Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

It’s fun to babble and coo with babies as they discover the big world around them, but this natural instinct is not only entertaining—early verbal communication is crucial for developing brains. It’s also a significant factor in academic readiness for kindergarten and beyond. Children entering school with a smaller vocabulary than classmates (a “word gap”) face a major hurdle that can be hard to overcome: Research shows that early language development underpins later literacy, and many children who arrive at school behind in key milestones never catch up. 

National nonprofit organization LENA is on a mission to increase “early talk” in young children and make it easier for parents, teachers, and caregivers to consistently build up kids’ communication skills and vocabulary. Recognizing that many children spend much of their time in childcare, the organization has a branch focused specifically on supporting childcare providers to increase talk with their young charges. The branch is called LENA Grow.

“With many children spending as much as 60 percent of their waking time in childcare or preschool, increasing talk in early childhood classrooms is at least equal in importance to increasing talk at home if we are to make the biggest possible difference for children,” the organization argues. To that end, LENA has developed a technology solution aimed at helping daycare workers and preschool teachers close the word gap for their kids. Read on for LENA Grow’s recommendations.

Take Turns

LENA says in its latest study that young children should engage in 40 conversational turns—“simple, back-and-forth alternations between a child and an adult”—every hour for optimal brain development. But that can be more difficult to accomplish in a group-care setting than in the one-on-one intimacy of a home, and research shows that only a dismal six percent of children in care are getting that level of interaction. 

LENA developed technology to track caregiver-child communication to help rectify that shortfall. With LENA’s “talk pedometer,” caregivers record a child’s speech throughout the day, which is then fed into software to analyze the data for areas of improvement. The program provides coaching for teachers and childcare workers, as well, to support them in bringing their charges up to speed.

The organization also shares tips on how to effectively engage babies and young children in ways that will build their brains. Following are three research-based recommendations that caregivers and parents alike can put into practice.

Follow the Child’s Lead

Following a child’s lead is one of two key strategies LENA recommends, because it gives them space to initiate and learn. According to its report, “Infants indicate their interests through their gaze (what they are looking at), through touching and manipulating objects, through gestures (e.g., pointing, reaching), and through babbling.” Follow up on those interests with talk.

Respond to children’s natural inclinations and interests by affirming their attempts at speech, asking questions, and matching their tone. While a common problem is not talking enough to babies and toddlers, caregivers should also avoid talking too much. Offering a healthy amount of silence gives little ones room to initiate and respond.  

Practice “Recasting”

The second strategy LENA suggests is “recasting,” which simply means repeating what a child says with additional details or more complete syntax. This strategy is obviously best suited for children who are beginning to actually talk, although tuned-in caregivers may use a similar approach with a baby who points and babbles enthusiastically at, say, a red balloon. “Yes, look at that balloon! See how red it is,” they might respond. 

Repeating information with slight changes not only gives feedback to the child, but also highlights the new information presented. Additionally, it serves as a gentle form of correction and clarification. 

If a child says they want a toy, try asking, “Do you want this toy or that toy?” or affirming, “Yes, you want the red toy.”

Don’t Forget to Read Aloud

Reading books out loud offers tremendous benefits for caregivers and children. And it’s never too early to begin! Reading aloud to infants builds brain networks, boosts language skills, and accelerates vocabulary growth. It’s also an easy way to practice following the child’s lead and recasting. 

Just like how you talk to children matters, how you read aloud makes a big difference, too. Ready to get more benefits out of reading aloud? Start with this blog post rounding up our top tips: How to Maximize the Benefits of Reading Aloud to Your Kids

Opportunity: Apply for the LENA Grow Launch Fund

If you’re a childcare provider interested in trying LENA’s technology, you might explore applying for one of its Grow grants to buy talk pedometers for your program. 

Designed for teachers and caregivers, LENA Grow offers coaching sessions and talking tips along with its specialized technology and analysis. Instead of burdening you with doing research or planning extra activities, LENA does the work for you by tracking and analyzing children’s language. 

Last year, its grants provided more than $525,000 to teachers and caregivers to purchase LENA talk pedometers for their classes. The 2021 deadline to apply is May 15. 

What other methods have you found successful in engaging with your kids? Let us know in the comments!