Columnist

There’s a new student at Bright Beginnings, a preschool in Southeast Washington. She’s called LENA, and while she doesn’t say much, she’s very attentive.

LENA isn’t a person. It’s a machine, a little gadget smaller than a cellphone that students wear in a pouch in a smock.

“What the LENA device does is capture audio fields for language interaction in that child’s environment,” said Anthony Sims, director of organizational learning at Bright Beginnings, a school that serves families experiencing homelessness. The charity is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising campaign.

LENA — it stands for Language Environment Analysis — is both hardware (that little $250 recorder) and software (the programs that parse the recordings). It was developed by a nonprofit organization headquartered in Colorado. The program has just been rolled out at Bright Beginnings, where once or twice a week, one or two pre-K classes of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds don LENA-equipped smocks.

“The kids like [the smock] because it’s bright and colorful,” Sims said. “One person said their kid called it their ‘superhero uniform.’ ”

At the end of the day, the recorders are collected and the data they captured is uploaded to a hub to be analyzed. If this all sounds a bit Big Brotherish, Sims points out that LENA doesn’t record the specific dialogue.

“No one is actually listening to their conversations,” he said. “The computer is counting the words, not what words are said.”

The LENA software is able to tally discrete words. More importantly, it notes who is talking. The difference in frequency between a child and an adult voice lets it discern “conversational turns.” These are the back-and-forth interactions when one person stops talking and the next person starts.

And that is the key to LENA, Sims said. Exposure at a young age to a large vocabulary is important, but research suggests that back-and-forth conversation can help in the development of the growing brain.

“The objective really is to build on the research that’s shown that the early childhood talk environment really advances language and brain development for children,” Sims said. “This particular approach seeks to increase language and what they call conversational turns between adults and their children.”

The LENA program just started at Bright Beginnings, so they’re still in the process of establishing baselines for their students. What happens next? The data will be shared with teachers so they can see how they’re interacting with the kids under their supervision.

The data will also be shared with parents. Sims said LENA can encourage parents to adjust the way they interact with their children.

“If you don’t understand the difference between talking to kids and prompting them with questions, and inviting them to ask questions, then we really aren’t improving the language gap that we’re hearing about in kids in lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” he said.

Take, for example, a familiar question: How was school? Questions that elicit one-word answers from children — “okay” — aren’t as beneficial as ones that invite something richer.

Better, Sims said, is a layered question that leads to greater elaboration: “You had science today. What are you guys working on in science? Is that a new subject? What do you think about it?”

In addition to the children enrolled at its two locations in Southeast Washington, Bright Beginnings has home-based programs. Staff members visit children at their homes and provide parenting help. The LENA devices will be worn there, too, then collected, the data uploaded and crunched so parents can gauge interaction with their children.

Sims joined Bright Beginnings in September. He holds a doctorate from Howard University and has been an educator for 28 years.

“Gone are the days where we look for those silent classrooms,” he said. Unless students are working independently, he’d rather see children querying the teacher as they strive to learn.

The wonder of the young noggin is that the brain doesn’t just produce language. Language helps improve the brain. Homelessness and poverty can starve young brains of the developmental capital they need.

Sims thinks the Bright Beginnings parents will want to know what they can do to make sure their sons and daughters are ready for kindergarten and the world beyond.

“That’s the true power of data,” he said. “It’s not just the answers it gives us. It’s the questions that it prompts.”

You can help

Here’s the question I’m prompted to ask: Will you help Bright Beginnings, a school that serves some of the most vulnerable children in Washington?

To give, visit posthelpinghand.
com
and click “Donate.” To contribute by mail, make a check payable to “Bright Beginnings” and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.

Our fundraising drive ends Friday, so please give today.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.