February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Brooklyn Public Library’s Texting Initiative for Early Literacy

1507_EL-TextingIn late March, we and our colleagues at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) were at our desks when our cellphones all beeped simultaneously with the same text message: “Find a time to read with your child every day, at a time that works for your family,” it began. This was the first message in a new early-learning texting initiative we had started. We were up and running!

The texting program was for parents enrolled in BPL’s popular Ready, Set, Kindergarten! (RSK) program. We got the idea for the initative, called RSK on the Go!, after several people forwarded us the New York Times article (http://ow.ly/O1PaF) reporting on a Stanford University study about preschoolers whose parents received early-literacy tips in the form of text messages. The researchers found that these children did better on literacy tests than children whose parents didn’t receive early literacy tips via text. The texts were reaching parents when they were likely to be with their kids and able to act on the suggestions.

The statistics around texting show why the Stanford initiative worked. At least 82 percent of Americans own cellphones, and nearly two-thirds of cellphone owners text, according to a Pew Research study. Other studies found that text messaging is most common among younger, non-white populations. And 98 percent of text messages are opened, surpassing the rate for email and social media updates.

Creating a texting component for RSK was the next logical step for us. A main goal of this program is to increase parent engagement in early literacy activities at home, and we are always exploring new ways to share tips with parents.

A no-cost endeavor

We had assumed, however, that we wouldn’t be able to pursue a texting component for a while, due to budget and time constraints. One conversation changed that. When we mentioned the Times article in a staff meeting, our marketing director chimed in: “You know, BPL’s SMS [short message service] system, the one we use for texting patrons about holds and overdue fines, is actually underutilized. It wouldn’t cost anything to try it now.”

She was right. We were only using a fraction of the number of texts we were allotted by our SMS vendor. While there were a few limitations (character limits, one-way texts only, and a slightly fussy opt-out process), our SMS setup was promising for a pilot.

After a couple of meetings and a flurry of emails with our tech staff, we hammered out a process for signing up new families. Unfortunately, the more common method of opting in via keyword was not possible with our existing setup, but we were able to create both paper and online forms for parents to sign up for the texts.

Now we had to figure out what to say. It was a challenge to get parent tips down to 160 characters. We had developed tip sheets for RSK based on the five Every Child Ready to Read practices—talking, singing, writing, playing, and reading—and tips for engaging children in early math and science activities, which we used as our jumping-off point to craft short messages.

Best ways to text

In three months, we signed up 282 people, only 18 shy of the pilot’s goal of 300. And we learned a few things. First, it’s best to tie a texting campaign to an existing program. For us, this ensures the tips are age-appropriate and relevant. Also, parents like to know what they are getting into. We tabled at a parent expo event and encouraged parents, unfamiliar to the program, to register. Few did. The texts were a much easier sell at our RSK programs. Parents already had a relationship with the RSK program facilitators, so they trusted the content of the messages, too.

We also had to think about the cadence and timing of messages. Sending texts once a week, at a time when parents may either be nearing the end of their work day or picking up kids from school, made sense. They could put the ideas into practice that evening or over the weekend.

1507_EL-Texting-phoneWhile we haven’t been able to get much feedback via this one-way system, early anecdotes are promising. In conversations with staff, parents said that they like it when the tips incorporate a specific activity and give an example of a concrete skill that activity will build. For example: “Make up your own songs to tunes you already know. Sing about what you are doing that day. This helps children connect words to actions.”

Also, tips that fit into everyday routines are preferable. Parents responded well to activities they could do anywhere—on the bus, the walk to school, or the doctor’s office. For instance: “Play with math. Go on a shape hunt and use geometric terms to describe what you find.” Finally, they liked to save all the messages in their phone and use them as an activity resource when they are out with their kids.

If you can’t piggyback on your library’s existing SMS setup or you don’t have one, consider using a free or low-cost service. While the free options limit how many people can opt in (usually about 250–500), it can work perfectly for a pilot or small program. While Twitter is a great platform in many situations, it may not be the best fit to enable a broad reach. It’s also too fussy for parents who aren’t familiar with social media.

Make sure the library is on the radar of any existing texting campaigns in your community. New York City started an information campaign that included a texting component called “Talk to Your Baby.” The three library systems in the city (New York, Brooklyn, and Queens public libraries) made sure that library-focused texts were in the mix.

Some local health and education departments use texting to encourage healthy infant development or registration for pre-K. Schools in your neighborhood may send out text messages about events and closings. See if the managers of these programs can help you promote relevant library events and services or early literacy tips on their SMS.

RSK on the Go! was the rare pilot program that showed effectiveness in a few short months without costing anything except staff time. As you look for ways to encourage parents to read, sing, talk, play, and write with their young children, consider adding texting to your bag of tricks.

Jessica Ralli is coordinator of early literacy programs at BPL and manages RSK. Rachel Payne is BPL’s coordinator of early childhood services.

OPT-IN! Early Learning Texting Programs

RSK on the Go! BPL’s early literacy/school readiness texting service that supports Ready, Set, Kindergarten! programs.

Talking Is Teaching Talk, Read, Sing; Too Small to Fail; Talking Is Teaching; and Sesame Street have partnered with Text4Baby to launch the first national text-to-parents program supporting early literacy. Check out the website or text BABY to 511411.

Talk to Your Baby This collaboration between the New York City Children’s Cabinet, a multi-agency organization established by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the national organization Too Small to Fail utilizes text messaging to urge parents to talk, read, and sing to their babies from birth. Visit the website or text TALK to 877877.

NYC Department of Education’s Pre-K On the Go Parents can receive text messages about fun educational activities to do with pre-K children outside of school. See the website or text PREK to 877877.

Watch Jessica and Rachel’s presentation, Brooklyn Public Library’s Texting Initiative for Early Literacy at the Digital Shift Virtual Conference on October 19, 2016 to learn how to connect rich program content to what happens at home to empower parents to be their children’s first teachers.

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This article was published in School Library Journal's July 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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