Wearable Tech May Build Babies' Budding Vocabularies | First Steps

A surprise discovery of a "word pedometer" at ALA Midwinter inspires an early literacy experiment.

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.

Photo courtesy of Starling by VersaMe

Photo courtesy of Starling by VersaMe

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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First, thank you Lisa! Second, I'm one of the co-creators of the Starling. If you have any questions you'd like to ask, feel free to email me directly at chris at versame.com. Thank you!

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 10:51

Kathy Ishizuka

Hi Chris - Lisa will be doing a formal review for School Library Journal. There sure has been a lot of interest in the Starling among librarians.

Posted : Apr 16, 2017 03:29

Christina Stuck

As I waited for this article to come on-line, I wrote my response to such a device on my blog. At first I was mainly hesitant to use such a device because if I didn't met my daily word count, I would feel (in yet another way!) a failure as a parent. Then I started to ask around and research language learning. Not only does such a device make interacting with child more like a chore, but it doesn't really support the use of dynamic vocabulary and how words are used in context. Simply put, a parent or caregiver could speak less words but build a higher vocabulary for the child. Here is the link: http://www.stuckonastory.com/2017/04/05/on-counting-and-not-counting-the-words/.

Posted : Apr 10, 2017 11:22

Lisa Kropp

Hi Christina, Thanks for posting the link to your blog and your thoughtful follow up to my column about the Starling. For the most part, I completely agree with you! Can the Starling, or WILL the Starling be seen as the latest gadget to put on a baby registry, or as a cool accessory for the baby that already has it all? In some situations, absolutely. The price definitely caused me to pause when thinking about writing and in some sense, advertising the availability of this device in a national publication. But I'm intrigued by what public libraries can do with a device like the Starling. Public libraries are designed to level the playing field and close the gaps between the haves and have nots. We serve anyone and everyone. Many libraries now loan out tablets and other technical devices geared towards adults - so why not loan out something geared towards babies and toddlers? My plan is to use these in story times, where my staff can talk to parents and caregivers, explain the benefits of ECRR2 to families, and show how this can be used for a week or two as a library loan to give you a snapshot of how many words your child hears. In my mind, it would be empowering and encourage families to unplug and share more verbal interactions, read more stories together at bath or bed time, or share family stories. An early learning librarian would really be setting the stage for use. I wouldn't want the device to be loaned out independently without some sort of programmatic, multi week early learning class also taking place to put it into context, if that makes sense? Lisa

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 03:23

Christina Stuck

Hi, Lisa! Thank you for responding. Please update us on how it goes with the parents and caregivers. You could do a regular research project on the results! Ultimately, I too hope it will be useful and help parents and caregivers to build a habit of engaging with their child in meaningful ways. Cheers!

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 10:14


Are you able to clean the Starlings? I can't imagine lending them out without being able to sanitize them.

Posted : Mar 31, 2017 07:34

Lisa Kropp

Yes! They are easy to clean with a simple wipe down, and are advertised as being "water and drool proof." While I don't think they can withstand a lengthy submersion in a tub - they can be cleaned with a variety of instruments depending on the policy of the library (clorox wipes, water and vinegar solution, etc..) Lisa

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 03:14


Cool! Thank you for writing an excellent article. I am an adult services librarian, so this gadget might not fit with my work; however at home I am a parent to two children with speech/language delays. It is difficult for us to determine when our kids are "babbling" versus when they are speaking but we don't understand what they are saying. I am extremely interested in whether Starlings can tell the difference. Thank you again for the article.

Posted : Mar 31, 2017 04:43

Lisa Kropp

Hi Muriel, Thank you for reading the column, and for another great question! According to the info sheet on the Starling, it does know and track the difference between the two. You can find some additional information here: https://www.versame.com/starling-actually-work/ I'm also going to pass your question to my contact there to see if I can get a more refined answer for you! Lisa

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 03:12

Debbie Vilardi

Is the device capable of separating words spoken by a person in the space and those spoken by devices, like a TV, near the child? Not all words indicate interaction. If it can do that, this is most intriguing.

Posted : Mar 31, 2017 09:26

Lisa Kropp

Hi Debbie, Sorry for the late reply! We are still in the process of getting the devices up and running with the public. However, my understanding is that yes - the device is counting the spaces or pause between words being spoken. I would think the child would need to be too close to the television for it to pick up background noise like that, or the TV volume would have to be extremely loud. It is a great question though that I'm bouncing to the creators of the device to get a better answer for you. I did find this on the info page for Starling though: "the Starling uses sophisticated, proprietary algorithms to pull your words out of the waves, filter them for proximity, remove background noise, calibrate itself to accommodate loud talkers and whisperers, and deliver a word count to your smart phone. All in real-time." Lisa

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 03:11


Hi Debbie - I'm one of the co-creators of the Starling. Lisa's intuition is correct. For now, we've designed the Starling to filter out background noise, including TV. It's not perfect, but when my 2 year old watches cartoons her Starling doesn't count any of those words. Longer term, we'd love to actively detect words from a TV to measure that separately, but we're limited with battery and processing power.

Posted : Apr 13, 2017 10:50

Susan Guay

I agree Debbie, studies show that face to face interactions are far superior to even a face on a screen, or taped words. This may be interesting for parents to use on occasion to see if they are using enough words each day. I wouldn't want to see babies wearing these all the time though.

Posted : May 02, 2017 08:16



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