Families who participated in LENA Start provided increasingly rich home language environments for their children, expanding how much they talked to and with them over the duration of the three-month class, compared to families who did not attend, new research has found.
The quasi-experimental comparison group evaluation was conducted by assistant professor Dr. Constance Beecher and graduate research assistant Craig Van Pay at Iowa State University, where LENA Start is being offered to families through local libraries and the ISU Extension Office.
To investigate whether the program increased adult word count, conversational turn count, and child language development, the team compared outcomes for families who attended LENA Start with a comparison group of families who attended story time at a local library regularly. The participants were closely matched between the intervention and comparison groups to have similar income, ethnicity, and baseline talk levels. The data demonstrated that families in LENA Start grew in talk and conversational turns significantly more than families who just attended the library or library programs.
“The biggest takeaway from this study is that you can teach parents mediated-language strategies in a community setting, with instructors who are not researchers, and parents will make significant growth in the amount of talk and reading that they do with their children,” Dr. Beecher said.
Adults who attended the program shared anecdotally that their relationships with their children improved, reporting that their infants and toddlers were happier and exhibited fewer behavioral issues.
“I see that as being due to teaching parents to tune in and interact with their child — that really led to more positive relationships overall,” Dr. Beecher said.
Attending LENA Start classes at the local library also helped families to develop a routine of going to the library and reading regularly, even with young infants.
“Although we haven’t formally followed up with families yet, we’ve heard anecdotally that they’re continuing to visit the library and think about and use those strategies that they’ve learned,” Dr. Beecher said. “We’ve made a lifetime difference in the lives of these families and children by creating an opportunity for them to make a daily habit of using talk and being with their children.”
LENA Start targets adult behavior change with the expectation that helping adults cement positive habits like reading and talking with children will benefit the children’s development. This study confirmed marked differences in the trajectory of how much children expressed themselves: infants and toddlers in LENA Start families vocalized about 50 more times each week during the program than their peers.
"This provides tangential evidence for the main point of LENA Start — that parents have the power — because the children are ready to go, and they just need the language input.”
-Craig Van Pay
“Typically with an intervention, we would think it would take a little while to see differences in children that are mediated by parents changing their behaviors,” Van Pay said. “But because we see these large, immediate changes in child vocalization, it gives evidence that these children are uniquely ready and want this language, but need the interaction and engagement from their parents. This provides tangential evidence for the main point of LENA Start — that parents have the power — because the children are ready to go, and they just need the language input.”
Moving forward, Dr. Beecher plans to continue the research by studying how children whose families’ attended LENA Start perform later in school, providing more detail on how the community partnership worked for others interested in doing community-based research, and continuing to support the expansion of LENA programs across Iowa.
These results were published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly in July 2020. Click here to read the study!