New Intervention to Bridge the Word Gap Aims to Reach Disadvantaged Families Widely and Affordably

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Internationally-used LENA™ early language feedback system combines with mobile technology, efficient parent-group instruction

The LENA Research Foundation has announced the development of LENA Start™, an intervention model intended to address the cycle of poverty by encouraging parents with children ages birth to 3 to increase the quantity and quality of spoken language in their homes. Research indicates that achievement gaps result because children in poverty tend to experience millions fewer words and conversations than more affluent children during these critical early years, when babies’ brains are growing to 80% of their adult size.

The data-driven LENA Start model taps the efficiencies of digital technology and a concise, focused instructional program to reach large numbers of parents economically.

  • The core of the model is the LENA System™, a patented “talk pedometer” that records language throughout a child’s day, then translates the recording into feedback that shows parents how much they’re talking so they can improve.
  • Efficient program management is provided by LENA Mobile™, a secure, cloud-based tool for 24/7 access to LENA data. LENA Mobile also provides real-time reports to funders and stakeholders to ensure accountability.
  • Instruction is delivered through cost-effective and motivational parent group meetings, using engaging videos and structured presentation materials pre-packaged to allow delivery by volunteer or peer coordinators. All materials come in both English and Spanish.

“Traditional intervention programs reach only about 10% of the families that need them,” says Dr. Stephen Hannon, president of the Foundation. “That’s because their delivery models and complexity make them unaffordable for broad use. LENA Start aims to do one thing well: show parents how much they’re talking with their children and simple, practical ways they can talk more.”

Developed at a cost of more than $40 million contributed by co-founders Terrance and Judith Paul, the patented LENA technology is deployed worldwide in research, clinical uses, and early childhood programs. In creating their own intervention model, LENA aims to provide what Hannon calls a “laser focus” on increasing talk as quickly and efficiently as possible, leveraging technology to enable mass dissemination across a city or other local area. This new model factors years of experience using LENA technologies in programs like the Thirty Million Words® Initiative in Chicago and Providence Talks in Providence, Rhode Island, as well as small-scale pilots in Colorado.

LENA Start wraps motivational video instruction and peer-support sessions around regular use of LENA System data. A short series of structured meetings, reinforced by follow-up practice and support sessions, can be run by non-professional and volunteer coordinators because all presentation materials come in a turnkey package that is essentially “plug and play,” according to Hannon. The parent instructional program, called Smarter Happier Baby™, also includes a print parent guide and other collateral. A central component is shared reading of books; books suitable for the age group will be provided to participants at each session.

“Combatting the effect of poverty is far from easy,” concedes Hannon. “But language is the key to changing outcomes for children, and we must start early and touch a lot of people to begin to make a difference. We believe LENA Start gives us a real chance to create a solid foundation and help solve what historically has been a hugely intractable problem.”

LENA Start will be presented on October 16 in Washington, DC, at a symposium on Bridging the Word Gap organized by the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy. Discussions have begun with potential funders of local area LENA Start initiatives, and with community organizations that can support implementations with locations, volunteers, and other infrastructure. Materials, training, and support programs are nearing completion and will be available for delivery around April 2015. For information on implementing LENA Start, contact Beth Dresser at 303-441-9048, or email bethdresser(at)lenafoundation(dot)org.

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About the LENA Research Foundation

The LENA Research Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity based in Boulder, Colorado. Its mission is to accelerate language development to improve the cognitive, social, and emotional health of children birth to five and close achievement gaps. Used by researchers and clinicians all over the world, the LENA System™ measures a child’s language environment and provides vital feedback to parents and professionals in programs dedicated to close the language, learning, and opportunity gap for underprivileged children. For more information on the foundation, please visit lenafoundation.org.

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