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North Texas Team Develops Smartphone Game To Help Adults Learn To Read And Write

Bill Zeeble
Southern Methodist University professor Corey Clark says by making the app his team created a game, it helps reduce the stigma of illiteracy.

A group of North Texas researchers has made the cut in an international competition to develop an easy-to-use smartphone app to improve adult literacy.

The team from Southern Methodist University and Literacy Instruction for Texas is one of five finalists announced Friday morning that remain in the running for the $3 million Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

More than 36 million U.S. adults lack basic English literacy. And local officials fear one-third of Dallas adults could be illiterate within a decade if nothing changes. So the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy launched this adult literacy app contest.

“To win the competition, you have to have at least met a baseline of producing the equivalent of one year’s worth of classroom study through the use of your app,” said Shlomy Kattan, executive director of the Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

Kattan says eight semifinalists, including teams from India and China, came up with smartphone apps. Since last summer, those eight apps have been field-tested by thousands of users in Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

And the results are promising, Kattan says.

“Overall, learners using these apps are outperforming learners not using apps or enrolled in school,” he said. “So we’re definitely seeing a boost amongst that subsample that we tested, and it is statistically significant.”

The collaborative team from SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas, or LIFT, calls itself People ForWords. It created the game, “Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis.” It’s set in ancient Egypt.

A screenshot of "Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis," the app developed by a team of North Texas researchers to improve adult literacy.

SMU professor Corey Clark, a research director with the team, says the object of the game is to translate a language that nobody knows anymore — the Atlantian language. If you succeed in the game, you get a golden crystal.

Clark says by making this a game, it helps reduce the stigma of illiteracy.

“When we did our pilots, we saw an increase in literacy level that was required for the XPRIZE,” he said. “The majority of people that took the pilot did increase one full level, so we feel great. We think we have a great shot.”

Clark’s also excited about his the team’s shot at a separate element of this contest, called the Communities Deployment Prize. It’s another million dollars that will be distributed across the country to adult literacy organizations that manage to sign up the most clients using one of the qualifying apps.

Clark says of Dallas’ 350,000 low-literate adults, local literacy groups serve only 5,000 of them. An app like his could potentially reach a lot more.

“There’s such this huge gap of people that need to be reached, and the problem is you can’t reach them,” Clark said. “They’re not going to read signs and come to you. And there’s a stigma around it, so we’re hoping something like this can penetrate that market to get people just up a level — just to know that other people are out there.”

Adult Literacy XPRIZE field tests continue in Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Winners will be announced next year.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.