Test-Driving the Starling: Can a word-tracking device make babies smarter? | SLJ Review

SLJ reviews the Starling, a word-tracking device for babies. Our "First Steps" columnist Lisa Kropp considers its potential use in libraries.

Some of you may recall my faux pas in January, when I inadvertently made eye contact with a vendor at ALA and wound up being introduced to a new device called the Starling, designed to help parents and caregivers talk more often to their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I detailed my intrigue with the device in my March First Steps column "Wearable Tech May Build Babies’ Budding Vocabularies,"  generating a fair amount of ­comments on the pros and cons of using wearable technology to count (not record) the number of words that a young child hears.

The creators bill the Starling (which retails for $149) as “the world’s first wearable education device for children.” After purchasing 20 Starlings to use in my library as an at-home enhancement of storytimes and parent education, I was left to assess: Is the Starling an educational device? As with most technology, the key factor is not in the algorithms and software, but the amount of time, energy, and research that a parent—or savvy early learning librarian—invests in the device.

Starlings can be loaned out to early learning program participants to offer caregivers a starting point to engage in more in-depth, meaningful conversations with a young child. The device is also a unique icebreaker for a librarian to engage in media and early learning mentoring with a family. In an outreach setting, a librarian might bring a set of 10 to a local preschool or day care facility to use as marketing devices to help talk about early learning research with early childhood teachers, parents, and caregivers.

The main hook of the Starling is, in fact, research. Cited by parent company VersaMe, “over 30 years of scientific research has shown that the more words spoken to a child between birth and four years, the more likely they are to reach their potential.” As youth librarians, many of us are aware of the 2003 ­University of Kansas study that revealed a 30 million word gap between low income and upper-middle-class children entering kindergarten. Can wearing a counting device motivate—or even train—parents to make concerted efforts to talk more often, and with a more robust vocabulary, to their young children? I decided to find out by asking a colleague with a 10-month-old baby being raised in a trilingual household to test the device for a week. I also wore a device at home to gauge the recorder’s range and how it fared with background noise and count accuracy.

How it works

The star-shaped unit clips to a tot’s shirt or waistband and is housed in a soft silicone attachment. It pops out of the attachment easily enough, but not so easily for a young child to manage, and attaches magnetically to a small, separate charging base. Each Starling comes with a silicone clip, charging base, and charging cables. A normal charge should last one to three days, but VersaMe suggests charging nightly, so it’s always ready to go in the morning. It’s not ­designed to hold more than a few days’ worth of data at a time before ­being synced to an app on the user’s tablet or smartphone.

For the first couple of days, my colleague said it was difficult to remember to clip the Starling onto her baby’s shirt or waistband when she first took her daughter out of her crib for the day. Once she established a routine with the device, her daughter left it alone for the most part, and the lightweight Starling didn’t get in the way of the baby’s play or regular movements. The device is also droolproof, she reported. Remember how I mentioned her baby is growing up in a trilingual (English, Spanish, Chinese) household? The device was able to count the words spoken. (The algorithm’s importance comes into play here. The device is actually “counting” the spaces between words to include words spoken in multiple languages.)

The Starling generates daily word count goals after analyzing the user’s initial data over three to four days. Once it gauges a daily average in a user’s household, the Starling adds to the daily word goal to encourage more caregiver-child interaction—say, 500 words more a day, then 1,000 more words over a week’s time. Users can also set their own word count goal. The emphasis is on quality engagement: talking, singing, reading aloud to a child versus a monotonous litany of words spoken just to be counted. A simple flashing light pattern indicates where the user is within their defined goal of words (in increments from zero to 24 percent up to 75–100 percent). But the more interesting data is located on the caregiver’s smartphone or tablet via the Starling app that can be downloaded using technology called Bluetooth Low Energy. The device syncs automatically and emits roughly 1,200 times less energy than the average cell phone. A lifetime word count is displayed, along with weekly and daily counts.

“Tip of the Day”

Of particular interest for librarians using the devices to enhance early learning programs are the tips of the day and daily activity suggestions that can be displayed via push notifications. On Earth Day, the daily activity suggestion was “Entertain your baby with a rousing version of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or focus on the animals on our planet and belt out ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm.’ Don’t worry, your baby doesn’t know if you can sing on key or not.” The app provides a YouTube link to “This Land Is Your Land,” and users can provide feedback—thumbs up or down—to indicate if they found the activity helpful.

When I logged into the app, the tip of the day was: “Did you know you’ll spend approximately 38,325 minutes changing diapers by the time your child is 3 years old? Use that time to engage with your child by narrating what you are doing, engaging your child with toys, and singing songs.” For parents and caregivers who need a gentle example, the tips and daily activity suggestions can help them increase the number of words their child hears daily. For others, the tips might function as entertaining trivia. The tips and activities are generally simple to follow, with a nondidactic tone. After all, no parent enjoys being lectured to, especially by their phone or tablet.

The cost will most likely make Starlings the hot new accessory on hipster and middle-income baby registries, while mid-size to large libraries with a healthy materials budget can provide access to all families via a library lending program. The Starlings in my library go out for three weeks at a time, allowing the user to gain plenty of feedback regarding the average number of words their child hears in a day. Combined with library-provided tip sheets and talking points from national campaigns like ECRR2, the devices can function as a parent empowerment piece.

What about background noise? According to the product site, “the Starling was designed to filter out speech sounds from four to six feet away” plus “get rid of background interference, and evaluate word count and quality before calibrating the spoken words.” While not perfect, the filtering was pretty effective when I wore the device with the radio on in my car. In a room where others were talking, it filtered out the ambient speech, focusing on the closer, primary conversation. Users can access a FAQ sheet, a wear and care guide, common questions (different from the FAQ section, these address the philosophy and mission of the Starling), and a daily word count overview under settings. There are no in-app purchases.

Verdict: Research clearly shows a link to future school success and the volume of words a child hears before entering school. This makes the Starling a potential game changer for libraries to help provide equal opportunity for families of all backgrounds to borrow a device and increase the time spent talking to their child.

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