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