People ForWords XPRIZE

SMU, LIFT Literacy App Tied For Grand Prize in $7 Million XPRIZE Competition

Feb 08, 2019

Low-literacy adult readers hunt treasure to improve reading skills

DALLAS (SMU) – A treasure-hunting smartphone app developed by SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) to help low-literate adults learn to read tied for the grand prize Thursday in the competition hosted by the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE. The SMU-LIFT team, PeopleforWords, won $1.5 million as a grand prize winner and an additional $1 million achievement award for most effective app to help adult English language learners learn to read in the competition presented by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Using the video game app for Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis, players assume the identity of an enterprising archaeologist seeking clues to the forgotten language of mythical Atlantis. Keys to finding the lost language are hidden in letter-sound instruction, word lists and consonant and vowel decoding skill-building exercises.

The award for the app, presented Feb. 7 at the Florida Celebration of Reading in Miami, capped a four-year global competition to develop a smartphone app that created the greatest increase in literary skills in adult learners over a 12-month period. Reading specialists from SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, game developers from SMU Guildhall graduate video game development program and adult literacy experts from LIFT, a Dallas nonprofit literacy service provider, teamed to develop an award-winning video game that has reaped much more than international honors.

SMU, LIFT Literacy App Wins Big in XPRIZE Competition“We are thrilled to be a grand prize winner,” said Stephanie Knight, dean of the Simmons School. “But the important part of this competition is learning the most effective way to help low-literate adults become readers. The development of the app, the data gathered through this process and our partnership with LIFT is just the beginning of bringing the life-changing benefits of reading to low-literate adults.”

One of 109 teams who began the competition in 2015, the SMU-LIFT team was named one of eight semifinalists in June of 2017 for Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis. The SMU-LIFT app was selected in June 2018 as one of four finalists for the final prize after testing by 12,000 low-literate adults in Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. 

According to 2018 U.S. Census data, 25 percent of Dallas County adults do not have a high school diploma, says Linda Johnson, president and CEO of LIFT. “A large percentage don’t have their high school diplomas because they can’t read. And we know low-literacy is a root cause of poverty.”

LIFT and other Dallas literacy providers serve about 14,000 adult learners a year, Johnson says, a fraction of the 600,000 low-literate adults in Dallas County. Lack of time, transportation, child care and energy keep many adults from seeking help, Johnson says, but most don’t seek help because they are ashamed they can’t read.

“A smart phone literacy app is a gold mine for adults because they can work on their literacy skills under a cloak of invisibility,” she says.

Designed for adults, the game is a safe learning environment, says Corey Clark, deputy director of research at SMU Guildhall, assistant professor of computer science and leader of the team of faculty, students and volunteers who developed the game. 

“Failure is expected in video games,” he says. “But perseverance is rewarded and gives the player excitement and a sense of accomplishment in small achievable steps.”

Reading research supports that when individuals are engaged in systematic and explicit literacy practice, most everyone can learn to read, says Diane Gifford, reading specialist, and clinical assistant professor at Simmons. “But low-literate adults have specific needs. They may have learned to recognize the word ‘Stop’ through years of experience. But they have not learned what research tells us is the key skill to becoming a proficient reader – the ability to take the letter-sounds in a word apart and put them back together again.” 

The process of learning to read is a continuum, she says. When a skill is missing, students have to go back and fill in the gaps before they can effectively proceed.

“For adults, we have to figure out what skill is broken and go back and fix it,” Gifford says. The beauty of Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis is that it reinforces reading skills in an accessible and engaging way. It motivates adults and gives them the confidence to keep learning.”

The 7,000 players who have downloaded the game and improved their reading skills have left a trail of information that will strengthen the app and provide important data to researchers as well. Data collection is built into the game’s design, Clark says. Each time a player touches the screen, data is collected that records engagement, difficulty and transfer of knowledge.

“The SMU-LIFT team now has one of the largest data sets on adult literacy of any university,” Clark says. “We have the opportunity to be the world leader in game-based learning for adult literacy.”

Clark and his colleagues have submitted their first research paper to an academic journal, with more to follow. More data will be collected in the final stage of the competition designed for communities. Participating communities with the most literacy downloads will win $500,000. Dallas United Way is leading the Dallas area competition, scheduled to begin in March 2019.

“The great value of Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis, is that adults who don’t think they are capable of learning to read will be attracted to literacy through the game,” Johnson says. “Their success will build their confidence and give them hope.”


Download the Codex app


Learn More:

Two Teams Tie for Grand Prize in $7M Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE

People ForWords named XPRIZE semifinalist

Guildhall partners to develop app that will teach adult literacy



About the Teams

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

SMU Guildhall is the #1 Graduate Program for Game Design in the world. Many of the school’s founders are industry icons, and classes are taught by industry veterans. Since 2003, the program has graduated over 700 students, who now work at more than 250 video game studios around the world. SMU Guildhall offers both a Master of Interactive Technology in Digital Game Development degree and a Professional Certificate of Interactive Technology in Digital Game Development, with specializations in Art, Design, Production, and Programming.

SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development helps current and future teachers, counselors, mediators and the community harness the power of education through degree offerings, human development programs, continuing studies courses and faculty research on education-related topics. The mission of the school is to integrate theory, research and practice of education and human development; promote academic rigor and interdisciplinary collaboration; educate students for initial certification and professional practice; and nurture collaboration across the academic community.

LIFT (Literacy Instruction for Texas) is a a Dallas-based nonprofit literacy service provider. For 50 years, LIFT has been enhancing lives and strengthening communities by raising the adult literacy rate in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. In a calendar year, LIFT will provide adult literacy, GED preparation, ESL and Family Literacy programs to thousands of adult learners. These classes are taught by 350 active and specially trained volunteers.



XPRIZE, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is the global leader in designing and implementing innovative competition models to solve the world's grandest challenges. XPRIZE utilizes a unique combination of gamification, crowd-sourcing, incentive prize theory, and exponential technologies as a formula to make 10x (vs. 10%) impact in the grand challenge domains facing our world. XPRIZE's philosophy is that—under the right circumstances—igniting rapid experimentation from a variety of diverse lenses is the most efficient and effective method to driving exponential impact and solutions to grand challenges. Active competitions include the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE, the $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, the $15M Global Learning XPRIZE, the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, the $5M IBM Watson AI XPRIZE, the $1.7M Water Abundance XPRIZE, and the $1M Anu Naveen Jain Women's Safety XPRIZE. For more information, visit