DIU alum Aaron Hemphill has known the Me’phaa people of Mexico for over a decade. In that time, he’s come to love their culture—fun, playful, fond of games and full of stories. But he’s also gotten familiar with their perennial challenges.

One of these challenges is going to school in a language they don’t know. In theory, Me’phaa children attend bilingual schools that cater to Spanish and Me’phaa speakers equally. In reality, teachers might know a different Me’phaa dialect (there are nine), and they might not read or write the language well at all.

That means Me’phaa children don’t typically learn to read and write their language well, either, which makes it all the harder for them to read and write Spanish in school.

Fostering Foundational Reading Skills

The Alpha Tiles game was born to help. This app builds a reader’s spelling skills through increasingly difficult levels of minigames. Mapping sounds to letters isn’t the only skill kids need to read, Aaron points out, but they must master it before they can move on to reading whole sentences or comprehending passages.

Unlike most literacy-building software, Alpha Tiles wasn’t designed for English and then adapted for other languages. Aaron built Alpha Tiles with Me’phaa in mind. “The truth is that Alpha Tiles doesn’t work very well for English,” he says. After all, English is notorious for spellings that don’t match the pronunciation!

But it has worked for nearly one hundred minority languages in need of basic spelling skills. Aaron and his team have made versions of Alpha Tiles for 86 languages and counting!

He hopes that the app will motivate native speakers to start writing stories. Once Alpha Tiles users are ready to move from spelling to comprehension, they will need something worth reading!

DIU Paved the Way

None of this, Aaron says, would have happened without his DIU education. In his linguistics courses, he learned to break words into pieces of sound and symbols. That’s exactly the skill Alpha Tiles aims to teach!

Plus, in his DIU classes, he got a head start on working with languages that, like Me’phaa, are wildly different from English.

Now, Aaron gets to watch his Me’phaa friends enjoy a game and build a bright future for themselves at the same time.

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