Could Text Messages to Parents Help Close the “Word Gap”?

It works with diabetes patients, smokers trying to quit, and others: a text message reminding you to take your medication or resist the urge to light up. There’s even a Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University devoted to the idea. So what if we could put that same idea to work boosting literacy in very young children in low-income families?

That’s the premise of Parent University, a six-week program originally designed by Chris Drew, now Director of Educator Initiatives at Digital Promise. The program gives parents a digital tap on the shoulder via text messages reminding them to interact with their kids to boost literacy—and close that ever-widening word gap. And it’s working, according to a recent, not-yet-published study that compared parents who received the program to those who didn’t.

Ample research shows that low-income kids enter school already behind their more affluent peers. As the now famous “word gap” study by Hart and Risley in the mid-1990s showed, by the age of 3, children born into low-income families have heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. And new research shows this gap begins to appear as young as 18 months. We also know that the home environment is a crucial factor in early childhood development. Even when kids are in early learning settings like Head Start, it is the parent’s boost that helps make the learning stick.

Parent University aims to help parents create that rich literacy environment. The program, which is being studied by researchers at Northwestern University, is designed to help families promote literacy at home with ideas and prompts. For example, a text to a parent of a 6-month-old suggested that, while folding laundry, to “name the articles of clothing that you are folding and the color of the clothes. Including a couple of games of peek-a-boo will add to the fun.” Another text suggested a game to play with a 3-year-old: “Make ur own letter puzzle. Write the alphabet on paper. Cut out each letters & scramble on a table. Have ur child put letters back in ABC order.” The texts also might remind parents that they’ve earned a break. “Treat yourself to a guilty pleasure . . . you’ve earned it.” Parents really appreciated that last one, according to our interviews with parents in Chicago as well as Northwestern University researchers.

[Part 2 of this blog post, coming soon, will focus on parents’ reactions to the program.]

The Northwestern study shows that Parent University holds promise for closing the word gap and building early literacy. The researchers recruited 260 parents whose children attended the same Head Start program in the Chicago metro area. Two programs were in the city and one in the suburbs. One group of 120 parents received the text, and 135 parents were used as a comparison group. All the parents completed surveys about their experiences.

After six weeks, those who had received text messages reported being significantly more likely to take part in planned activities such as reading to children, doing arts and crafts, playing make-believe, and telling stories. The survey asked the parents if they did any of a list of activities during the prior six weeks.

For parents of boys, the messages appeared to be particularly effective. Parents of boys did more planned activities, dress-up play, and storytelling than did parents of boys in the comparison group. One dad we talked with, for example, loved getting down on the floor with his 5-year-old to make letter shapes with their bodies. Previous research has found that the parent-child interaction quality tends to be stronger between parents and their daughters, so this finding that boys are engaged is encouraging.

So why does it work? Although the researchers didn’t explore the “why” in their evaluation, there are some hints from discussions with parents.

First—parents like the program. They like the reminders and they also like the encouragement they get from the texts, according to Anthony Raden and Ann Hanson at Ounce of Prevention in Chicago, which was instrumental in introducing and testing the program in Chicago’s Head Start centers. Reading a text is also quick and easy, and parents can save the message for later when they have more time.

Also, the program also makes an effort to promote more than skills and drills. It helps parents create the rich language environment—singing, talking, sharing—that is central to literacy. The texts are designed to help reinforce the parent-child relationship as a foundation for learning and help parents better understand child development.

Drew believes the program empowers parents to be their child’s best teacher. “Parent University and the texts are built on the philosophy that small acts performed well, repeatedly, and over time are the foundation for excellence,” he said. “Place these small acts together and it makes a big difference. It’s totally doable. Parents just sometimes need a reminder.”


Seeding ReadingSeeding Reading is a series of articles and analysis by New America’s Ed Policy Program and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Read our introduction to this series, and see more in Learning Tech on and on the Cooney Center blog.


Barbara E. Ray is a writer and editor living in Chicago. As owner of Hiredpen, Inc., she helps researchers and nonprofit organizations convey their work to broader audiences. She was the communications director for the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, and has held positions as senior writer at the DHHS-funded Joint Center for Poverty Research, and as a managing editor at the University of Chicago Press journals division.

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