News and analysis
June 08, 2015

X Prize Launches $7 Million Contest to Find Ways to Teach More Adults to Read

Mark Duncan, AP Images

First Lady Barbara Bush jokes with Lodis Brown, a student at the Project Learn Adult Literacy Center, in Cleveland, Ohio in 1990.

The XPrize Foundation announced today that it is teaming up with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to create the Adult Literacy XPrize, which will award $4 million to the best idea it receives for creating an app for tablets or smartphones that helps adults learn to read.

An additional $3 million in prize money will be go to people with ideas that have strong potential and the city that recruits the most adults to try the literacy apps.

The XPrize Foundation has previously run competitions that solicit grand plans to solve vexing problems like oil spills and the high cost of health care. The Adult Literacy XPrize comes on the heels of the Global Literacy XPrize, launched in September, which asks teams to make open-source software that teaches children in developing countries to read, write, and learn math skills.

The collaboration resulted from the Barbara Bush Foundation’s search for a "big and bold" effort to decrease the number of American adults who read at less than a third-grade level. About 36 million such people live in the U.S., according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

With waiting lists for some of the literacy programs it supports are as long as two years, the foundation wanted to re-energize its work and help alleviate the stigma felt by many adults who can’t read, said Liza McFadden, president of the Bush fund.

"We’re going to use it as a way to elevate the conversation around adult literacy in the U.S.," she said. "A prize could help drive social change."

Anyone May Enter

Anyone is eligible to enter the competition, said Jennifer Bravo, senior manager of prize development at XPrize. Ms. McFadden said she anticipates teachers and university researchers will be interested in participating, but Ms. Bravo imagines high-school students, nonprofits, and educational start-up companies will also submit ideas.

"Competitions are one of the tools we have in a broader tool kit for social and technological change," Ms. Bravo said. "It’s a way to get people really excited and working together toward a challenge, maybe people who hadn’t thought to do that before."

$4-Million Prize

The competition will take place over four years. Teams have six months to register and 18 months to create their applications. A panel of judges will pick the top five solutions to be tested for a year with at least 1,000 adults who read at or below a third-grade level.

The team that makes the best-performing app will win the $4-million grand prize, Additionally, $500,000 apiece will go to teams that produce the best apps for native English speakers and for nonnative speakers.

Next, cities around the country will encourage residents to use the new mobile tools. The city that persuades the highest percentage of adults who can’t read to download the mobile tools being tested will win $1 million. And groups that participate in that round will split $1-million.

At the competition’s conclusion, the teams are free to market and sell their literacy apps.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.