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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Fielding An X Prize for Adult Literacy

By Mary Mazzoni

More than 36 million American adults read at a third-grade level or below. Their stories are diverse: Some struggled due to learning difficulties. Some ended up in the criminal justice system early and never went back to school. Some are immigrants learning English as a second language. And others simply never had access to the tools they needed to succeed.

Collectively, low literacy skills cost the United States an estimated $225 billion in lost productivity and tax revenue each year. And it adds $230 billion to the country’s annual healthcare costs, according to the American Journal of Public Health and the National Council for Adult Learning.

Simply put: Due to low literacy, nearly 18 percent of America's working-age population is relegated to low-skill, low-pay positions by default. This all but eliminates their chances for upward mobility, and it can hinder their children as well -- further diminishing the worker pipeline for the 21st century. "Low-income kids hear 30 million fewer words than richer kids," said Elliot Weinbaum, who directs the education program at the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation.

Working multiple jobs to make ends meet leaves less time for parents to spend with their children, and parents with limited vocabularies also teach their children fewer words. Known as "the word gap," this phenomenon is well established, but the capacity to address its root cause -- low adult literacy -- is severely lacking. "Right now, [the United States] only has class capacity for 5 percent of the 36 million adults who lack basic literacy skills," said Shlomy Kattan, senior director of the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy X Prize.

Formed under the famed X Prize umbrella, the Adult Literacy X Prize aims to fill this gap by challenging design teams to develop mobile apps that increase adult literacy skills. The $7 million challenge brings X Prize together with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Apps developed by eight semi-finalists will be tested in Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia, in partnership with city governments and community organizations like the William Penn Foundation. The apps will reach 12,000 adult learners over 15 months and collectively represent the largest program in America for this level of adult literacy.

Overcoming barriers to success

Adult learners face unique barriers to success, Kattan told 3p last week at a launch event in Philadelphia, where X Prize will partner with the city's Office of Adult Education. "Fifty percent of adult learners who sign up for a program quit within 12 hours of their first class," he explained. "It's inconvenient. These learners have jobs and families."

Although programs try to work around people's schedules, it's not always enough, Kattan said. "Sure, you can take night classes. But it's hard at the end of a long work day, or it becomes a choice between putting your child to bed or going to a class."

By developing apps that learners can use any time -- and field-testing them to see which model yields the best results -- the Adult Literacy X Prize is poised to address both the lack of class capacity and the even more significant hurdle of fitting into adult learners' busy lives.

"People often don't know where to go, or the place they need to go is not convenient," said Denine Torr, senior director of community initiatives for the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. "This concept removes that barrier."

Ira Sockowitz, CEO and founder of Learning Games Studios, a semi-finalist in the X Prize, agreed. "Many adult learning classes have long wait lists, it's inconvenient and learners have to go to them. A mobile game goes wherever they go."

A new method of learning

Teaching adult learners is not the same as teaching children -- a fact many program developers forget. "It's important to focus on the practical," said Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, CEO of Cell-Ed, another semi-finalist. "We teach skills that learners can use right away in restaurants or on public transportation, not farm animals or alphabet sounds."

This may sound obvious, but Kattan told us child-centric programs appear more often than you'd think -- and this mistake can quickly disengage learners and leave them feeling defeated. "On an individual level, adult learning is about human dignity," Kattan explained, "and kid-centric content is a quick way to end that aspect of the work."

Mobilizing the power of tech

The public tends to characterize adult learners as "others," Kattan told us, which is part of the reason they have remained underserved for so long. But they're just like every other American who struggles to balance self-improvement with a busy work and family life. By addressing this challenge head-on, rather than using it as an excuse not to serve this community, social innovators can begin to change realities that have persisted for decades.

"We believe in the power of technology to overcome access barriers," said Tim Gage, SVP of government affairs for Comcast and a member of the Barbara Bush Foundation Board of Directors. "It's certainly not a lack of desire that keeps adult learners from pursuing education."

Learners are already using the semi-finalist apps in Dallas, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Following 12 months of consistent use, a post-test will determine the highest gains in literacy achieved by the participants. You can check out the eight semi-finalists and their concepts here.

Image credit: Bradd Eales/X Prize 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni