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Empowering parents to help close the word gap
Scott McConnell and his team are partnering with early childhood practitioners across the state to get more parents talking to their young children.

toddler on tire swing in LENA Start vest
A toddler plays while wearing a LENA Start vest, designed by the LENA Research Foundation to track the number of words caregivers speak to their children.

A young mother pushes her infant son through the grocery store. Yawning as as her eyes dart back and forth between her pad of paper and shopping cart, she crosses items off her list as she shops. “Milk. Check. Bread. Check,” she mutters.

She notices her baby babbling away from his perch in the front of the cart. "I better finish shopping before he gets hungry,” she thinks and checks her phone for the time.

It’s a familiar scene for parents. Rushing from one errand or chore to the next, in an attempt to squeeze in quality time with their kids, but what if the real opportunity for learning and connection is in those everyday spaces—in the grocery store, on the bus, at the dinner table, etc.?

What is the word gap?

Scott McConnell, a faculty member in the special education program in the Department of Educational Psychology, knows being intentional about talking with young children can help them develop the skills and competencies necessary to succeed in school and later in life.

McConnell explains, “In the early 90s, two University of Kansas researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley, wanted to better understand what helps very young children get a strong start on life. They had experience with children living in poverty, and noticed that these children’s language was far different from that of the professors’ children they knew.”

To learn more, they observed infants and toddlers in their homes, interacting with their parents and family members.

These observations confirmed Hart and Risley’s early hunch—a family’s socioeconomic status appeared to correlate to their children’s language skill. More specifically, they found adults in higher-income homes seemed to talk more frequently to their young children. This higher rate of adult talk correlated with a higher rate of language development for children from wealthy families versus those living in low-income homes.

Hart and Risley estimated a difference of more than 30 million words spoken to children of rich and poor families by age five—now referred to as the “word gap.”

Leading the way with LENA Start

McConnell, who has focused much of his research on developing tools that allow teachers to monitor young children’s language and early literacy development, is particularly interested in narrowing the word gap. That’s why two years ago, he and colleagues began working with an organization called the LENA Research Foundation to help implement and evaluate their parent education program, LENA Start. The University of Minnesota team, collaborating with school districts and local foundations and nonprofits, began offering LENA Start to parents of young children.

McConnell, who has been working with early educators in Minnesota for nearly 30 years, knew Minnesota was poised for success with LENA Start.

“Most people from Minnesota don’t realize that our Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program is unique,” he explains. “We are one of the few states in the country that offers ECFE in every school district at little to no cost depending on income level.”

He continues, “So while in other states libraries (and more specifically librarians) help parents to get started and monitor progress while using LENA Start, we’ve been able to tap into an existing network of trained parent educators through ECFE.”

And it’s an opportunity for new curriculum parent educators are happy to have.

“Before I started graduate school, I worked as a parent educator and was always looking for ways to provide families with relevant information and individualized feedback,” says Erin Lease, program coordinator for the LENA project.

“I was excited to learn that LENA might be a way to do that,” Lease continues. “I think that technology, like LENA, when used in conjunction with established parent education programs allows parents to set goals and receive feedback is an engaging way.”

McConnell and members of the Think Small team participate in panel discussion
L-R: Gerri Fisher and Dianne Haulcy from Think Small and Scott McConnell participate in panel discussion on their work with LENA Start and the impact early conversations have on a child’s life. (Photo courtesy of Think Small.)

In addition to parent educators, the University of Minnesota team has partnered with Think Small—an organization which provides service, resources, and advocacy for early childhood education in Minnesota—to rollout the program to daycare providers.

“Parents and early learning professionals create partnerships that have enormous power in the lives of children,” says Dianne Haulcy, coordinator with Think Small.

“We have learned that parents and early learning professionals really value this type of feedback, so they can create the types of language-rich environments that set our youngest learners up for success," Haulcy continues. "We are excited to be able to provide it.”

Closing the word gap in Minnesota

To date, 90 parents and 17 child care providers have participated, and over 4.8 million caregiver words, and 160,000 adult-child conversations have been recorded. Many of the families participating are low-income and non-native English speakers. Parents are encouraged to speak to their children in their native language.

As a result, children in the program have experienced an average of five months of language growth in three months, heard roughly 34% more adult words, and had approximately 13% more adult/child conversations. McConnell and team expect another 40 parents to enroll this fall.

Minnesota parents who have participated in the LENA Start program say it works.

Parent participant poses with child and completion certificate

A parent participant poses with his child and their certificate of completion in the LENA Start program.

“We learned so much in this class and I can tell that I’m talking so much more with my daughter than I have in the past,” says one parent who participated in the program last spring. “I’ve also been watching a friend’s baby a couple days a week and I’ve been talking to her a lot more than I ever talked to any of my girls at that age!”

Watch video testimonials from parents who have used LENA Start.

The goal, McConnell says, is to roll the program out to the entire state. However, even with the existing ECFE network in Minnesota, this will require more resources and funding. The Minnesota LENA Start team is looking for ways to sustain, and expand, LENA Start in our state once the pilot ends.

Looking to the future of parent-child conversations

By partnering the University of Minnesota with a group of community-based investigators, the project not only has the potential to help parents across the state but implications for future research and development as well.

“What if we could identify the ‘word deserts’ near where we live?” McConnell says. “What if you walked into a store or onto a bus, and an app or other device gave you real-time suggestions on conversations to have with your child?”

The researchers and practitioners working together on this project are intrigued by the possibilities—effective yet practical ways to meet parents and young children where they are with timely resources to help kids learn and grow.

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