On my left wrist is a piece of gadgetry that is supposed to motivate me to get up from behind my desk and walk. While I occasionally hit my goal of 10,000 steps a day on my Fitbit, I don’t do it often enough. Can a piece of technology really drive us to action? What if the piece of wearable technology tracked not my steps, but the number of words that I spoke to young kids? Would I be compelled to talk more often to children, thereby assisting with the building of neurons and vocabulary in their emergent brains? Turns out, this technology exists.
An intriguing idea
I found it as I turned a corner at the recent ALA Midwinter conference exhibit hall in Atlanta (where I was wearing my Fitbit). I was looking for a library-card manufacturer but instead came upon a star-shaped gadget that looked like a mini–Bluetooth speaker. I asked the vendor, Marisa Mirbach, what it was. “It’s called a Starling, and it tracks the number of words spoken,” she explained.
Instantly thinking of Big Brother, I was reassured to hear that the Starling, created by the company VersaMe, doesn’t record words but rather counts them and sends the total to an app on a caregiver’s smartphone. I was interested enough to continue chatting with Mirbach about early literacy, finally setting up a phone call with one of VersaMe’s founders, Chris Boggiano.
Research, such as the famous Todd and Risley study from the 1990s, clearly and critically shows that when children enter kindergarten having heard fewer words than their peers, they will be behind them in school achievement. A gap of 30 million words is virtually insurmountable, manifesting itself in lower reading levels, standardized test scores, and more.
“Talking is free,” says Boggiano, “yet parents don’t realize how much influence they can have over their child’s intellectual growth simply by doing it more often.”
The nuts and bolts
Starling (roughly the size of a pacifier, made of medical grade plastic and housed in a silicone holder) is clipped to a baby’s bib or clothing, is water-and drool-proof, and counts words in any language. It’s rechargable, lasting four to five hours on one charge. Once the app is activated, caregivers will also receive in-app messages reminding them of the importance of reading with and talking to their little ones, and how their child’s brain is growing.
I can easily see Starling on the baby registries of tech-savvy millennials. But what about the demographic who could use it the most, in my opinion? What about the lower-income families who don’t have money for wearable tech? This is where public libraries come in. We are resource-sharing experts. We create bags of books for early-learning programs, such as 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten. Some of us even loan smart pads designed for early learners, such as Launchpads.
Will it work?
Could libraries loan out Starlings to parents enrolled in a storytime session, to further enforce our early-literacy messages? Would seeing a number count at the end of the day on their phone encourage adults to talk more often, with more descriptive language, to their tots?
Tune in next time. I have 20 Starlings to charge and send off with Bouncing Babies storytime participants.
In the meantime, let me know: Does this have a place in youth services departments, or preschool classrooms, or Head Start sites? The possibilities for community engagement via library partnership and parent workshops around the device are intriguing. Now, please excuse me. It is 11:42 a.m., and my Fitbit just vibrated.
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