Skip Navigation
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Eddie G. Gouge
Executive Director
Board on Human Sciences
(202) 478-6028

Florencia Drumwright
Senior Associate
Board on Human Sciences
(202) 478-6093

Small Talk: Big Future. Closing the Word Gap with Early Intervention at Iowa State University

All babies are born with their own unique, innate potential. Whether or not that potential is unlocked is determined in large part during the first three years of life, when 80% of brain development occurs. Nothing compares to direct parent-child interaction in enhancing babies’ development. Parents who talk, read, and sing with their babies put them on the path to life-long success.

Unfortunately, research shows that babies living in poverty hear approximately three million fewer words by age three than those in higher income homes. That "word gap" has a profound effect on babies' development. It's predictive of:

  • children having smaller vocabularies and lower IQ scores at age three and older
  • lower levels of pre-literacy skills as preschoolers, creating an achievement gap that often persists or even increases over time
  • difficulties in academic and/or social-emotional adjustment in kindergarten, due to already being behind their more advantaged peers
  • the likelihood a child will be diagnosed with a disability or engage in juvenile delinquency
  • lower high school graduation rates and underemployment

One way to decrease the achievement gap is to provide programs to help parents better understand how important they are to their young children's development. Such programs have reported large, positive effects. However, these have traditionally been intensive programs that require one-to-one home visits by a professional. With more than six million children living in poverty in the U.S., it would be too expensive to do this for all families. It is clear that we must teach all parents to create enriching environments for their babies so all children will have the skills to be successful in school and life.  Small Talk was designed to do just that.

Iowa State

A team including a Human Sciences Extension and Outreach university researcher, a public library, and a community non-profit agency worked together to test the effectiveness of a universal, community-based intervention to increase parents’ child-directed speech, back-and-forth interactions with their child, and knowledge of child development. Next, the team applied for and received funding for the project from a large foundation, and additional funds from smaller community grants.

Through Small Talk, parents of babies ages birth-30 months attend weekly parent education classes. The classes follow the LENA Start™ curriculum, created by the LENA Research Foundation, which is evidence-based, and incorporates technology and best-practices in adult learning. It employs direct instruction, written materials, videos, and small group discussion to teach parents the importance of talking, reading, and singing with their babies, and strategies, namely 14 “Talking Tips”, for improving the quality and quantity of those interactions.

Iowa II

Parents use a LENA Start™ high-tech "talk pedometer" to record interactions between themselves and their babies one day (approximately 16 hours) each week. The recordings are processed through computer software, and an hour by hour report is produced, which documents the number of words directed to the child by an adult, the number of back-and-forth interactions between the adult and child, and the amount of electronic sound, such as TV, in the background. The information contained in the report helps parents identify opportunities to apply their new skills, in hopes of seeing measurable improvements the following week. 

Iowa III


The goal of this study was to add to the limited research base on the effectiveness of a universal community-based prevention program to help parents enrich the quantity and quality of the language input they provide to their children. The data demonstrated that the families in the intervention grew in talk (both parents and child) and conversational turns significantly more than families who just attended the library regularly or specifically engaged in library programs for families. This study demonstrates that a Human Sciences Extension and Outreach parent education program like Small Talk, using the LENA Start® curriculum can assist parents from many backgrounds to consistently provide enriching language interactions to their children, thus creating habits that may benefit their children for many years to come.

Iowa IV

Meetings & Events Events

All Day
This meeting will be virtual.
All Day
Hilton Concord Hotel, 1970 Diamond Boulevard, Concord, CA 94520

Follow BoHS on Twitter

FCS Logo