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UW Literacy Research Center Brings Text Messaging Program to Wyoming

June 23, 2016
small children in blue caps and gowns hugging with ballons overhead
Jayden Diarte, Lionel Martinez Tzompa and Gael Lopez, three participants in Teton County’s Children’s Learning Center, celebrate graduation from their Head Start program in Jackson in June. Their families took part in a texting program involving UW’s Literacy Research Center and Clinic. (Leticia Liera Photo)

This past spring, parents of nearly two dozen 4-year-olds in Head Start and preschool classes in Teton and Sublette counties took part in an early literacy text messaging pilot program via a partnership among the University of Wyoming Literacy Research Center and Clinic, CEPA Labs at Stanford University and the Children’s Learning Center.

This fall, the program is poised to go statewide as part of many preschool, Head Start and library offerings.

The program provides parents with three text messages a week. The texts offer ways for parents to engage in early literacy activities as part of their daily routines -- for example, asking their children to name letters and letter sounds on a shampoo bottle during bath time.

Benjamin York, a graduate student at Stanford University, and Susanna Loeb, a professor at Stanford, developed the texting program. After the original eight-month Stanford study, it was shown to increase parental engagement in home literacy activities and encourage parents to ask teachers questions. Most importantly, the children who participated scored higher on a literacy assessment.

Jorge Moreno, the father of a 4-year-old Head Start student at the Children’s Learning Center in Teton County, was one of the parents who tried the program with his son, Jayden.

“He was finding out the letter sounds, and it was a review of what he was studying in school,” Moreno says. “On top of that, it was encouraging us to start practicing reading with our kids.”

“We know, from evidence, that student achievement is highly correlated with strong family partnerships with learning,” says Dana Robertson, executive director of UW’s Literacy Research Center and Clinic (LRCC). “The parents or caregivers are the first teacher of the child. The kinds of opportunities that are provided in the home correlate right with the types of achievements we see in school.”

“Sometimes, parents are just trying to survive, and there’s not a lot of spare time in their day,” says Victoria Gillis, a Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Literacy Education at UW. “These text messages give information about how you can use bath time, or setting the table, or sorting laundry or a trip to the store as a chance to embed literacy activities.”

Isabel Zumel, assistant director of the Teton County Library, and Leticia Liera, director of Head Start for the Children’s Learning Center, read about Stanford’s program, which is multilingual, and called upon the LRCC to implement it in Wyoming. The program was made possible with funding from the John P. Ellbogen Foundation, the Donne and Sue Fisher Fund for the Advancement of Literacy, and another local family foundation.

The three-month initial implementation wrapped up this past spring, and the early results are resoundingly positive.

“The parents were very excited to be working with UW because we are far away,” Liera says. “It gave them the message that the development of their children was important enough for the state that the university also was involved. It was a win-win situation for everyone.”

Zumel says the texts were easy for parents to understand and apply: “It opened them up to be hungry for information about early literacy, because they could directly see the benefit with their children as they were doing the activities. It even encouraged some of these families to start doing their own research on literacy skills.”

The program is cost-effective, and Liera and Zumel hope all the Head Start programs and public libraries in the state, as well as many preschools, will adopt it in the coming school year. Enrollment will begin in August, with the first texts going out in September.

The texting program is only one of many outreach programs spearheaded by the LRCC, which opened in spring 2014.

“The center has maintained its vision for statewide engagement -- engaging in research, clinical services, teacher education and professional development,” Robertson says.

The center provides K-12 literacy tutoring on site at the Laramie campus; conducts important literacy research studies with UW doctoral students; offers grants for new and interdisciplinary research; provides hands-on learning for pre-service teachers; and offers an annual literacy conference. It also provides professional development opportunities to districts across the state, and Robertson spearheaded a needs assessment for the early grades in collaboration with the Wyoming Department of Education in order to focus on clearly delineated needs of grades K-3 in Wyoming schools.

In the future, Robertson says the center plans to open satellite clinics in each region of the state where education undergraduate and literacy graduate students will receive practicum experiences and offer tutoring services. The center also plans to offer online video training modules in literacy education.

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