The children of wealthy parents hear millions more words in their first years of life than the children of low-income ones. That creates a vocabulary gap that never really closes: poor children lag behind in literacy from their first day of school.

Researchers are looking at a low-cost way to help: sending three text messages a week to parents of pre-K students, at a cost of about $1 per family. And they have some early evidence that this program, which suggests easy ways to help kids pick up literacy skills, can work.

Two researchers at Stanford University, Benjamin York and Susannah Loeb, recruited parents of pre-K students in San Francisco for the text message study. Parents who agreed to participate in the program received three text messages a week with specific suggestions about what they could do to help their children learn to read and succeed at school:

Text message samples

A control group received weekly text messages about kindergarten registration, required vaccinations, and other issues.

Parents who received the texts were more likely than parents in the control group to tell stories, point out words that begin with the same sound, look at pictures in a book, or play games and work puzzles with their children, the researchers found, according to research published this week in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. They also were more likely to ask questions of teachers about what their children were learning in pre-K and what they could do at home to supplement it.

The texts were more effective at getting parents to do specific activities, like point out letter sounds, than general ones, like read to their kids. That suggests that parents were receptive to specific guidance that breaks down a seemingly overwhelming task.

The results showed up for children, too: children of parents who received the text messages scored higher at the end of the year on a test of letters and letter sounds than did children of parents in the control group.

The researchers say these results are promising in part because the program was so inexpensive and can be easily scaled up. Sending the text messages cost less than $1 per family for an entire year, and the texts (which were also available in Spanish and Chinese) aren't location-specific, so they could easily help families in other places.

The study is the latest to prove the power of nagging text messages, which have previously been found to help people lose weightwalk moresave moneystop smoking, and remember their medication. It turns out that regular reminders about what you're supposed to be doing could actually help you stick to it.

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