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The SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) team, PeopleForWords, is one of eight semifinalists advancing in the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The XPRIZE is a global competition that challenges teams to develop mobile applications designed to increase literacy skills in adult learners.

SMU's Simmons School of Education and Human Development and Guildhall graduate video game development program are working with LIFT to design an engaging, puzzle-solving smartphone game app to help adults develop literacy skills. PeopleForWords, is one of 109 teams who entered the competition in 2016.


The driving force behind the formation of PeopleForWords was Lisa Hembry, CEO of Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT). Hembry first learned about the Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition after receiving calls from two friends of LIFT who heard about the contest on NPR. 

Hembry knew she needed partners with expertise in game development, curriculum design, research, and the ability to pull it all together into a fun way for low-literate adults to learn how to read.  After approaching several technology firms with the idea and being declined, Hembry called David Chard, the former dean of SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development and a member of LIFT’s Community Advisory Council. 

“We visited about the XPRIZE for a couple of hours then David said ‘This is something we have to do,’” recalled Hembry. “Here we are, two years later, one of eight semi-finalists in the global Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition, with a viable phonics-based app in a gamified solution that helps low-literate people learn to read the English language while having fun.”

Chard brought the evidence-based literacy curriculum development and research of the Simmons School together with the creative and technical skills of SMU Guildhall, the No. 1 rated graduate gaming program in the world.  With Chard and SMU fully onboard, the fledgling group met with design firm Range USA and the PeopleForWords team came to life. More than 20 LIFT adult students participated in two days of focus groups at the beginning of the development process. They provided input on what would be appealing to them using a mobile app to learn how to read.  Later in the process, LIFT students tested various iterations of the app and provided feedback on how to improve it.   

The announcement of PeopleForWords as one of eight Adult Literacy XPRIZE semi-finalists validates the successful collaboration between LIFT, SMU and other members of the Dallas community, including the Communities Foundation of Texas who participated as an early investor, to work together to address low-literacy and poverty. 

“Dallas is a city of big ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. I feel confident that one of the solutions to the problem of low-literacy and poverty in America, which is a serious problem, will come from Dallas,” said Hembry. “Our adult learners face numerous challenges learning to read, including time, money and transportation. 'Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis' is a tool that adult literacy providers can use with students who don’t have the time, money or transportation to regularly attend literacy classes.”


When LIFT approached Simmons in 2015 to see if the school could join the organization to compete in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE and tackle the issue of adult low literacy, Simmons readily agreed, and also recruited Guildhall to develop the mobile applications for smartphones and tablets. The partnership between LIFT, Simmons and Guildhall became a team, PeopleForWords.

Since the school conducts significant research in K-12 literacy, the opportunity to delve into the new area of adult literacy would allow for faculty members to make inroads into the pressing community issue of adult low literacy, and help develop some new learning tools.

Two Simmons professors, Diane Gifford and Tony Cuevas provide faculty expertise in literacy and instructional design, and work with Guildhall professor Corey Clark who oversees the game development team. He proposed the idea of creating Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis, which allows players to search for word clues as they travel the world to decode artifacts. Gifford and Cuevas ensure that the curriculum and data within the game can lead to reading improvement.

"The development and practice of evidence-based strategies in education is important to Simmons, as is the use of technology to innovate," says Paige Ware, Simmons interim dean.

This notion is at play in Harold C. Simmons Hall, which is equipped with three teacher development laboratories to train SMU students to become effective teachers. These labs include simulation of pre-K–12 classroom environments with computer avatars standing in for students; the use of software, which enables the creation of assessments and student performance evaluations; and technology like 3-D printers, 70-inch touch screens and large format printers for developing unit and lesson plans and technology applications to support student learning.

"At Simmons we understand that interdisciplinary teaching and research requires complex interactions to solve problems. Working with LIFT and Guildhall in the Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition highlights how communities and academia can collaborate to improve the public sphere," Ware says.

"To enhance the mission of the school, Simmons encourages active participation from students and faculty to conduct research and to create model programs that positively impact area schools, ne ighborhoods and communities."


For Corey Clark, deputy director for research in the SMU Guildhall game development program, adult literacy became a personal challenge the moment he learned of its scope. “There are about 600,000 adults in Dallas who have less than a third-grade reading level,” he says. “If we could help 10 percent of those people, that’s 60,000 people who could learn to read proficiently. That makes a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

As development lead for PeopleForWords, he recruited a cadre of Guildhall-trained artists, programmers and producers via the program’s alumni career portal. Formed in March 2016, Clark’s team had a beta version of the game ready by October, and play-testing began at LIFT Academy and Dallas’ Jubilee Park community center.

The designers quickly figured out that the needs of adult literacy learners were very different from those of other gamers. “This was the first time some participants had used a desktop computer,” Clark says. “How do you make a game that’s fun and interactive, yet simple and intuitive enough to be a first experience with technology?”

To find out, Clark collected and analyzed data on game elements such as how long players stuck with a task, how many times they repeated moves, how quickly they progressed, and whether performing the game actions translated into the desired learning outcomes. “First, games have to be fun,” he says. “From story to characters, you want to engage people enough to play over and over again. And this is the same process that reinforces learning.”

And at its core, every game is about learning. “You learn something new with every move you make,” Clark says. “And games are safe environments to do that, because they allow you to fail in ways that aren’t overwhelming. They let you keep trying until you succeed.” Read more.