New technology aiding parents and toddlers to communicate video

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Auckland mums trial speech technology, LENA, to expand early communication and oral language in toddlers.

A new speech recording device is helping bridge the gap between how children from rich and poor homes learn to speak.

Developed by LENA Research Foundation in the US, it is being trialled in New Zealand for the first time.

It is run by Talking Matters, a campaign led by COMET Auckland, an independent education trust linked to Auckland Council, with seed funding from the NEXT Foundation.

Renee Maka with her son Tyson.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/STUFF

Renee Maka with her son Tyson.

Four Auckland mums were part of the six-month pilot programme that aims to help improve the vocabulary of toddlers.

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Renee Maka from Manurewa was surprised when she heard her four-year-old tell her, "you've got to use your strategies".

The LENA recorder that helps toddlers increase their vocabulary.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/STUFF

The LENA recorder that helps toddlers increase their vocabulary.

She says the device has helped her talk in full sentences too.

"Usually, I'd say go grab this or get that. But now I say, 'Can you please get me the cup that's on top of the brown table'."

Her son Tyson wears the device that fits snug into a colourful vest. It's on him for 16 hours a day, and on average he speaks up to 500 words an hour.

Kylie McOnie with her sons Hendricks, left, and Creed.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/STUFF

Kylie McOnie with her sons Hendricks, left, and Creed.

The LENA recorder will pick up words said to and by the child, and works much like a pedometer.

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Parents then hand over the device to Talking Matters project manager Emma Quigan. Within a couple of hours, they can find out how much their child spoke in the day, when were they most chatty and what topics held their interest, among other interesting data.

Using the data gleaned from the LENA recorder, Emma then provides tips and feedback for the mums on how to improve their child's language skills. 

Talking Matters project manager, Emma Quigan.
KYMBERLEE FERNANDES/STUFF

Talking Matters project manager, Emma Quigan.

Both of Kylie McOnie's sons have been using the vest regularly.

While 11-month-old Creed is still babbling, her two-year-old Hendricks only started talking after using the device.

"It's awesome. He's just taken off. He's just started talking to other people as well. This programme has helped him engage."

The mums were trialling this programme while on the Anglican Trust for Women and Children's residential programme in Otahuhu.

McOnie, from West Auckland, wants to introduce teenage parents in her community to use this programme.

Emma Quigan says some of the mums who have graduated are keen to fulfil the role of a coach in other communities.

"I have coached them on how to use the technology, read the reports and think about strategies," she says.

She says there is a big gap between highly educated and less-educated parents and it's reflected in their child's language skills.

"If you've got more money you've got more time quite often to spend with your children," she says.

"We want to introduce it in te reo Maori. The developers have found that it works in any language."

They're focusing the programme on community groups while still in the initial stages. The Auckland Kindergarten Association have recently signed up.

The device costs $500, and the purchased 30 software licences are in the tens of thousands.

 - Stuff

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