Photo of a man and woman using a mobile literacy app on a cell phone.

Former governor Jeb Bush announced the winners of the first phase of the $7 Million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE competition at the annual Florida Celebration of Reading on Feb. 7. Two teams split the $3 million grand prize for overall performance of the mobile applications they developed to improve literacy among adult learners. The competition began on former first lady Barbara Bush’s birthday in 2015 and included 109 development teams from 15 countries. Both winning teams also received a $1 million “achievement prize” for the best performance among native English speakers and English learners, the competition’s two key demographics.  

Competing apps needed to be measurable, easy to use, and engaging. They also needed to target three main factors of literacy: access, retention, and scale.  

Apps were considered successful based on how many times they were downloaded, how often they were used, how easy they were to navigate, and how much growth users accomplished. Growth was measured by pre- and post-tests given a year apart to 12,000 participants who initially read at a third-grade level or below. Participants included both native English speakers and English learners in Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia. The two winning apps, Learning Upgrade and PeopleForWords, saw equal growth. 

The competition was started by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, two organizations devoted to promoting literacy in the United States. There are more than 36 million adults in the U.S. who lack basic English literacy, according to XPRIZE, a non-profit that designs competitions to solve the world’s problems. Increasing literacy rates would save the U.S. up to $230 billion and increase labor productivity by 2.5 percent.  

“We know that it’s lack of opportunity – not lack of motivation – that prevents millions of our country’s adult learners from gaining vital literacy skills,” said XPRIZE Executive Director Shlomy Kattan. 

People experiencing homelessness face some of the highest barriers to equal learning opportunities. According to a 2014 report by the Learning and Work Institute, many homeless people have had negative experiences with school, often in connection with traumatic childhood events. Struggles related to poverty and homelessness, such as health issues, the need to work, or the inability to remain in permanent housing, can also make regular school attendance unrealistic.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, homeless students perform 75 percent below grade-level in reading. Low literacy skills make finding jobs, understanding paperwork, and communicating effectively more difficult, perpetuating a vicious cycle that puts some people experiencing homelessness at a disadvantage in the job market. 

Literacy apps that are easy to access help to eliminate some barriers to equal learning opportunity. According to Pew Research Center, about 77 percent of Americans have smartphones and 90 percent have access to the internet. Apps that can be used on mobile devices or computers are far more accessible to most people than tutors or GED classes because they are free or inexpensive and can adapt to a learner’s own schedule. 

Winner Learning Upgrade has 21 courses for kindergarteners up through adult learners, including those with special needs. Its emphasis is on English literacy, but the app also has math, English as a Second Language, and GED prep courses which integrate videos, music, and games. It can be used on mobile devices or computers and, in a classroom setting, teachers can use the app to track and reward the progress of individual students. 

The other winning app, PeopleForWords, takes the form of an archaeological adventure game called “Codex: The Lost City of Atlantis.” Though targeted toward adults, it is suitable for all ages and for English learners as well as native English speakers. In the game, learners must solve spelling and reading puzzles to “decode the lost language of Atlantis.” Along the way, they help characters solve problems and learn about real-world locations, such as the Great Sphinx of Giza. Both winning apps are free and can be used on Android or iOS devices. 

These two winning teams, along with finalists AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed, received $125,000 to go on and compete in the Communities Competition. In this second phase of the project, communities, educational institutions, nonprofits, and NGOs will compete to recruit learners to use each of the four teams’ apps over the course of 15 months. There will be a $500,000 prize for teams with the most feasible, innovative, and scalable plan to get their app in the hands of people who could benefit from it, and a $500,000 prize for teams who recruit the most learners.