Early Head Start centers in Tennessee use LENA programs to improve early literacy


A LENA Start class meets for a session at Porter-Leath in Memphis.

A LENA Start class meets for a session at Porter-Leath in Memphis.

In 2013, a group of community leaders in southwestern Tennessee formed a diverse partnership to address an emerging problem: despite economic growth, educational outcomes for local students were low.

Known now as “Seeding Success,” the Collective Impact Partnership works in Shelby County — home to Memphis, and the most populous county in the state – using data to improve outcomes for children.

Seeding Success helped bring LENA programs to Memphis, collaborating with local partners like the University of Memphis and Porter-Leath, a community resource center that manages several Early Head Start facilities.

After launching LENA Start classes for families in 2017, Porter-Leath decided to extend their focus on early interactions into the classroom as well, adding LENA Grow professional development for early childhood teachers in 2019. Implementing both programs has created a unique wrap-around system of early literacy support for children in the area.

Increases in parent knowledge and confidence through LENA Start

When initially deciding to offer LENA Start, the Porter-Leath team evaluated how the program aligned with the Head Start performance standards.

A parent from Porter-Leath smiles at the camera with her son.

Parents began to share stories about their positive experiences in LENA Start with each other.

“The Head Start Program Performance Standards require programs to have school readiness goals, and we were excited to do LENA Start in hopes of increasing our assessment scores,” said TaWanda Randolph, Education Specialist for Porter-Leath. “We were also excited about the opportunities and potential growth in the children and their families.”

LENA Start is designed to encourage parents to promote and participate in their child’s learning. Feedback-based educational content helps parents to set personalized goals, and the peer model builds social well-being and community.

“The parents are eager to participate. This helps give them more buy-in and makes them more aware of what goes on in their child’s classroom. They’re becoming more knowledgeable and conscious of what’s developmentally appropriate, and they want to know more and more so that they can help their children learn more,” Randolph said.

In Memphis, Randolph has seen the local buzz about the program grow as parents tell each other about their experiences.

“The first group has been over for almost a year now, and those families are still excited about it and still implementing what they learned,” she said with a laugh. “This is an awesome tool that goes far beyond just the parents you’re reaching in your sites. When people in the community see the children with the vests on, that’s a conversation piece, and we’ve been able to equip parents to go out and educate others on the science.”

“This is an awesome tool that goes far beyond just the parents you’re reaching in your sites. When people in the community see the children with the vests on, that’s a conversation piece, and we’ve been able to equip parents to go out and educate others on the science.”

-TaWanda Randolph

Bridging the home and school environments

A teacher interacts with a child during a LENA Day.

The LENA data has also been a useful tool to help parents and teachers connect. Porter-Leath offers LENA Grow to all new teachers who start at their centers, and uses assessment data to identify other teachers to participate who could benefit from extra coaching around language and literacy.

“This helps us get the new teachers acclimated into our teaching practice here at Porter-Leath,” said TaWanda Payton, Early Head Start Instructional Coach. “LENA Grow aligns with the Head Start framework and it will help to increase CLASS scores, and we want all new teachers and teachers needing additional coaching to learn and understand the importance of how interactive talk helps to support a child’s healthy development.”

The Early Head Start teachers often discuss LENA reports during their home visits with families, and the data helps to facilitate reflection on the classroom as well as bridge the home and school environments. “The teachers are able to model using the 14 Talking Tips during home visits and encourage families to use them,” Payton said.

Parents are able to get children excited to wear their “superhero vest” before LENA Days at school.

The team in Memphis offers a joint orientation for families to both LENA Start and LENA Grow at the beginning of the school year, and invites families to enroll in LENA Start after their child finishes the LENA Grow sequence. The early introduction helps to engage parents, as teachers ask them to get kids excited to wear the “superhero vest” on LENA Days and encourage them to talk more at home, too. More than 70% of teachers who used LENA Grow during the spring of 2020 strongly agreed that the program helped them to increase communication with parents, a valuable resource in the midst of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Using LENA helps us to meet our school readiness goals, and it helps teachers engage in conversations with parents on what the data is saying, make suggestions and provide resources to extend the learning at home. When our education teams meet with parents, teachers and community partners during our quarterly school readiness meetings, we look at all of our data, and LENA Grow has helped to increase our infant and toddler school readiness goals,” Payton said.

Data to support brain-building interactions

The data from LENA Grow also helps teachers to reflect on and improve their teaching practice.

Teachers review LENA Grow curriculum materials.

“What makes the program unique is that teachers are actually able to see the individualized work that they’re doing in the classroom. Teachers are learning the importance of how using data helps to drive instruction, which in turn helps to make them even better teachers,” Payton said. She coaches each teacher through the program, encouraging them to set S.M.A.R.T goals based on their data and celebrating earning stars and seeing green when they reach them.

On surveys, teachers report that using LENA Grow has helped them to incorporate more interactions into daily routines like hand-washing and diapering. They also report feeling more confident in their teaching abilities and satisfied with their jobs.

“I appreciate the immediate feedback. It gives indicators on what you can/should work on on your next LENA Day,” one teacher wrote in her survey.

Children have benefited, too. Data from the spring of 2020 show that:

  • On average, infants in LENA Grow classrooms demonstrated higher mastery in all six domains of the LAP-BK assessment compared to peers with non-participating teachers.
  • Toddlers in LENA Grow classrooms demonstrated slightly higher mastery in three out of six domains compared to peers with non-participating teachers.
  • Transitioning toddlers in LENA Grow classrooms consistently exhibited higher mastery across five out of six domains compared to peers with non-participating teachers.

“When we do our assessment data walks, we’re able to see growth in all domains, and not just language and literacy. Language and interactions are an important part of everything we do in the classroom, so of course we start to see a rise in all domains across the board when teachers participate in LENA Grow,” Payton said.

Motivated by these positive outcomes, the team at Porter-Leath will continue their work with teachers and families throughout the fall virtually.

This article was originally published in October 2018. It was updated in September 2020.


The LENA Team is a dedicated group of professionals who are passionate about increasing awareness of the importance of early interactive talk. We are statisticians, speech-language pathologists, curriculum specialists, engineers, and linguists.

Related Posts

Please Give Us Your Thoughts

All comments are reviewed before being posted.

LENA is committed to protecting and respecting your privacy.

You may unsubscribe from these communications at any time.