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Can Text Messages Home Help Build Vocabulary? Q&A With Temple University Researchers

To enlist parents in their children's education, schools are increasingly sending text messages home. There's evidence to suggest parents appreciate the trend.

But can such an approach actually help young children develop concrete literacy skills, such as building vocabulary?

A new project out of Temple University in Philadelphia, dubbed Text to Talk, is showing promising early results.  

Funded by the William Penn Foundation and tested in 49 pre-K classrooms along with the School District of Philadelphia, Text to Talk relies on carefully crafted messages with tips for parents on talking about the new words their children are learning in school. The messages are send straight to family members' mobile phones using popular services such as Remind and ClassDojo. The idea is to give children the opportunity to learn about and practice specific new words in a variety of settings, with a mix of trusted adults.

Preliminary results from a small randomized-control trial found that children whose families received the messages learned more of the vocabulary words (the findings have yet to be peer reviewed.)

The project isn't the only such effort happening in K-12. A recent working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, looked at the details of an effort in Dallas, where parents of pre-kindergarteners received text messages with tips and facts about supporting their children's learning. And many schools are now using texts as ways to communicate schedules and other logistical information to parents.

But in an interview, the Temple researchers—education professor Barbara A. Wasik and research scientist Emily K. Snell—said Text to Talk stands out because it's directly tied to the literacy materials that children are seeing in their early childhood classrooms.

"I think the most important part is connecting it to the curriculum," Wasik said. "There's much more to crafting these messages than just saying, 'OK, here's 'cat.'"

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.


What's the problem you're trying to solve?

Wasik: Text to Talk came out of a bigger issue we're looking at: vocabulary development in young children. One of the things we think is important is that not only should teachers be emphasizing vocabulary in the classroom, but we should also be making connections with the vocabulary children use at home.  

Why does building vocabulary in young children matter?

Wasik: There's been an enormous amount of research suggesting early vocabulary development is predictive of kids' readiness to read. 

Snell: There are also studies that show that children's language skills predict other facets of learning in the classroom, including math, their ability to understand the social science and science curricula, and even their social-emotional learning and classroom behavior.

And why does the home-school connection matter?

Wasik: Kids don't learn just by hearing words once or twice during the day. It's multiple meaningful exposures to words that helps them develop vocabulary. Our hypothesis is that if there's an opportunity both in school and at home to hear a word and get explanations of what that word means, it will reinforce the learning of that word.

Snell: It's about giving children the chance to practice using words in different settings, with different caring adults. 

Why text messages, rather than email or paper?

Snell: Especially in pre-K, teachers use a lot of paper, and they have a lot of personal communication with parents, usually at pickup or drop-off. But we were interested in seeing whether there was a more efficient way of reaching parents, especially those who maybe aren't coming to school everyday. And texting has been used in other settings, like public health, to reach more folks with more personalized messages. We did focus groups to see if that would be of interest to pre-K teachers, administrators, and parents, and we found that they were quite open to it.

What do the text messages, and the communications they are intended to spur, look like in practice?

Snell: Pre-K teachers in Philadelphia use what's called the Creative Curriculum, and there are particular books they are asked to read to their students. We ask teachers on a weekly basis to send out two texts that are related to one of the books they are reading that week. One text just introduces the word, then provides a link to a website where we have more information, including child-friendly definitions and activities they can do with their child. The other text has additional ideas of activities they can do.

What's the role of apps like Remind and Class Dojo?  

Snell: We found that teachers were already sending text messages, using their own personal phones. But when we designed this study, we didn't want to ask teachers to do that. In the last five years, though, there've been some wonderful free text messaging systems that send messages straight to parents' phones. 

Did Text to Talk help children learn vocabulary?

Snell: In our randomized control trial, we found that children whose parents had received the text messages did learn more of the curriculum-aligned vocabulary words, compared to children whose families didn't receive the text messages. The effect size was about .16, which is considered small to moderate. We were pleased with that, given the fairly small amount of effort it takes for teachers to send out the messages.

Wasik: Other vocabulary intervention programs that have required more effort and resources have gotten less significant effects. Our question was, 'Can we do something that's cost effective, that doesn't require a whole lot of teacher time but can still have an impact?' That's where we think Text to Talk may fit in.    

Is this concept something that an enterprising ed-tech entrepreneur could try to bring to market?

Wasik: I think the most important part is connecting it to the curriculum. There's much more to crafting these messages than just saying, 'OK, here's 'cat.'" Emily spent an inordinate amount of time crafting these texts. 

Snell: We tried to base the texts around what we know around the research in early-childhood language development.  We invited parents to talk to children about what the word is, and we tried to craft texts around principles of how kids learn language. We also looked at the literature around family involvement, and how parents' participation is often shaped by how effective they feel helping their children, and whether they think it's easy and fits into life, and how appealing they find the invitation. So, we really tried to make the texts friendly and encouraging, with definitions that parents can use that would be easy for children to understand.  We always tried to make the texts very encouraging and supportive of parents' own efforts.

There are always implementation challenges with efforts like this. What surprised you?

Wasik: Initially, we were naive enough to think teachers were going to construct the texts themselves. We realized early on that was not going to happen. One of the things that makes this partially appealing to teachers is that it doesn't take a lot of effort on their part. They're busy.

Snell: Another thing that was interesting was that there were many families where multiple family members were getting the texts. That is almost impossible to do with papers coming home in backpack]. Helping everyone be on the same page was really appreciated by families.

Based on what you've learned, what advice would you give to other early childhood providers?

Wasik: Find out what your audience needs, and adapt to that. Don't go in with an idea and try to make it fit your audience.

Snell: Historically, early childhood teachers don't use a lot of technology in the classroom. But I think they were surprised by the usefulness of apps like Remind and how easy they were to learn and use. 


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