By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) –  A team from SMU and LIFT, Literacy Instruction for Texas, collaborated on a video game app recently awarded a $2.5 million prize in a global literacy competition.

App creators say technology is a perfect vehicle to help teach adults to read because it’s mobile, private and can accommodate the high demand.

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“One of the things we wanted to do is remove that stigma around literacy,” says 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. “It has to be fun, first. We weren’t just trying to add game elements, we were trying to build a game that had educational outcomes from it.”

It’s called ‘Codex: The Lost Words of Atlantis,’ available for free for Android phones.

literacy app (CBS 11)

Players assume the identity of an archaeologist seeking clues to a lost language.

According to Dr. Clark, failure is expected and part of the challenge, “because you’re now decoding an ancient language that nobody’s ever seen before. So you’re pressing on and you’re hearing sounds and you’re trying to match the letters to the sounds.”

It only sounds simple if you know how to read, and according to LIFT President & CEO Linda Johnson, “one in 5 North Texans” cannot.

“Even I was surprised,” says Dr. Johnson. “When we look at Dallas County, 350,000 adults don’t even have a high school diploma. It’s 25 percent of our population. It’s unbelievable.”

And even earning a high school diploma is sometimes no guarantee of literacy.

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Just ask Damon Richardson.

“Go to high school, go to college and that’s what I was doing,” says Richardson, who dreams of becoming a special ed teacher. And yet he was in community college before someone kindly explained his struggles: he couldn’t read.

“Always important to learn, now, than learn later,” says Richardson.

At least he is learning. The college directed him to LIFT where he has been taking adult literacy classes, and can now supplement lessons with the Codex app.

“If I had to go to a doctor’s office, I don’t have to have my mom by my side to fill it out for me,” says Richardson.

Like many adults who struggle, Richardson managed to adapt, but it is better that he is learning to read.

“Have you ever gone to DPS and trying to just get your license and there’s signs everywhere and I as a person who reads and I go in and I see all these signs and I get confused,” says Diane Gifford, a Clinical Professor at SMU’s Simmons School of Education & Human Development. Gifford also worked on the PeopleforWords team. “What would it be like if I couldn’t read?”

The creators add that embarrassment is a major factor in why adults who struggle to read often don’t access the help that’s available.

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“A leading researcher has found that the level of shame is equivalent to the level of shame for adults who suffered from childhood incest,” says Dr. Johnson. “When you realize that, we understand why people hide. And to us, that’s the greatness of this app. People can download in private on their Android phone, they can play it and they can begin to realize ‘hey I can learn! I can learn how to do this’!”