DALLAS (Nexstar) — A long-term study showed students who aren’t reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, an event likely to impact one’s life in the years to come. 

It’s why nonprofits like the Barbara Bush Foundation are working to improve literacy skills in students and turning to technlogy for solutions in closing that gap for struggling adult readers.

BBF partnered with Southern Methodist University and the Dollar General Foundation to develop a gaming app that aims to improve users’ comprehension skills by targeting the root causes of literacy issues. 

In Texas, about 28% of adults have low literacy skills, which is measured by the ability to read above a sixth-grade reading level. Nationally, about 54% of adults, ages 16-74, lack those basic skills — which equates to about one in five Americans.

Diane Gifford is a clinical associate professor of education at SMU, who has been the brains behind the reading building blocks in trio’s app, called Enigma. She said they first started the game focusing on words and sounds, because an understanding of phonetics is often the missing puzzle piece in a struggling readers’ abilities. 

“A lot of people, they miss skills and we miss this all the time,” she said. “But with adults, it’s compounded because they spent a lifetime missing skills.”

Gifford has worked closely with Corey Clark, who is the deputy director of SMU’s game lab. Together, the pair have been developing Enigma for years. It started as ‘Codex,’ which was an award-winning app in a worldwide competition called XPrize.

“Games themselves are engaging, they’re a place to fail. They’re a safe place to fail,” he said. “So this is perfect for educational practices. We use that same sort of engagement loop to actually try to make sure that somebody’s having fun and get that bounce between boredom and frustration, to keep them engaged.”

Enigma is designed to be fun for adults. It uses hidden objects in the Atlantis-themed game that users tap on to reveal either sounds or letters, with the goal of pairing corresponding sounds and letters together. Doing so advances the user to the next level but also is designed to improve their phonetic comprehension skills.

“Individuals might be able to read whole words like cat or dog, but they have no idea that cat is made up of three sounds, which is ‘k-A-t,’ and this connection is critical,” Gifford said.

Clark said their pilot of Enigma, which is still running through winter of 2022, is one of the largest educational pilots of all time.

“We will continue to test those to make sure that we’re getting the efficacy that we are looking at hoping for — not only in the literacy side, but in the engagement, the gameplay,” he said.

British Robinson, president and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation, said Enigma is a game changer for improving adults’ reading levels because it meets people where they are at, as opposed to a traditional class format that has some accessibility limitations. 

“Gaming is exciting. It reduces shame and stigma,” she said. “One of the things is we know that traditional classroom learning, you know, you have to go after work or after school, you’re trying to put dinner on the table. So we wanted to deal with the issue of access first and foremost.”

Robinson said the foundation is bullish on education-based technology due to its scalability. She firmly believes that closing the literacy gaps in Americans will have profound impacts on all aspects of life.

“I like many Americans had no idea that we have so many people who are unable to read, write and comprehend to they can live their lives with dignity,” Robinson said. “If you are low literate, you typically can’t navigate your life with dignity, which means you can’t be a full worker, parent or citizen. It impacts every aspect of your life.”

While the app is largely geared toward struggling adult readers and second-language learners, BBF hopes Enigma can be a resource to teachers, students and anyone else who needs it.

The foundation hopes to officially launch the app in mid-2023 and plans to have it as a free-of-cost resource, thanks to donations and grants.

“There’s still a lot of funds needed and require just to continue progressing it for it. Also, we’re providing this reporting structure for teachers and programs and there’s actually hard costs associated with those things too. So we’re currently looking at ways to try to supplement that and support it long term,” Clark said.

Gifford reiterated that because of those donations and grants, they are able to move forward with the app’s development and keeping it free for users will be essential.

“We want to see a Enigma in everyone’s phone who wants to learn how to read, we want them to have fun with it,” she said. “When you think of the magnitude of the people right now in this country, who are below the sixth grade level, and their ability to read, we have a lot of work to do.”