Children from low-income families typically have fewer opportunities to develop language skills than middle-class children, which creates learning gaps evident on the first day of kindergarten.
Research shows that parents can close that gap if they read regularly to their children and take advantage of everyday activities like grocery shopping and doing laundry to build literacy skills.
But educators have long struggled with how to get that message heard widely, without spending too much money.
Stanford researchers recently tested one promising solution — text-messaging — that provides parents with bite-size tips that they can use immediately with their kids.
Benjamin York, a doctoral student at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, created the texting program with Stanford education professor Susanna Loeb, and tried it out last year with the parents of 4-year-olds in 440 mostly low-income families at 31 preschools in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Their study, published in November by the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed that parents randomly selected to receive the text messages did more at home with their children to promote literacy than a control group.
More importantly, kids in the program, called READY4K!, performed better on some early literacy tests.
Parents in the control group also received texts, but only one about every two weeks, and the messages contained only basic school information such as how to register for kindergarten or report required vaccinations.
The authors say it costs less than $1 per family to send the texts (compared with some intensive educational programs that can cost up to $10,000 per family) and cite evidence showing that most adults now have cell phones and are more likely to open a text message than an email.
Parents who received the literacy texts, sent three times a week, were more likely to tell stories, recite nursery rhymes, play games, work on a puzzles and point out to their kids words that begin with the same sound.
Each week, the first text states a fact about child development and literacy. The second suggests a specific tip based on that fact. The third “growth” text reinforces and extends the idea.
For example, here’s an excerpt from the study suggesting how to make the most the most out of bath time:
FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking your child: what are the things we need for bath time? Why?
TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on the shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them & tell you the sounds that they make.
GROWTH: By teaching at bath time, you’re preparing your child for K. Next time, ask questions about body parts. Where are your elbows? What do they do?