READY4K! is an eight-month long text messaging program for parents of four year olds designed to help them support their children’s literacy development. It draws on research on literacy development (e.g., Lonigan & Shanahan, 2009), parenting practices (e.g., Reese, Sparks & Leyva, 2010), and behavior change strategies (e.g., Abraham & Michie, 2008). The program is linked to the California Preschool Learning Foundations and is structured as a spiral curriculum – it starts simple and gets progressively more advanced over time, and topics are re-introduced throughout the year for reinforcement. For example, the first week of the program focuses on parent-child conversations, while the last few weeks concentrate on developing high quality parent-child book reading routines (see Appendix A for a description of the text development process). READY4K! is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
In the present study, parents who were randomly assigned to the treatment group received three READY4K! texts messages each week during the school year about a particular early literacy skill or set of skills (starting in October and ending in May). On Mondays, they received “FACT” texts, designed to generate buy in by highlighting the importance of a particular skill or set of skills. On Wednesdays, they received “TIP” texts, designed to maximize parents’ self-efficacy in supporting their children’s literacy development by minimizing the costs associated with adopting beneficial practices. These texts include short, simple, and highly-specific activities for parents to do with their children. On Fridays, parents received “GROWTH” texts, which provide encouragement and reinforcement and extend the tips from Wednesdays. The following example week of texts focuses on beginning sound awareness:
FACT: Beginning word sounds are essential for reading. You can help your child learn to read by saying the beginning sound of words. “Read” starts w/ “rrr.”
TIP: Say two words to your child that start with the same sound, like happy & healthy. Ask: can you hear the “hhh” sound in happy & healthy?
GROWTH: By saying beginning word sounds, like “ttt” in taco & tomato, you’re preparing your child 4K. Now, have your child make the “ttt” sound.
Overall, READY4K! covers a wide range of early literacy skills and related parenting practices, including: alphabet knowledge, letter sounds, beginning sound awareness, rhyme awareness, nursery rhyme awareness, name writing, concepts of print, story comprehension, vocabulary development, elaborative reminiscing, parent-child conversations, listening to and singing songs, and establishing high-quality parent-child book reading routines.
Throughout the program, text messages emphasized parental involvement at the school. The following text, which we sent during a week about concepts of print, is one example of how we addressed parental involvement:
TIP: Ask the teacher about your child’s knowledge of concepts of print. Concepts of print include knowing how book are organized & that words have meaning.
We also included messages about SFUSD’s Raising A Reader (RAR) program, which regularly sends books home to children in both the treatment and control group. In particular, we coupled reading activity texts with texts about RAR. We worried that families without their children’s books would not uptake suggested reading activities. Highlighting the district’s book program was one way to address this concern:
TIP: Use the RAR red book bag to build your routine. Let your child hold the book. Ask what it is about. Follow the words with your finger as your read.
To the extent possible, READY4K! texts build on activities that parents already do with their children. By adding to pre-existing family routines, the program’s messages further reduce the costs of adopting good home literacy practices – parents do not have to take up a new activity they just have to make the most of something that they already do with their children. For example, the following “spiral” week of texts – which covers a wide range of early literacy skills including answering open-ended questions, concepts of print, letter identification, letters sounds, and vocabulary building – focuses on making the most of bath time:
FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking your child: what are the things we need for bath time? Why?
TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on the shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them & tell you the sounds that they make.
GROWTH: By teaching at bath time, you’re preparing your child for K. Next time, ask questions about body parts. Where are your elbows? What do they do?
While parents in the treatment group received multiple READY4K! texts per week, parents in the control group received one placebo text about every two weeks during the 2013-14 school year. These messages generally pertained to the district’s kindergarten enrollment requirements or required vaccinations. Here are two examples:
READY4K: Students new to SFUSD are required to have a TB Skin Test. Children entering K need: 5 DTaP, 4 Polio, 3 Hepatitis B, 2 MMR and 1 Varicella vaccines.
READY4K: Immunization forms are available at any San Francisco Health Center & SFUSD’s Educational Placement Center at 555 Franklin St., Room 100.