SMU-LIFT Game Design Team Wins $2.5M in Adult Literacy XPRIZE Competition

SMU-LIFT's People ForWords, a game design team focused on promoting literacy, won $2.5M for its app, 'Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis,' which helps tackle the pressing problem of adult illiteracy in North Texas and beyond.


An app developed by People ForWords, a team from Southern Methodist University and nonprofit literacy provider Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) won a total of $2.5 million last week in a competition hosted by the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE.

The team’s treasure-hunting smartphone app called Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis tied for the grand prize and won $1.5 million of the $3 million grand prize. It also won a $1 million achievement award for the most-effective app to help English students learn to read.

The award for the app was received Thursday at the Florida Celebration of Reading in Miami. It was the culmination of a four-year global competition to develop a smartphone app that resulted in the greatest increase in literary skills in adult learners over a 12-month period, according to a release.

In the gaming app, players take on the identity of an archaeologist looking for clues to the forgotten language of Atlantis, the mythical island that is supposed to have sunken into the sea.

To find the clues players must traverse letter-sound instruction, word lists, and consonant and vowel decoding skill-building exercises, the release said.

[Image Courtesy of SMU]

Reading specialists from the university’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, game developers from SMU Guildhall graduate video game development program, and adult literacy experts from LIFT collaborated to develop the game.

“We are thrilled to be a grand prize winner,” Simmons School Dean Stephanie Knight said in a statement. “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.”

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

[Image Courtesy of SMU]

Adult literacy is of concern in North Texas 

Some 25 percent of Dallas County adults do not have a high school diploma, LIFT President and CEO Linda Johnson said in a statement, citing 2018 U.S. Census data.

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

“A large percentage don’t have their high school diplomas because they can’t read,” she said. “And we know low-literacy is a root cause of poverty.”

Each year, LIFT and other Dallas literacy providers serve about 14,000 adult learners. But, that’s just a small part of the estimated 600,000 low-literate adults living in Dallas County

“A smart phone literacy app is a gold mine for adults because they can work on their literacy skills under a cloak of invisibility,” Johnson said. A lack of time, transportation, child care and energy, block many adults from seeking literacy help. Most don’t seek help because they are ashamed they can’t read, she said.

SMU Guildhall’s Corey Clark is deputy director of research at SMU’s 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 said. “But perseverance is rewarded and gives the player excitement and a sense of accomplishment in small achievable steps.”

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“It was a pretty big deal, I have to tell you,” Diane Gifford, reading specialist and clinical assistant professor at Simmons told KERA News. “We were pleasantly surprised and a little bit shaken and very, very honored. You know, it’s quite a big thing for not just SMU and LIFT but for the all the people in general who’ll benefit from these apps.”

The app reinforces reading skills

The process of learning to read is a continuum, Gifford said. Students must go back and fill in the gaps when a skill is missing before they can proceed.

“For adults, we have to figure out what skill is broken and go back and fix it,” Gifford said. “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.”

SMU-LIFT stated 7,000 players have downloaded the game and improved their reading skills. They’ve left a trail of information that developers said will strengthen the app and provide important data to researchers. 

Clark said that data collection is built into the game’s design, and that every 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 said. “We have the opportunity to be the world leader in game-based learning for adult literacy.”

The final stage of the competition is planned for March

The competition’s final stage measures community impact. Participating communities with the most literacy downloads will win $500,000 in the competition led by United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.

“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 said. “Their success will build their confidence and give them hope.”

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