Constance Beecher (right), an assistant professor and state extension and outreach specialist in the School of Education, shows Adrien and Nate Logsdon and their son, Leo, the vest and device that will be used to record words heard by babies. Photos by Ryan Riley.
Constance Beecher (right), an assistant professor and state extension and outreach specialist in the School of Education, shows Adrien and Nate Logsdon and their son, Leo, the vest and device that will be used to record words heard by babies. Photos by Ryan Riley.

Addressing wellness through early childhood literacy

Being healthy and well starts at birth.

That’s why Iowa State University is helping families improve the quantity and quality of language in their homes.

Under a new outreach project called “Small Talk Story County,” Iowa State is partnering with the Ames Public Library and Raising Readers in Story County to improve early childhood literacy — thus improving overall outcomes and success rates for those children.

“Every parent can do this,” said Constance Beecher, an assistant professor in the School of Education and state specialist in family literacy with Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. “What it involves is talking and engaging and reading to your child.”

Recording parent-child exchanges

Research shows that children who grow up in low-income households hear millions of fewer words and conversations by age three than those in professional homes. That leaves them less ready to start kindergarten and gives them a greater potential for academic, social, and emotional difficulties.     

“The lack of enriching early language environments creates meaningful differences in the brain development of young children, resulting in a kindergarten readiness gap that is extremely difficult to overcome,” Beecher said.

The new partnership aims to address this language gap. Research shows that every dollar spent on high-quality early childhood education can save at least $7 in future costs.

Parents participating in the eight-week Small Talk Story County program will learn strategies for talking more with their kids. They’ll take a parenting class and get a book to take home every week. Previous research has demonstrated that education programs such as this one work not only for kids but for parents, as well.

“Research has reported a reduction in parents’ stress and depression, just from engaging more with their children,” Beecher said.

small-talk1Babies will wear a specially designed vest containing a LENA, a digital recording device for babies that can record up to 16 hours of data. The device acts as a “language pedometer” recording words heard by the child during the day, the number of parent-child exchanges, and the amount of electronic noise from the television — then translating the recording into data.  

“We  give parents feedback on the number of words and exchanges they have with their children, and teach them simple strategies to increase them over time,” Beecher said. “We can say, ‘Hey, you got 8,000 words this week. That’s awesome. Can you get to 10,000 next week?”

Intervention at the community level

The innovative parenting intervention aims to reach 150 families in two years.

The nonprofit organization Raising Readers in Story County will help recruit both families and community volunteers and will provide ongoing activities and support for families and children from birth to age eight.

Those running the program — library staff including a coordinator and parent educator, as well as a graduate research assistant — will be trained this fall. Families may sign up in November and December. The first group of families are scheduled to begin the eight-week class in January.

The program was made possible in part by a three-year, $435,000 grant from an anonymous donation to the Ames Public Library Friends Foundation. Beecher’s expertise, research, and analysis of data from the LENA device is supported by a subcontract of this grant. Beecher’s team continues to seek funding to fully support the program.  

While this kind of intervention is typically carried out through home visits, the program aims to see if intervention can be carried out at the community level. This program will be held at the Ames Public Library, where more families will have access and feel comfortable participating.

“It needs to be a community effort,” Beecher said. “There are 6 million children living in poverty in the United States. We can’t get to all of those children with one-on-one home visiting. We need community-level organizations who can provide resources like this so we can reach that broader audience.”

Small Talk Story County aims to test the effectiveness of the program delivered by a community organization. If it proves to be effective, it could be a way to improve the early language environment of thousands of children who live in poverty.

“Our big plan for this pilot is to reach every child that’s born in Story County,” Beecher said. “We want to reach their parents with the message that your child being on grade level in the third grade depends on what you do right now, when you take the baby home from the hospital.”

This pilot program will lay the foundation for an early childhood literacy program to be offered statewide.


Constance Beecher, assistant professor, School of Education; state family literacy specialist, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach; Iowa State University, 515-294-4512,

Lynne Carey, director, Ames Public Library, 515-239-5640,

Kim Hanna, executive director, Raising Readers in Story County, 515-520-8686,

Lynn Campbell, communications specialist, College of Human Sciences, Iowa State University, 515-294-3689,