A treasure-hunting smartphone app developed by Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) and SMU 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 LIFT-SMU team, People ForWords, won a total of $2.5 million:  $1.5 million as a grand prize winner and the $1 million achievement award for the 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 February 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’s 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.

At the beginning of the development process, LIFT identified a group of staff, volunteers, and adult learners to be part of the People ForWords team.  This group met with SMU developers to identify the features and functionality that would attract an adult learner to use a mobile app to learn how to read.  Later in the process, LIFT students tested various iterations of Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis and provided feedback on how to improve the game.

“I am proud that LIFT’s staff, especially former CEO Lisa Hembry, volunteers, and students were able to contribute their knowledge and expertise in the development and testing of the app,” said Dr. Linda K. Johnson, President and CEO of Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT).  “It has been a privilege to work with SMU on finding an innovative way to leverage mobile technology to make literacy curricula more accessible to the millions of low-literate adults in this country.”

The Adult Literacy XPRIZE aims to dramatically change the way the United States meets the needs of the 37 million adults across the nation with low literacy skills by tackling the largest obstacles to achieving basic literacy: access, retention, and scale.

“We are thrilled to be a grand prize winner,” said Dr. 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 Johnson. “A large percentage don’t have their high school diplomas because they can’t read. And we know adult 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 Dr. Corey Clark, 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 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 Dr. 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 are collected that record 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. United Way Metropolitan Dallas is leading the Dallas area Communities Competition, scheduled to begin in spring 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.”

For more information about People ForWords, please visit

For more information about the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE, visit

Volunteer Spotlight: Cecilia Gomez


LIFT volunteers are the best! LIFT volunteers come from various backgrounds including highly skilled professionals, community workers, retired teachers, and homemakers.  Volunteer teacher Cecilia Gomez from the Adult Basic Education (ABE) program recently spoke with LIFT about her experiences with the SEE program. Cecilia has a long history of volunteering.  Some of the highlights of her volunteer history include:  serving with Women’s Jail Ministry for 10 years; taking part in promoting cultural awareness as an Adelante Ambassador; and being the Public Relations Chair for Literacy Volunteers of America from 1997 to 1998

What brought you to LIFT?

I became aware of the enormous problem of adult illiteracy while serving as a board member with Literacy Volunteers of America.  The work was very rewarding, but I soon came to the conclusion that I would rather be teaching.  Unfortunately, because of work scheduling conflicts I could not volunteer with LIFT until I retired in 2015.  

What is your favorite thing about volunteering at LIFT?

That would definitely be the students. Most of the students come from backgrounds where they were not given much encouragement as children. They were made to feel inferior even though many had learning disabilities such as dyslexia.  Many adults who can’t read believe that they don’t have the capacity to learn, but that is not necessarily the case.  If someone is low-literate, it’s often because they haven’t been given the proper teaching method to learn, not because they don’t have the ability to learn.

As the students progress through the LIFT program it is very satisfying to see them gain confidence and self-esteem. So many students have the capacity to be in higher positions in their jobs, but because of their reading deficiency, they are held back from reaching their full potential.  When a student successfully completes the LIFT program, they acquire the learning skills necessary to open many previously closed doors.  I love to hear about students who have graduated and have gone on to bigger and better things.  When the students succeed, I succeed.

SEE 4 students with Cecilia at their class graduation

Any advice for students?      

Don’t give up.  The truth is that it is not easy, but it is doable.  I write the word “perseverance” for the students to see every day to remind them to not give up. Get up and go! Learning is not something that is unattainable when you put in the work.

What would you say to someone considering becoming a volunteer at LIFT?     

If you have a genuine desire to make a difference in someone’s life I would highly recommend volunteering at LIFT.  Words cannot describe the feeling you get when a student makes a breakthrough and “gets it.”  Volunteering at LIFT will not only change a student’s future, it will also deeply enrich your life.  

Student Spotlight: Alberto and Lizeth

Alberto and Lizeth, a couple in LIFT’s English As a Second Language (ESL) Level One class, are working towards the same goal: to improve their English skills to overcome barriers they face in their daily lives. They often rely on their 9-year-old son to help them with basic tasks, such as ordering at restaurants or translating documents from his school. They know they will not always be able to rely on him, so they enrolled in the ESL class at Texas Capital Bank’s west Dallas branch to increase their English proficiency. Even though they are in the same level class, they do not have the same kind of experience with learning English.

Alberto has taken English classes before, but he says that his experience with English classes at LIFT has been better than at previous classes elsewhere. He feels that the teachers are accommodating and that the schedule of the classes is very flexible. Even though he knows many people find learning a new language challenging, he says, “With the right teacher, you can overcome that obstacle.” The immediate benefits of his improved English skills are proven at his job.

Alberto works at a restaurant at Trinity Groves, close to his English classes. He would speak very little with customers because he did not feel confident enough to interact more with them. However, this has quickly changed, and he feels more comfortable speaking with customers and even has conversations with them. “I see the benefits of improving my English in my tips. A customer even left me a note saying, “Good job” on my English skills,” Alberto says.

Lizeth also works in the service industry as a hairstylist. They both express the importance of communicating with customers for good service. While Alberto had prior English knowledge, Lizeth started off with only the bare minimum. She describes her fear of doing things in public by herself, such as asking for help at stores, or even ordering something in English. She feels she is gaining confidence as well as the courage to do these things without Alberto’s or her son’s help. She has also benefited from English at her job. Lizeth says, “I am taking more clients because of my improved English. I no longer limit myself to Spanish-speaking clients.”

The couple practices their English together outside of class to gain more confidence in speaking with others and to improve their skills. They have learned a great amount in their brief time at LIFT and hope to continue to the next level to learn and improve their English.