How could a text message transform literacy?

Just over five million adults in England are functionally illiterate, with the literacy skills equivalent to an eleven year old. Not only that, around half of the adults in prison are illiterate too. Such statistics can quickly stack up to portray a grim social picture. For teachers, well – the challenges that attend this problem can all too easily feel insurmountable. And yet, we can do our level best to make a start.

That start may seem inconsequential, but it can matter. Sometimes big social problems can begin to be solved by lots of small solutions. What if a few text messages could make a significant difference to help prevent illiteracy?

Recent research is revealing how small nudges with text messaging can make a significant impact on education and literacy in England, and in other countries, like the US. I have written before about how  we can better support parental engagement (see my TES article entitled ‘A teacher’s hunt for evidence on…getting students’ parents involved in school‘) and global evidence is showing how the humble text message may punch above our expectations in helping schools do this.

Recent US evidence, from Stanford University – ‘Supporting parenting through differentiated and personalised text-messaging: Testing effects on learning during kindergarten‘ – has shown how timely and personalised text messages can help improve parents’ engagement with the literacy development of their children, as well as helping improve standards in reading.

In the US, the summer learning loss is a well-known issue – particularly for disadvantaged students. New research  has once more shown how texting parents during the summer holiday can help mitigate the issue and improve reading. Back in England, the ‘Texting Parents‘ EEF project made a big news splash when it showed a positive impact on student attendance and related literacy and mathematics outcomes.

What is clearly developing is a strong case for text messaging as a means of communicating with parents about literacy, attendance, and a catalogue of other purposes. The idea that you can ‘nudge’ behaviours with small changes in the environment is nothing new, but we are beginning to learn more about the ‘what, when and how‘ of text messaging home.

The EEF project offered some interesting insights, with many teachers and leaders in the project recommending the additional “presence of a dedicated coordinator would be valuable to monitor the accuracy and frequency of text“. Of course, the ‘personalised’ nature of text messaging is paramount. Pitching the complexity of the language of the text message takes care and skill, with a diverse range of parents requiring clarity and timeliness.

Many schools have the facility for messaging parents now synchronised in school as an integral part of their information systems. We can now begin to fairly ask, how effective is our implementation of such communications?

Lots of questions abound for schools either looking to improve their approach, begin with a text messaging system, or simply looking to evaluate impact:

  • Are these approaches sustained over time, or is the novelty factor significant?
  • How many ‘support factors’ are required to make the text messages effective and timely? E.g. a dedicated member of staff etc.
  • How can we best evaluate whether text messages are having an impact? Are there reliable measures? 
  • Are there any unintended consequences of ‘nudging’ parents in this way? 

Quite clearly, helping children learn to read, become literate and thrive in school, is determined by a multitude of factors, both in school, in the home environment and much more. Still, it would appear that sending a humble text message can help and we schools should consider how to implement this well.


Related reading:

The Education Endowment Foundation this week released an excellent new guidance report entitled: ‘Putting Evidence to Work: A School’s Guide to Implementation’. I strongly recommend that teachers and school leader take a look and see how this resource can help with implementation strategies like text messaging parents.

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  1. Pingback: What Teachers Tapped This Week #22 - 26th February 2018 - Teacher Tapp

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