The LENA Start parental tool measures a young child’s verbal usage and environment, and most likely would be based at the Marathon County Public Library, which already offers storytime programs that build language skills for babies, toddlers and young children.

Terry Paul and his wife, Judi, started Renaissance Learning in 1986 in the garage of their Wisconsin Rapids home. Their business developed digital learning tools to help teachers and their students succeed in the classroom. Today, those testing and data programs are found in 70,000 schools in the U.S and more than 50 countries worldwide.

There’s just one problem, Paul has said. The data collection and classroom tools all happen after a child enters the pre-K or kindergarten classroom. And that’s too late.

Studies show that 80% of a child’s development that impacts language skills, IQ and later academic success occurs before a child reaches ages three. In other words, if a toddler’s brain hasn’t already been stimulated enough, that child will enter school at a disadvantage compared to his classmates.

It turns out all those parents exposing their babies to a second language and Mozart were right. Research for more than a decade shows that early childhood, between infant and age 3, is the single most crucial period of a person’s life in terms of development and education. A large part of that brain growth relates to how many words a baby/toddler uses and is exposed to. But how can you collect data on and measure that?

A new technology and its accompanying program called LENA Start already is being used in a handful of areas across the U.S. to address that problem. And there’s a very good chance it soon will come to Marathon County.

LENA, or Language Environment Analysis, was developed by the LENA Research Foundation, now based in Colorado and founded in 2004 by Judi and Terry Paul of Renaissance Learning (Terry Paul died in 2014). Their systems measure early childhood development, and have been used in academic research ever since. Since last year, communities such as Providence, R.I., and Minneapolis have implemented LENA programs that turn the research into an application parents can use at home—a technology that measures the number of words a young child hears and uses.

LENA Start looks specifically at language and speech research, which shows that the more words and conversational turns (talking back and forth with someone) a child experiences in those crucial first years, the better off that child’s development will be later on.

The number of words spoken to a child per week can range from 3,000 to as low as 500, experts say. The difference greatly affects how a child develops. Everything from language abilities to IQ levels are impacted by the quantity and quality of conversations at home, according to a study by child development researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, on which the LENA program is based.

Poor development in the earliest years means a child is more likely to struggle in school. The greater a child struggles in the school, the more likely that child will struggle later in life, also a finding of Hart and Risley’s research.


Dr. Corina Norrbom, who is leading the charge to bring the LENA Start program to Marathon County.

Dr. Corina Norrbom of Wausau is working to bring LENA Start to Marathon County. She knows there are many local institutions, both public and private, that have a stake in seeing more people succeed. With an escalating jail population, declining university enrollment, and gaps in the workforce, helping more children in central Wisconsin enter school with a leg up can have a large and long-lasting ripple effect.

And making that happen might boil down to LENA Start’s special little vest. One with a tiny recorder inside that measures how much a toddler is speaking and being spoken to.

LENA Start

Parents are surprisingly open minded when beginning the LENA Start program, according to Erin Lease, a graduate student with the University of Minnesota and the director of the LENA Start program in Minneapolis. After all, they’re voluntarily signing up to attach a recording device onto their child for 13 weeks. The device, housed inside a colorful vest, is worn by the child for one full day per week.

Are parents leery of being recorded? Privacy concerns have come up a few times, Lease says, but quickly assuaged. The device records only data, and has no playback function, says Michael Baum, director of early childhood development at LENA. That data is fed into a computer, which analyzes the week’s conversation activity, then spits out some numbers and associated feedback. At no point is anything a parent says ever played back as a recording, heard by a researcher, or made available in any other form. The computer can differentiate between words, but not precisely what those words mean. Knowing that is usually enough to put people at ease, Lease says.

Three Minnesota school systems have adopted the LENA Start program, and several more are interested in it. There different models for disseminating the system. In Minnesota it’s headquartered at the university and school districts can opt in to the program. LENA Start can also be done through a clinical setting or child care facility. The first municipality to adopt the program, Providence, R.I., uses a LENA system as an intervention tool with in-home case worker visits.

How does LENA Start work? Parents sign up voluntarily for a 13-week program. The parents come in for one-hour sessions each week where they learn about increasing conversations and fostering early development for their child.

After the initial session, the family takes home the LENA vest, which the child wears for at least one full day each week. The next week, the tiny recorder embedded in the vest is brought back to be plugged into a computer to analyze the data.

The analysis allows educators to then demonstrate to parents ways in which they can increase conversation, with strategies and tips.

“The parents aren’t the problem, they are the solution,” Baum says. “It’s just a matter of giving them the tools they need to do it.”

In fact, LENA is one of the easier intervention programs to implement, Baum says. Most of the work is done at home, and really only requires a parent’s time one hour a week and a dedication—based on easily measurable data—to improving talk time with their child.

This kind of parent-driven intervention could go a long way toward narrowing some of the learning gaps school teachers see every day, says Kara Rakowski, Wausau School District’s 4k Principal and Early Childhood Coordinator. She sees in her district exactly what LENA researchers are talking about: children entering 4k with drastically different vocabulary levels from one another. Always there are students struggling with basic language skills.

Educators in 4k programs do classroom interventions with children who lag behind and test vocabulary levels by showing them pictures to identify. One example of poor language development, Rakowski says, would be a child looking at a picture of a tractor and calling it “truck,” and using “truck” to name identify anything of a similar shape.

While educators take the mindset of never giving up on a child, Rakowski says, she is familiar with the research and agrees that the ages of birth to 3 is a crucial stage for language development. It’s much easier to reach a child in that stage than try to catch them up later.

Developmental gaps aren’t always realized along socioeconomic lines. Children from a wide range of economic situations are showing verbal delays, largely because of the uptick in technology, Rakowski says. The more time children and their parents spend on devices, the less likely they are to converse.

Bringing it here

Dr. Norrbom holds three positions: one at the Medical College of Wisconsin, one at the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, and she’s a medical doctor with Aspirus. After joining WIPPS, one of the first things she did was bring a speaker from the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis to talk about the return on investment realized through childhood development. As part of the event, the audience also heard from a neurobiologist about brain development and its importance. Finally, the group heard about the workforce shortage, and the need for more skilled workers.

There seemed to be plenty of support from attendees, and LENA Start seemed like the logical next step, Norrbom decided. “If we don’t optimize [the children’s] environment now, they won’t be the productive workers of the future.”

Norrbom soon found a likely partner in the Marathon County Public Library. The library is perfectly poised to offer parents the program, says Library Director Ralph Illick. Libraries no longer are simply buildings full of books, but instead technological community centers. Basing LENA Start at the library and its branches throughout the county, makes sense because it already has the technology and staff to run it, Illick says. And the cross-section of people they see — people from all different walks of life and socio-economic levels — makes the library even more ideal.

The Medical College of Wisconsin also will play an important role, Norrbom says. Students interested in pediatric work might help with the LENA Start sessions here in Marathon County, giving them valuable experience and research opportunities.  And Norrbom is working with the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin for possible people to lead the sessions.

An early estimate suggests the program would cost roughly $177,000 for the first two years to cover a total of 180 families. Norrbom hopes to fund that through a combination of foundations and large area employers who could offer the program to their employees. As local businesses compete with other areas for qualified employees, making LENA available could be a selling point for recruitment and retention, Norrbom says.

Marathon County government might also come on board, says County Administrator Brad Karger. Though few know about the local LENA initiative yet, county leaders soon will be hearing much more about it. The county’s most recent budget set aside $45,000 for unallocated Economic Development, which could be used to help seed the program as an important workforce development tool. Other money could be drawn from contingency funds, Karger says. That’ll be up to the county board.

“This is one of the most exciting opportunities I have seen in my career here,” Karger says. “I think that LENA could go a long way toward solving many of the problems the county currently addresses.

Measuring the results

While the program has seen short-term success and the research data looks promising, there’s no way to tell how children in LENA Start perform later in school, because they just haven’t gone that far yet. As these children start going through the school system, the data-based research organization will begin to quantify results, says Baum, LENA’s early childhood development director.

In the meantime, anecdotal data is in good supply, and is promising.

Parents have raved about the program, says Lease at the University of Minnesota, and they tell all their friends and family, who then bring in their children. It’s been so well-received that 80% of parents complete the program once they start— that’s unheard of for early childhood intervention programs and far more than LENA officials expected, Baum says.

What makes the LENA program so appealing is that it doesn’t necessarily demand much from parents. It just helps them think differently about the time spent with their child, Lease says.

Parents might talk to their child more during car rides, or keep books in the diaper bags to read aloud during moments of a little downtime. The program simply raises awareness of the importance of conversation, then adds measurable data and tips to help parents create a word-rich home.

Development of the LENA program in Marathon County is still in its early phases, but if all goes according to plan, the first sessions could start in fall of 2017.