Text-message nudges have been a viable tool in early-childhood literacy in recent years, with parents or guardians receiving occasional missives to encourage specific literacy activities with their children. These cost little to send, and the kids do significantly better on assessments. Such nudges have gained traction as a way to increase engagement, especially among poorer families, and the idea has expanded to include other behaviors, like school attendance.
More recently, educators have been exploring how to maximize the effectiveness of these programs. A recent paper in Education Finance and Policy found that the frequency and content of the texts can affect literacy test scores.
Researchers conducted a randomized experiment with the parents of almost 3,000 four-year-old children enrolled in the Dallas Independent School District pre-K program, which primarily serves non-English speakers and children who qualify for free or reduced price lunch. More specifically, the researchers compared three variations of an early literacy texting program using literacy tests, parent surveys, and parent opt-out rates to evaluate the effectiveness of each program.
Parents in the first group received a text message every Wednesday that suggested specific literacy activities to do with their children. The second group received two additional text messages per week, which included more general information and encouragement. The third group received five texts per week, one for each school day. Parents in all three groups received texts for eight months.
The messages, which were delivered in English or Spanish, covered a wide range of literacy topics, including letter recognition, letter sound awareness, beginning sound awareness, rhymes, name writing, story comprehension, vocabulary development, and parent-child book reading routines. The complexity of the texts increased during the eight months, with topics occasionally reintroduced for reinforcement. In general, the suggested activities were designed to integrate easily with existing family activities, such as commuting or sharing meals together.
On average, the researchers found that kids in the second group—those whose parents received three texts per week—had the greatest increase in their literacy test scores. The difference was especially pronounced for students who scored in the bottom quarter on a pretest. According to the researchers, this suggests that too few texts might not do enough to sufficiently engage parents, but that too many texts could overwhelm them. And indeed, more parents dropped out of the program when the number of texts per week rose. The nature of the messages may also have mattered, as the three-text-per-week version of the program featured an equal balance between actionable tips, general information, and encouragement, whereas the other versions placed greater emphasis on actionable tips.
As the authors note, text-message nudges have been gaining traction for some time, and the research on them might also have broader implications for school-to-family engagement. Either way, nudges are more than a fad. They are well on their way to becoming a science.
SOURCE: Kalena E. Cortes, et al., “Too Little or Too Much? Actionable Advice in an Early-Childhood Text Messaging Experiment,” Education Finance and Policy (April 2021).