When Lily Ellison was nursing her first child, a daughter named Roseanna, she used to read Harry Potter books out loud at night. The stories helped her stay awake, and she figured hearing them was good for Roseanna, too.
But her approach to reading changed drastically after she enrolled in Small Talk Story County, a LENA Start initiative in Ames, Iowa.
“The thing I found the most interesting in the classes was the difference between reading to and reading with a child,” Lily explained. “Roseanna had heard the entire Harry Potter series, but we didn’t read it together, so the same parts of her brain weren’t lighting up.”
That was one of several revelations she had during the 13-week class, which teaches parents about the importance of early brain development and offers strategies to increase interactive talk with their babies during daily activities.
As part of the LENA Start program, parents receive weekly reports on the amount of talk their child experiences, with categories showing the number of adult words and conversational turns, and the amount of electronic sound the child heard.
“I was surprised by how much electronic noise cut into our word count,” she said. “Seeing that on paper was interesting.”
The reports provided a benchmark to reference as she tried new ways of interacting with Roseanna, like playing children’s songs on car rides and singing along. She noticed in the hourly breakout graphs that her husband — who’s in charge of bath time and bedtime — was also increasing the amount he talked with Roseanna.
“It helps to see how your communication is going, in charts — it’s black and white. You can see how you’re improving,” she said.
The family recently welcomed their second daughter, Maybelle, and are working hard to practice the tips they learned at Small Talk with her.
“We’re explaining more things to Maybelle, and we’re also paying more attention to her responses,” Lily explained.
Lily realized that Maybelle has a unique way of saying “woof” like a dog, by blowing a whoosh of air through her mouth.
“I don’t know if we would’ve caught that that was her way of barking before; I might have just said ‘Stop blowing your bangs up,’” she said, smiling.
Armed with her new knowledge of early childhood, Lily recently began a job at the Ames Public Library. She’s working as a mobile storyteller with Project Smyles, traveling to childcare centers to read books, sing songs, and interact with the kids.
“I learned through the LENA program that I don’t need to just stick with the words on the page; it’s more about the interaction,” she said. “I’m using the skills we learned in class, like asking the kids questions and waiting for responses.”
She’s seen the impact that interactive talk has had on Maybelle — her second daughter understands more, talks all the time, and responds to conversations that aren’t even directed at her.
“I would tell other parents that this program helps you communicate better with your child, and helps them communicate better with you, which helps them learn,” Lily said.
"Small Talk Story County” is a LENA Start collaboration by the Ames Public Library; Raising Readers Story County, a group associated with the Reach Out and Read program that uses pediatric primary care physicians to reach families; and Iowa State University and its Cooperative Extension System.