Foos Ahmed, 27, cracked open a book on a recent morning and pointed out words like “banana” and “broccoli” to her daughter Shaima Abdulle, a 1-year-old with a head full of short curls.
“I read the books that she likes,” said Ahmed, who lives in Plymouth.
This was a mother-daughter bonding moment, but it had another purpose, too: helping Shaima flourish as she grows.
Research has shown that babies and toddlers whose parents talk to them frequently can end up with larger vocabularies than children with quieter parents. Now a Wayzata school district program is trying to bridge that gap, which can leave kids with less chatty parents behind by the time they begin kindergarten.
Wayzata is the second district nationwide to implement LENA Start, which encourages parents to talk with their little ones. The group program includes eight weekly sessions followed by eight sessions every other week, giving parents tips on how to interact with their children, including incentives and goals.
According to LENA Research Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees LENA Start, research indicates that many parents — those who are wealthy as well as the less affluent — may not have enough conversations with their kids. The group also has found that lower-income children start school with disadvantages in language development.
Some parents speak as many as 3,000 words per hour to their kids, while others speak fewer than 500, said Gerri Fisher, a licensed parent educator in the Wayzata district who coordinates and facilitates the group.
“The magic of kids learning language is really in somebody responding to them,” Fisher said.
The role of language
Under the program for parents, babies and toddlers once a week wear vests with devices that record parent-child conversations, yielding information that goes to parents.
LENA Start encourages conversational turns, which happen when a child responds to something a parent says, or vice versa.
Parents should try to engage in conversations even if they can’t understand what their babies are saying, Fisher said. Babies figure out what words mean before they start speaking.
“Most parents think they talk more to the kids than they do,” Fisher said.
Both rookie and seasoned parents were in Fisher’s class on a recent morning at Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners in Plymouth, which serves area families in need. Fisher led a conversation among five parents in the class on ways to talk more with their kids — during car rides, for example.
LENA Start is run through Interfaith Outreach and the Wayzata district. They are partnering with the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, which will evaluate the program next year.
Paula Letourneau’s son, Walker, 2, toddled around her playfully as she spoke after class. She lives in Maple Grove and has an older child, but now knows the importance of conversational turns.
Walker “talks a lot more, he notices things more,” said Letourneau, 39.
It doesn’t matter what language parents speak at home, Fisher said. Babies pick up language best when parents are speaking in whichever tongue is most comfortable for them.
Ahmed speaks in her native Somali at home to her daughter.
“It helps me to have a good time with my baby, most of the time,” she said.