Language defines how we communicate with one another, how we interact with the world. But language development is just as vital, impacting our learning abilities and shaping how we think.
That is why a team of education and language experts is working to create the most language-rich environment possible for young children in Southwest Colorado, through a word-tracking program called LENA.
“I believe that every parent wants to do the best they can for their children,” said Vangi McCoy, coordinator of the Montelores Early Childhood Council, which supports young children and their families in Montezuma and Dolores counties. “And they just need the tools and the knowledge and the strategies.”
LENA pushes parents and caregivers to converse constantly and responsively with toddlers by using a recording device that tracks the number of words and conversational turns a child hears or says. The data can help parents learn strategies to strengthen children’s language development, later literacy skills and even life outcomes.
“If you’re not reading by the time you hit fourth grade, you have a much higher likelihood of high school dropout, prison, etc.,” McCoy said. “Those first eight, nine years are crucial. And by giving kiddos those early literacy skills, that’s going to make a difference.”
The program kicked off locally in September, growing out of an initiative called “Talk-Grow-Learn,” said Cayce Hamerschlag, a speech language pathologist with the San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Several years ago, her colleague Stacey Baxter read the book “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain,” written by Dana Suskind.
The book looks at the critical value of early child language development and existing language gaps. The title refers to research showing by the age of 3 — when the human brain has finished about 85% of its physical growth — children from lower-income households hear about 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent homes.
The reasons for this particular gap vary. A big one, McCoy said, is that parents working multiple jobs might have less time to speak with children, or be exhausted by the time they get home.
But because language development significantly influences later learning, the gap can lead to disparities when kids enter kindergarten and beyond.
“She realized this was what she was seeing when she read the book,” Hamerschlag said of Baxter. “So we wanted to find a way to engage with parents and family and the community to let them know that these first three years of life are the most important, and it’s all really based in the language that they’re exposed to, and it builds success for the rest of their life.”
The San Juan BOCES staffers formed the “Talk-Grow-Learn” task force along with MECC, local school districts and AmeriCorps TeamUP. They wanted to find a program accessible to all families and caregivers.
And that’s when they found LENA.
LENA HomeKanto McPherson and her husband were a little wary at first of enrolling in LENA Home.
“They’re wearing this device, with this kind of uncertainty of what it’s doing,” said McPherson, a family and consumer science teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.
But she’s a “lifelong learner,” McPherson said, and was curious about speech development in young children. Her older son, 5-year-old Stone, is speech delayed, and Hamerschlag, Stone’s speech therapist, suggested the program to McPherson for her younger son, Flint.
“Parenting is a lifelong adventure, and whatever I can do to be better, I was excited for,” McPherson said.
The LENA Home program for free for any child up through age 3 in Montezuma and Dolores counties. So it fit the bill for Flint, a “chill and easygoing” 2-year-old.
The program takes place over 13 weeks, though it’s often condensed into 10.
Beginning in January, one day a week — usually Sunday — Flint would wear a blue vest holding the LENA recording device in a pocket. After a recording day, McPherson would then turn the device in for data analysis.
Jamie Jones, of AmeriCorps TeamUP, collected and analyzed the data through the LENA programming system. She then went over it in coaching sessions with parents.
The device counts words and conversational turns but doesn’t record the words themselves. “It’s like a “pedometer,” Jones said.
“It only counts words,” Jones said. “So it will give us data back about how many words a day the child heard from adults, and how many times there was a conversational turn throughout the day. That means any time an adult responded to the child, or the child responded back to the adult.”
Although the device doesn’t capture specific words, it can differentiate between adult and child voices, and it operates in any language, not just English.
“It’s set to pick up certain frequencies that are adult speech frequency,” Hamerschlag said. “It differentiates between that or any electronic media. It actually measures that as well, to see how much media the child is exposed to in the environment.”
When Jones holds coaching sessions with families, they discuss a variety of strategies, like narrating, reading and tuning into children’s interests. A big focus right now is conversation turns — recent research has shown that the interactivity of talk is even more important than the number of words heard by a child, according to the team.
“For every 11 turns children heard between the ages of 18 and 24 months, their verbal comprehension IQ and language scores went up by one point in adolescence,” Hamerschlag said.
McPherson said the first time she looked over the data, she was surprised.
“It was lower than I thought, the first time we did it,” she said.
But this motivated her, and in weeks the word count and conversational turns shot up. She added reading time in the mornings, created reminders for her to talk more and made time to sit down and talk with her sons.
She became empowered by improving the data, McPherson said.
“The process of what you’re doing to get that data is what’s really cool,” she said.
LENA GrowWednesday is “Superhero Day” at Treehouse Early Learning Center in Cortez. That’s the day many students strap on their “superhero” blue vests, which encase the counting recorder in a pocket, and participate in the LENA program.
Treehouse is the pilot site for LENA Grow, which takes the language program to schools. Initially, the Ute Mountain Ute Head Start program in Towaoc was supposed to be the test site for LENA Grow, but when COVID-19 hit, they had to shift course. So Treehouse received the devices first.
The preschool is just over halfway through the 10-12-week program, and all classes are participating.
Shelby Caughey teaches a toddler class at Treehouse. Four of her seven students participate in LENA Grow, and though Caughey was at first nervous about recording their words, the students’ ease with the program increased her confidence.
“It’s more of a helpful tool than a judgment tool,” Caughey said.
The program has helped her converse energetically with her students and make take time for one-on-one interactions.
“I’ve improved so much from Day 1 to now,” she said. “I had 25 conversational turns (at first), and I’m up to 51.”
The data identify the students who might need more talk time, and reveal more conversational times of day.
“They can also see what times of day are most language-rich, and which ones are not,” McCoy said. “If mealtimes aren’t, then they really need to think about sitting and really taking advantage of that, because mealtimes can be one of the richest language (times) there are.”
Caughey has the most conversational turns at 8 a.m., when she welcomes students into her classroom, although their family-style breakfast time also is ripe for interactive talk.
After the Treehouse program wraps up, the devices will be rotated to another school. The plan is for all local preschools take part in LENA Grow, McCoy said.
Ultimately, they want to obtain more devices to allow for multiple sites to participate simultaneously.
This fall, the team is expanding the LENA Home program to include Archuleta County, along with Montezuma and Dolores counties. They also will add a parent group component called LENA Start, also available for free. LENA Start will start as an online group, operating in both communities.
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