Damon Richardson, a born-and-raised Dallas resident in his mid-20s, tried attending Eastfield College in 2013. But he faced a hurdle so big that he eventually had to leave: He could barely read.

The college recommended he try Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), a non-profit organisation that teaches thousands of adults. At the time, Richardson used his smartphone to find where in Dallas that LIFT was located – and which bus would take him there – so he could go get help improving his reading.

More recently, though, Richardson found a more direct way to get literacy instruction from smartphones – one introduced by a team of experts from Southern Methodist University (SMU) and LIFT. He downloaded their free learning app.

Codex: Lost Words Of Atlantis is an Indiana Jones-style game for Android devices that tasks the player with finding hidden artifacts around the world and deciphering the letters and sounds contained within.

The game’s team – led by SMU professors Corey Clark, Tony Cuevas and Diane Gifford – tied with one other team as the Grand Prize winner of the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition earlier this year. Each team was awarded US$1.5mil (RM6.2mil).

For each app in the competition, XPRIZE tested a group of low-literate, or functionally illiterate, adults at the start and end of a one-year period of that group using the app.

The winning app was the one that led to the largest average gains in literacy. The SMU-LIFT team scored a bonus of US$1mil (RM4.1mil) for also offering the app proven most effective at teaching English-language learners.

SMU plans to invest some of the prize money into further technology research for literacy education.“It was actual data that they collected over 12 months,” says Dr Cuevas, an education technology professor who was part of the SMU-LIFT team.

“We know that our app was successful in order to win. So that’s really what excited me the most about it.”

The app aims to help teach the least literate of the 36 million adults in the United States who read below a fourth grade level. Almost half of very low-literate adults in the US live in poverty.

“We have this very large problem in this country that people don’t talk about,” says Dr Gifford, a literacy education professor who developed Codex’s curriculum.

The extent of low literacy in adults has been constant since at least the 1990s. “The problem isn’t going away,” says Michele Diecuch, director of programmes at ProLiteracy, an international non-profit organisation that works to teach adults to read and write.

Smartphone apps like Codex are rather new to adult literacy education. Experts hope the innovation can improve the decades-long flatlining of illiteracy trends.

A quarter of adults in Texas are in need of basic adult education, as outlined in a 2018 report by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC). Almost 540,000 of them live in Dallas County.

“Low basic education and especially reading and English skills relegate many Texans to entry-level jobs,” says Cisco Gamez, TWC’s media and public relations specialist. “These jobs are often temporary, with limited or no promotional or wage-lift opportunities. They are also often the first to be cut in an economic downturn.”

According to the TWC report, one factor for Dallas’s low-literacy level is its large immigrant population, where many are not yet fluent in English. The majority of these adults, though, were born in the United States. Many of them lack a high school degree or have no high school education at all.

But some merely passed through the school system without ever building the proper reading skills, says Dr Linda Johnson, president and CEO of LIFT. In some cases, students “literally graduated from high school without learning to read” says Johnson.

Upon entering adulthood, they face life challenges that could clash with the rigid schedules of classrooms located in a potentially inconvenient spot.

“I might be motivated and really want to learn to read,” says Gifford. “But if I have childcare, job problems, transportation problems, just life issues, where do I start? It’s overwhelming. It’s totally overwhelming.”

Codex has the advantage over a classroom setting in that people can use it to boost their reading skills anywhere, and in 5- to 10-minute increments.

Another major benefit of Codex is its privacy. Social stigmas can shame many adults into hiding their low literacy. As a result, they eschew classrooms like LIFT where they must reveal their reading deficiency to an entire group. “I kept it private for so many years,” says Richardson, the LIFT student.

Atlantis

Damon Richardson uses the learning app “Codex: The Lost Words Of Atlantis” which was designed by researchers at SMU, at Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) in Dallas. Photo: TNS

While Richardson says he had never been slighted by teachers or mentors, his peers were a different story. From elementary school to high school, other students called him “slow, retarded” among other insults. “I had a lot of words said towards me, but I always found a way to keep my head up and fight with the pain,” he says.

Gifford emphasised that a major goal of developing the Codex app was to help “take away the shame”.

But users of learning apps often have low digital literacy, as well, undercutting the app’s aspiration to provide simple download-and-play instruction. Some students will need help at first from an instructor to get comfortable using the app, says Diecuch of ProLiteracy.

“This is a new experiment, frankly,” she explains. “It’s something that I think we’ll look back after 10 years and see if it really made a difference in the trajectory of learners.” – Tribune News Service/The Dallas Morning News/Jordan Wilkerson