Closing the 30 Million Word Gap: A cochlear implant surgeon steps out of the operating room and into the community to better children’s language environment

Two-year old Joshua Ryan Keys has a small device tucked into the pocket of a specially designed shirt. It looks like a pedometer, but instead of steps, it counts words.

The automated Language Environment Analysis system, or LENA, is worn once a week and is part of the Thirty Million Words™ Project led by Dana Suskind, MD,  professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago. The device records up to 16 hours of the words spoken to a child, sounds made by the child, verbal interaction and a number of other sounds, including television.

“Babies’ brains grow with language,” Suskind said. “How much parents speak to their children and how they speak to their children impacts their ability to learn.”

By age 3, Suskind explained, children of lower socioeconomic status will have heard about 30 million words fewer than their more affluent counterparts. The way words are directed at these children is also often more directive and less complex,which has a long-term negative impact on vocabulary, literacy, school achievement and long-term achievement on the South Side of Chicago and throughout the nation.

Thirty Million Words ™ is an innovative 12-week program that combines education, behavioral strategies, and technology in a multimedia platform.  The education component transforms hard science into accessible and easy-to-understand concepts.  Animation is used to illustrate these concepts and video of parent-child interaction brings the information full-circle by showing parents real-life applications of the strategies.  Each week parents and research assistants work as a team to review the computer-based curriculum, practice strategies and set goals for talking that can be measured and tracked by the LENA.

For D’Andrea Keys, Joshua’s mother, taking turns talking with Joshua challenges her most. Keys is a single mom looking for a job and attending college classes. She and Joshua live with her sister, mother and grandmother.

“Sometimes, I’ve had a long day, and I’m doing homework, and I just want to tell him to be quiet,” Keys confessed. But through sessions with Thirty Million Words™, she said, she has learned the importance of Joshua’s development and the language environment she provides.

In her last lesson, Keys learned about book sharing.

“Sharing books and interacting with your children rather than reading to your children helps stretch their minds. When they interact they talk and point and ultimately learn much more from you,” said Kristin Leffel, a research assistant for the Thirty Million Words™ Project.

After the lesson, Leffel gave Joshua “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to read with his mom. Keys opened the book and began to read, but Joshua quickly lost interest. Using some of the techniques Leffel described, Keys pointed to a page with ice cream cones and asked Joshua to count them. On the next page, Joshua found cheese blocks and began to count them.

“Do you like to eat cheese?” Keys asked her son.

“No,” he replied. “I like milk and candy.”

Leffel recorded their interaction as they continued sharing the book for about 15 minutes, looking at the pictures and talking about what was happening between the pages.

When finally Joshua lost all interest, Leffel and Keys went over the video and looked for ways to keep his attention.

Count the fruit, follow the caterpillars, and connect ideas to the past and future, Leffel advised. It’s well-documented that children who are prepared for school do better in school and continue to do better throughout their lifetimes, and much of that preparation comes from their language environment.

“It’s important to me to have a well-rounded child,” Keys said. “When Joshua does go on to preschool and kindergarten, he’s going to be an A student.”

Suskind and her team believe that within every parent lies the ability to build their child’s brain and impact their child’s future.  And the Thirty Million Words™ Project is designed to help them do just that.

The Thirty Million Words™ Project is supported by the Hemera Foundation, the Department of Education, the National Institutes of Health, and the University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine.

Click here for a video overview of the program. For more information, please contact Dr. Dana Suskind at or 773-702-1865.

Story by Tracy Loope; Photos by Bruce Powell



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