. What really appealed to her, though, was how the mix of tips also suggested ways to build parent–child relationships.

“What really stands out to me is how a text said to take the ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ story and have a real conversation with my son about stranger danger,” Evans said.

The simplicity, accessibility, and cost effectiveness of texting are reasons Loeb from the Stanford study has called texting the “medium du jour.” Texts have also been used as inexpensive interventions to help smokers quit and help people manage their diabetes. The READY4K! program costs less than $1 per parent enrolled—a drop in the bucket compared with other home visit literacy initiatives that can cost $10,000 or more per family, the study explained.

Although different approaches have been tried for years to help parents keep up habits that build literacy skills, the accessibility of texting is a significant plus. The results also validate that parents across the income spectrum want to help their kids succeed. The word gap, in other words, is not because of a lack of parents’ caring or apathy. The results show that parents need only a little help learning how to teach their kids to build literacy skills.

We know a child’s early home life makes an enormous difference in academic trajectories. When parents create a literacy-rich environment for their kids, they’re prepping them for not only kindergarten, but a lifetime of learning.

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