DALLAS (SMU) – A puzzle-solving smartphone game designed by SMU and Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) experts to teach struggling adults to read was today named one of five finalists in an international competition. Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis is a finalist for the $7 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE presented by Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

A recent pilot study at SMU found that low-literate, English-language learner adults who played the game for two or more hours a week significantly improved their literacy skills after eight weeks. Anecdotal evidence also shows their improved reading skills also have improved their lives, ranging from a grandmother who finally gained the confidence to speak with her granddaughter in English, to co-workers who praised a participant’s improved language skills.

“Clearly we are very proud to have advanced in this important competition,” says Stephanie Knight, dean of SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, which provided faculty expertise in the literacy and instructional design  of the game. “We are committed to finding a successful, accessible teaching tool for low-literacy adults. And we know we are on the right track when we hear that one of our study participants gets to hear her children clap every time her reading skills improve enough for her to advance in the game.”

To play the game, a player assumes the identity of an enterprising archeologist searching for clues to the forgotten language of the lost civilization of Atlantis. Hidden among sites like the sandy rocks of the Sphinx of Giza, are letter-sound instruction, word lists and consonant and vowel decoding skill-building exercises, keys to becoming a reader.

More than 36 million adults in the United States are low-literate, reading below the third grade level, according the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Low literacy skills are linked to inequality, higher unemployment, less earned income and poor health.  In Dallas one in five adults is low literate, according to LIFT, a nonprofit adult literacy provider in Dallas.

Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis is an innovative way to use mobile technology to make literacy curricula more accessible to the millions of low-literate adults in this country,” says Linda K. Johnson, president and CEO of LIFT. “A significant key to its success is that the game is fun.”

Becoming an XPRIZE finalist represents the latest success of the three-year collaboration between LIFT, SMU’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development, and SMU Guildhall graduate video game development program.  Guildhall has been named the No. 1 school for video game design in the world. The Simmons School’s experts in curriculum design, LIFT adult literacy experts and Guildhall joined forces in 2015 to become one of 109 teams originally taking on the XPRIZE challenge to develop a mobile literacy learning application for adult learners.

The team spent months creating and testing a literacy game that was entertaining, rewarding, effective and, most of all, convenient for a time-strapped low-literate adult.

Their efforts paid off. In June 2017, the SMU-LIFT team, People For Words, was named one of eight semifinalists. Twelve thousand low-literacy adults in Dallas, Philadelphia and Los Angeles began field-testing the apps in August 2017.

Finalists were selected based on field-testing performance. The SMU-LIFT team will be recognized Saturday, June 23 at the American Library Association annual meeting in New Orleans, along with the other finalists. Each finalist will be awarded a $100,000 prize.

In January 2019, X-Prize will present the team with the most effective app with $3 million, plus $1 million apiece to the apps with the best performance among native English speakers and non-native speakers.

Recognition is important to the team who has spent months developing, testing and revising the game, but the reward is much greater.

“There are about 600,000 adults in Dallas who have less than a third grade reading level,” says Corey Clark, deputy director of research at Guildhall and a key leader of development of the game. “If we could help them read proficiently, that will make a difference in their lives.”




HSE Prep grad learned to enjoy school and believe in himself at LIFT

Xavier is enjoying a successful dual-career as a construction manager for Habitat for Humanity during the day and a Customer Availability Program (CAP) Team Manager for Wal-Mart in the evenings.  He receives mentoring from a real estate professional and can easily envision a number of potential career opportunities for himself: real estate investor, developer or the owner of an HVAC repair business. Although he has always had a lot of confidence, energy, smarts, and people skills, his future was not always so hopeful or bright.

As a high school freshman, Xavier found himself bored during class and struggled to stay interested in school. Over the next two years, he became a father and then dropped out of high school. After getting into some legal trouble, Xavier entered the Second Chance Community Improvement Program (SCCIP), an initiative that provides young offenders with a way to expunge their records through goal setting, counseling, community service, and education. 

SCCIP connected Xavier with LIFT so he could enroll in LIFT’s High School Equivalency (GED) Prep program and prepare for the GED. Xavier was initially wary of coming to LIFT given his negative experience in high school.

“I thought it was going to be like high school all over again,” he explained.  “I wasn’t challenged in high school because everything was so basic.  I took algebra in middle school, so once I got to high school, algebra was something new to other students, but not to me.”

Xavier’s attitude towards school started to shift after he received a “most likely to pass” score on the LIFT GED practice test, an event that both humbled and changed him.

“I was upset and felt like a failure, but then, I knew I was where I needed to be,” he explained. “Then something just kicked in, and I decided that I needed to go home and study.  I went home and practiced and practiced.”

Not long after he started classes at LIFT, SCCIP helped Xavier obtain a job at Habitat for Humanity.  While at Habitat, Xavier developed an interest in real estate and construction, and quickly moved into a construction manager position. LIFT worked with Xavier to accommodate his new daytime obligations and moved him into evening GED Prep classes. 

Xavier said he was inspired to work hard at LIFT for two main reasons: his new-found enjoyment of learning and having volunteer teachers who believed in him.

“At first, I came to school because I had to,” he said.  “And then, I started liking it and you showed you had faith in me; then, I didn’t want to let you down, and then I didn’t want to let myself down.” 

Xavier also liked the camaraderie, classroom participation, and opportunities for leadership in the LIFT classroom.  He enjoyed showing his LIFT teachers and classmates how to do computations in their heads, without using a calculator. 

“The teachers believed in me and were open minded,” he said.  “They teach in a way they know, and I might have my own opinion, and they would listen to me.”

After nine months in LIFT’s HSE Prep program, Xavier took the GED and passed.  He was now able to access more job opportunities, and obtained a evening job as a CAP Team Manager with Wal-Mart. 

(Pictured above) Xavier and HSE Prep Program Director Karen Medlock on the day Xavier passed the GED.


One year after reluctantly walking through LIFT’s front doors, Xavier is a changed man.  He realizes that he likes learning and is good at it.  He has his GED and is thinking about college.  He has more career opportunities, and his career has momentum.  He has expanded his group of supporters and wants to give back to the community. 

“My future is bright now,” he said.  “I am going to figure out what I want to do and become financially stable for college.  I might start with online classes, something I can do after work, or take night classes.  Maybe I’ll pursue a trade I’m interested in like the central air business.”

Free Vision Screening for LIFT Students

Prevent Blindness Texas will hold a vision screening event at LIFT on Thursday, May 17   and Thursday, May 24.  All students are invited to attend! 

If the screening indicates that you may need glasses, you will be provided with a voucher to use at an eye clinic for a full exam and prescription. Send in your results to Prevent Blindness Texas and they will provide you with another voucher to receive FREE glasses. 

Stop straining to see the board in class – get the help you need by attending a free vision screening at LIFT!

Thursday, May 17: 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Thursday, May 24: 5:00 9.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register at the table in the Suite 320/380 foyer on the Opportunity Center campus, 1610 S. Malcolm X Blvd.