SMU, LIFT Literacy App Named Finalist in $7 Million XPRIZE Competition

A puzzle-solving smartphone game designed to teach struggling adults to read was named one of five finalists in an international competition.

Codex game on a tablet


DALLAS (SMU) — A puzzle-solving smartphone game designed by SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) experts to teach struggling adults to read was today named one of five finalists in an international competition. Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis is a finalist for the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation

A recent pilot study at SMU found that low-literate, English-language learner adults who played the game for two or more hours a week significantly improved their literacy skills after eight weeks. Anecdotal evidence also shows their improved reading skills also have improved their lives, ranging from a grandmother who finally gained the confidence to speak with her granddaughter in English, to co-workers who praised a participant's improved language skills.

“Clearly we are very proud to have advanced in this important competition,” says Stephanie Knight, dean of SMU's Simmons School of Education and Human Development, which provided faculty expertise in the literacy and instructional design  of the game. “We are committed to finding a successful, accessible teaching tool for low-literacy adults. And we know we are on the right track when we hear that one of our study participants gets to hear her children clap every time her reading skills improve enough for her to advance in the game.”


Screenshot of the Codex game.


To play the game, a player assumes the identity of an enterprising archaeologist searching for clues to the forgotten language of the lost civilization of Atlantis. Hidden among sites like the sandy rocks of the Sphinx of Giza, are letter-sound instruction, word lists and consonant and vowel decoding skill-building exercises, keys to becoming a reader.

More than 36 million adults in the United States are low-literate, reading below the third grade level, according the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Low literacy skills are linked to inequality, higher unemployment, less earned income and poor health.  In Dallas one in five adults is low literate, according to LIFT, a nonprofit adult literacy provider in Dallas.

"Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis is an innovative way to use mobile technology to make literacy curricula more accessible to the millions of low-literate adults in this country," says Linda K. Johnson, president and CEO of LIFT. “A significant key to its success is that the game is fun.”

Becoming an XPRIZE finalist represents the latest success of the three-year collaboration between LIFT, SMU's Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and SMU Guildhall graduate video game development program.  Guildhall has been named the No. 1 school for video game design in the world. The Simmons School's experts in curriculum design, LIFT adult literacy experts and Guildhall joined forces in 2015 to become one of 109 teams originally taking on the XPRIZE challenge to develop a mobile literacy learning application for adult learners. 

The team spent months creating and testing a literacy game that was entertaining, rewarding, effective and, most of all, convenient for a time-strapped low-literate adult. 

Their efforts paid off. In June 2017, the SMU-LIFT team, People ForWords, was named one of eight semifinalists. Twelve thousand low-literacy adults in Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles began field-testing the apps in August 2017. 

Finalists were selected based on field-testing performance. The SMU-LIFT team will be recognized Saturday, June 23 at the American Library Association annual meeting in New Orleans, along with the other finalists. Each finalist will be awarded a $100,000 prize.

In January 2019, X-Prize will present the team with the most effective app with $3 million, plus $1 million apiece to the apps with the best performance among native English speakers and non-native speakers.

Recognition is important to the team who has spent months developing, testing and revising the game, but the reward is much greater.

"There are about 600,000 adults in Dallas who have less than a third grade reading level," says Corey Clark, deputy director of research at Guildhall and a key leader of development of the game. "If we could help them read proficiently, that will make a difference in their lives."