VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Teresa Hunter didn’t know what kind of conversation she was supposed to have with her 2-month-old.
The Virginia Beach parenting class she joined told her to talk and read to her baby. But the infant wasn’t going to understand why the wild things are where they are, or how Charlie got to the chocolate factory.
“At first it was weird,” she said with a laugh.
But a growing body of research about early childhood education and cognitive development suggests that chatting with children, particularly from birth to age 3, is crucial. That thinking is at the heart of the program that Virginia Beach is now expanding with a nearly $450,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Parents receive small “talk pedometers,” devices that count both the number of words spoken in the child’s presence and the number of conversational interactions between caretaker and child.
“We are seeing a lot of families across all demographics that were distracted. We’re not making time for as much human interaction as we used to,” said Barb Lito, coordinator of Virginia Beach’s GrowSmart, which leads the state’s only such initiative. “Talking with children is what will really help stimulate that positive brain development.”
Virginia Beach is one of five cities nationwide recently chosen by the Bloomberg charitable foundation to replicate a Providence, R.I.-based initiative that teaches parents of young children about the importance of language in development.
The city’s been implementing the program for a few years — but the science is now catching up.
In 2017, inspired by the Providence program, Virginia Beach launched LENA Start 10-week classes. Since then, 132 families have “graduated” from the program, and Lito said she feels it’s been a success in helping parents become aware of how much they talk to their young ones and start embedding the advice into their daily routines.
Hunter and her husband, Isaiah, were some of the first participants with their daughter, Ivy, who was just a few months old at the time and is now 2. They were new parents, “and we didn’t really know what we were doing.”
LENA — which takes its name from a national nonprofit and technology developer that manufactures the talk pedometers — intrigued Hunter, because it gave parents “the power to increase our babies’ brain development.”
A couple years later, Hunter said, Ivy has a strong grasp of language skills and regularly engages at an impressive level.
“If you want to know about LENA, just look at my baby,” she said. “She talks about things you wouldn’t think she’d know at this age.”
Hunter enjoyed it so much that she now helps run the classes.
After picking a day to record at home using a talk pedometer, parents get back a report showing how their level of conversation compares to other families with a child in their age group.
“It’s really just a self-reflective process,” Lito said. “As we build on our research, they get to see what’s working and they can expand on that in their home environment.”
With the new grant will come an expansion: LENA Home, a home visitation program that will allow families to participate even if they have trouble getting to a weekly class, and LENA Grow, which will be offered at local early education and child care programs with children up to age 4.
The nonprofit LENA — Language Environment Analysis — is focused on “early talk for early development,” said president Steve Hannon.
“The thing we know with a significant amount of science in the last 20 years is that interaction is really critical,” Hannon said. It’s tied to brain structure and function, with a real connection between language and brain development. “That’s something that’s a common thread.”
What does that mean? It’s as simple as using adult words with the child — and more importantly, increasing what are known as “conversational turns,” or back and forth interactions.
“It’s a verbal alternation: I go, you go,” Hannon said. “It could be a kid uttering something and the parent responding.”
The pedometer is a small device the child wears hidden on an article of clothing for a full day. It “captures their audio environment,” Hannon said, and the developer’s software processes the resulting data to tell parents how many words were spoken to the child and the number of conversational turns and child vocalizations.
Hannon emphasized that LENA deletes the recordings right after processing the data to preserve privacy.
The idea that parents should start talking more to their children to prevent future academic hardship largely stems back from a study published in 1992. It said children growing up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than their peers by age 3. The drastic so-called “word gap” drew lots of attention and went on to be cited more than 8,000 times, according to NPR.
Questions have surfaced about the accuracy of the famed study, as replications found the “gap” much narrower, around 4 million words, and others noted the study was old and based on a small sample.
But Hannon said the study “was profound at the time” and spawned a line of research that has continually shown the importance of early interactions and language.
“It’s not 30 million words, it’s not 40 million words. What we know is interaction matters,” he said. “Children are hungry for communication from the day they’re born.”
For example, a more recent study demonstrated that speaking more adult words around babies in the neonatal intensive care unit was associated with better expressive communication and language composition. A decade-long study by LENA researchers claims the amount of talk between adults and babies in the first three years of life was related to their later verbal abilities and IQ in adolescence.
Kenneth Wong, who teaches education policy at Brown University, has with colleagues been studying the impacts of the Providence program and called it “very promising.”
In the classroom model similar to what Virginia Beach does now, 73 percent of children saw an increase in their adult word counts and 56 percent in conversational turns, Wong said. Most importantly, those who started at a level below the 50th percentile, whose parents were speaking less, “were the children who experienced significant growth.
“Children who needed more exposure to words were the ones who gained the most.”
Wong said he sees it as a way “not only to narrow the ‘word gap’ but also to empower the parent at home.” Positive reinforcement is particularly effective, including encouraging children to explore certain activities, he said.
Cara Dixon and her husband Wade, who serves in the Navy, attended Virginia Beach classes when their son, Asher, was about 18 months old.
At a checkup appointment, they’d been told Asher had a slight speech delay, and were advised to “talk to him more.”
“When I left the office, I felt very defeated because I talk all the time,” Cara Dixon said. “So that (didn’t) give me a lot of direction.”
When the couple learned of the program through the military, they enrolled right away. Dixon said it was helpful to learn specific tips about how to engage with Asher, including getting down on his level to look him in the eye, waiting for him to respond even if it took him a little while to process, and reading more to increase the number of words he hears.
“I felt like it gave him an upper hand for learning and gave us something to work with,” she said. “We’ve gotten him where he needs to be.”