Want Your Kids to Read Better? Let Them Text You.

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My daughter turned seven this week, and her big gift from us this year was a current-generation iPod Touch. Frankly, we did it to preserve our sanity as there are only so many renditions of the Glee version of “Don’t Stop Believing” or Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” my wife and I can take, so we decided to jumpstart the earbuds-and-ignoring-us phase of parenthood ahead of schedule. Aside from keeping the same three Taylor Swift songs blissfully out of my ears and head, though, it’s had the amazing effect of jumpstarting her reading level.

We have her do daily Scholastic Summer Express books to help her retain knowledge over the summer break because the three months off drain about an average of a month’s schooling. Math she’s tops in, but she had grown more and more sullen and resistant to reading voluntarily, even very small stories. Her spelling was also suffering. She simply didn’t want to read when she could watch The Loud House on a constant loop while Daddy was off writing in the office and Mommy was at work.

That’s changed a lot since we got the iPod, which these days is just basically an iPhone without the phone part. Hers is super locked-down on websites and content that can be accessed, so it’s actually safer than when I let her play on PBS Kids on my laptop. Most important to her, it lets her text me, my wife and a few other relatives who have iPhones as long as there’s Wi-Fi.

It started small and simple. “I love you” when I’m in the other room or “I miss you” when I’m out doing errands. Lots of emojis and stickers and selfies, which is probably not a shocker. But then, we started having more in-depth conversations, and I saw her express herself in the written word in ways she’s never done before.

One of the things I realized was that the autocorrect was actually doing her an amazing favor. You know how a kid will constantly ask you how to spell words? That’s almost completely disappeared because autocorrect is, well, correcting her as she types. I know for an almost certain fact that she’d never seen the word “expired” before, and it actually doesn’t say that word on our brand of milk, but when I asked her to check the date for a quiche we were making, she was able to tell me, “The milk is expired.”

This thing is like training wheels for words. It does all the heavy lifting for her as she practices the simple and important act of expressing a thought in print and being understood. During her first grade writing assignments, getting adjectives or emotional language out of her was like pulling teeth. Now she’ll rattle off details in big, solid paragraphs.

For all that we like to complain about kids and their phones, the fact is, texting helps literacy. It improves reading levels, understanding of phonology and use of wordplay. Since getting her into texting, for the first time this summer, I actually found her voluntarily with her nose in an Emily Windsnap novel. Not for long when Netflix will pander to her every whim, but it was at least something.

I’ve previously written about how handheld devices can be a huge benefit in helping kids to learn. They can learn problem-solving, communication, math skills, time skills, history, you name it. We’d always planned on getting her a phone when she was older, but if I’d really understood how much benefit she could truly get out of something as simple as texting me, I’d have gotten her one a year ago. If your kid is stubbornly avoiding doing any reading, I would give texting a try, especially if he or she is still young enough that you’re the favorite person to text. It’s been great for us.

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