Tips by text: Can nudges make kids better readers?

A new UK program will target parents by SMS

“Counting is one of the first maths skills that children learn. As you put the dishes away, count the plates 1-by-1 with your child. Try again with the spoons”.

This is an example of a text message delivered by the Tips by Text project, which will target British parents of four and five-year-olds with three texts per week to improve literacy, arithmetic, and social-emotional skills at home.

The project — inspired by similar efforts in the US — aims to be a scalable, cheap way to boost kids’ learning. But how will it work, and what’s the behavioural science behind it?

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Long-range learning

A collaboration between the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and the Education Endowment Fund (EEF), Tips by Text is designed to be a 9-month curriculum conducted via SMS message based on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), an assessment of individual children’s learning and development at the end of the first year of school.

It will first be trialled in the North East of England, with more than 2,700 pupils from 105 schools estimated to take part.

BIT’s Fionnuala O’Reilly, an advisor on the project, will oversee a development phase that will run until July – when they hope to have a finalised set of text messages – before launching a randomised controlled trial by September. The project began recruiting in February, and 75 schools have already shown interest.

Tips by Text is inspired by Ready4K, an 8-month program developed and tested in California, where 1,031 parents received three texts per week to improve cognitive results of their four-year-olds.

Subsequent research found that there was a positive impact on kids’ literacy ability. Preschoolers whose parents received the text messages were shown to be 63% more likely to read at a higher level on a standardised reading assessment than those whose parents did not receive the text messages.

Susanna Loeb of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, a former academic advisor with Ready4K, Is helping BIT to adapt the texting program into a UK context.

“The main barrier to successful implementation in the UK is to ensure that the text messages are relevant to parents in the North East of England,” said Loeb.

“BIT and I are working together to implement an extensive piloting phase with parents and teachers to ensure the messages are suitable for the target population,” she said.

Building upon Ready4K’s method, the texts will focus on quick and simple tasks: the first looks to instruct and motivate, the second offers a specific activity, and the third concludes with reinforcement and follow-up.

“The messages have to be short,” Loeb said, “So they are quick to read and parents can read them on the go. We’ve also made the text give tips that are easy to put into practice and usually fun.” The purpose is simple: make parenting easier, not harder.

Reaching scale

For Leob, the combination of practicality and scalability make SMS-based interventions in education a cost-effective method for stimulating positive behavioural change.

O’Reilly stresses the importance of behavioural science to the project.

“While policymakers typically focus on ‘structural’ factors, such as class sizes or budgets,” she said, “Behavioural scientists look at the details of what teachers, parents and peers say and do” which, she goes on to observe, ultimately reveals “powerful insights that can be implemented relatively quickly.”

BIT has worked on a range of innovative solutions in the past that have led to positive learning gains.

In running the “Study Supporter” program, which tested the efficacy of sending texts to improve outcomes in Further Education students, BIT found that the pass rate for English and Maths resits increased by 27% in the group that received the texts.

O’Reilly also cited other nudge schemes from prompts that encouraged action using letters and text messages, to simplification of teacher application forms, and exercises that reduced student anxiety.

Ultimately, texting-interventions like Tips by Text indicate a significant development in the public policy arena. The infusion of behavioural insights in education holds considerable potential, particularly in levelling the decision-making playing field for economically disadvantaged students and their families across all stages of schooling. — Amar Diwakar

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