LENA: Language assessment at home? A new tool for parents and researchers

By Nicole Hess MS, CCC-SLP

EDITORS NOTE: Child-Psych is not affiliated with LENA and its not directly supported by LENA in any way. None of our bloggers receive any compensation from LENA.

BRIEFS Focus on language:

There is a new product on the market to assess language for children between the ages of 0-48 months. It is called the LENA (Language Environment Analysis) System. It uses a Digital Language Processor (DLR) to capture up to 16 hours of speech and then downloads and analyzes the information. It creates reports detailing child vocalizations, conversational turns, how much TV and electronic noise there is, and the amount of adult speech that the child is exposed to. The LENA System is based on five years of research and development and is the principle product for the LENA Foundation a not-for-profit organization created by the Philanthropists Terry and Judi Paul.

What is neat about LENA is that for the first time we are able to get a naturalistic and accurate assessment of the kids language without interference from the observer. For example, when a child comes into a testing environment, especially a child with a language delay, what you get is not always what is really there. Kids usually act differently in a testing environment as compared to how they act at home. With a device that the child can take home, wear for 16 hours, then bring back to the speech pathologist to analyze, parents and clinicians get real-time and real life data. Also you get an understanding of what kind of interaction the child is getting form adults, how much TV she is watching and the percentage of real speech verses vocalizations.

LENA is being marketed for parents to purchase so that they can analyze their child’s development and also monitor their own behavior to increase verbal interaction with the child. We know that the more you talk/read/interact with a child the more vocabulary they will have, and that the first three years of life have the biggest impact on language development. However, the device does not analyze syntax or grammar. The sheer number of words a child speaks is important but the variety and type of sentences they speak is also important. In addition, if a parent is concerned about a child’s development and wants to use the device, the parent should seek the advice of a speech and language professional and use the device as a tool to guide their work with the clinician. Oh, and it is expensive: $699.

LENA has research implications too. Right now there are four presentations and a poster session at the Society of Research and Development (SRCD) in Denver, CO, dedicated to the device. SRCD is one of the largest professional conference for child development researchers around the world. Research data that in the past would have taken many man-hours to collect can now be done in the subject’s home and analyzed in minutes. It also takes a lot of human error (the observer phenomenon) out of the mix. In addition, the LENA Foundation is working to create an autism screening. The theory is that there are unique vocal markers that differentiate a child with autism from one that does not. The screening tool was able to distinguish between the two groups with better than 85 percent accuracy between the ages of 24-48 months. They hope to improve on that and are in the process of peer review of the initial research reports and conducting more reliability and validity studies.

I think it is important with any technology to remember that it is just one tool and that there is no substitute for good old human interaction. Here is the link to LENA: http://www.lenababy.com and the
The media story about the SRCD presentation