The theme of this year’s UN International Day of Families was all about supporting families to improve early education for children, and one of the biggest factors that influences a child’s education is language.

The number of words children hear in their very first days, months and years has a huge impact on their brain development. Making sure we speak to our babies, sing to them and read stories is one of the most important things we can do as parents.

To find out just how important this is we spoke to Dr Stephen Hannon, the president of the LENA Research Foundation in Colorado, USA.

“In the first three years of life, talk is the single biggest factor that affects brain growth and school readiness,” says Dr Hannon.

The research shows that the more language a child is exposed to in these first three years, the bigger their vocabulary is, and this has an impact for years to come.

“We know vocabulary at age three predicts reading ability at age of nine or 10,” says Dr Hannon. “And, if you read well at age nine or 10 you’re more likely to finish school and be capable to go on to university.”

The amount of talk you hear as a baby sets the table for what Dr Hannon calls this “cascade of development.”

When children don’t hear enough speech in those first few years, the danger is that they start school already behind their peers, and it is a gap that is difficult to make up.

“If we wait until children reach the doorsteps of school, that’s probably too late for too many,” says Dr Hannon.

This is the problem that the LENA Foundation is working to solve. And this work starts in the home, working with parents to help them speak to their children more.

“Parents are the secret sauce. Parents and care-givers are their child’s first and best teacher.”

The challenge is, as parents, we find it hard to judge how much we are speaking to our children.

“Most of us overestimate how much we talk with our babies,” says Dr Bannon, “And those of us who talk the least overestimate the most.”

To overcome this, LENA Foundation have developed a small device that is worn by babies and toddlers that measures the amount of words they hear, as well as the amount of words and sounds they make.

The information is then downloaded onto a computer and a report is made that shows parents clearly how much they are engaging with their child. Each week a volunteer goes through the report with parents to help them understand and supports them in developing new techniques for speaking to their baby.

The programme is well established in the USA, and has also been used in the UK to support children with hearing difficulties, and Dr Hannon says the results have been clear, and now Home-Start volunteers will be using the technology to support families.

“In the US we see with feedback and coaching, parents are talking more. So we see that adult words elevate and we also see the conversational turns elevate,” he says.

“We’re also seeing language development. If, in a certain period of time we’re supposed to develop two months of language skills, we’re actually seeing development of five months of skills in two months. If there is a gap it’s closing. We’re seeing children who are behind catching up comparable with their peers.”

The impact isn’t just on children, the LENA Foundation have also found that parents taking part in the project say they are more self-confident, and so the family dynamic is improved as well.

Home-Start has worked with the LENA Foundation to bring the project to the UK for the first time in a family support setting. Read more about our LENA early communication programme.