Our Story: Small Talk for Early Literacy

January 2017

Yes, you can read to babies. Through “Small Talk,” Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Ames Public Library and Raising Readers in Story County are helping parents build literacy skills in very young children.

“Our goal is to enrich children’s early experiences through parent education and community programs,” said Constance Beecher, family literacy extension specialist and assistant professor in Iowa State’s School of Education.

“Small Talk” is a series of free classes for parents of children up to 30 months of age. The community-based program shows parents how they can create a rich language environment to help their child’s brain develop. During the classes, parents receive direct instruction, watch educational videos and participate in small group discussions. Then they take what they learn in class, and practice at home.

Beecher and her colleagues are encouraging parents to begin reading – and talking – to their children when they are babies, because research shows that 80 percent of children’s brain development occurs from birth to age 3.

Why talk to babies?

Many parents overestimate how much they talk to their children, because from an adult perspective, they talk all day long, Beecher said.

“But overheard talk really doesn’t help child development. You have to be interacting with that child to impact language development,” Beecher said.

In addition, “parents underestimate the importance of talking to infants who don’t talk back,” Beecher said. But when their parents talk directly to them, babies listen and are able to learn.

In the “Small Talk” program, parents learn the importance of talking and reading to their babies and young children.

“They learn how babies’ brains develop, and the impact of different things that they do on children’s brain development. Then we teach them some really simple talking and interacting strategies that they can use at home,” Beecher said.

Measuring literacy with technology

The parents in “Small Talk” use technology from the LENA Research Foundation to collect data on how much they read and talk to their child at home.

“It’s a small, digital recorder that the child wears and it records the amount of talk that parents direct toward that child. We use that to give feedback to the parents,” Beecher said.

Each week, after the parents return their recorders and the data are collected, they get a report showing how many words they spoke directly to their child during the day and how many conversations they had. The report also shows how many minutes of reading time they had with their child, as well as how much TV time. Charts and bar graphs help parents see how they are building literacy skills in their child.

Early literacy refers to the skills that a child must acquire before formal reading; “all of these little skills that lead up to readiness to learn to read in kindergarten,” Beecher said.

“That involves oral language development, which is vocabulary, understanding the meanings of a variety of words. It involves understanding the sounds of language, things like words that rhyme and being able to count syllables,” Beecher said.

“Some people talk about early literacy as just preschool, the time right before kindergarten. But my message is: Early literacy starts when you bring the baby home from the hospital,” Beecher said.

‘Literacy is everybody’s job’

“Small Talk” is an example of how Iowa State University Extension and Outreach connects the needs of Iowans with university resources and research.

Some communities have local organizations that can address early literacy, but many communities do not. If ISU Extension and Outreach wasn’t working on early literacy, “then it would be left up to each community to do whatever they had the capacity for. We’d have some communities where families and kids get this really good start, and then we’d have communities where they don’t. And that’s certainly not the kind of state that we want,” Beecher said.

“There is no more important citizen of Iowa than a child. If we don’t have children at kindergarten ready to learn, then we have higher rates of special education referrals, and we have low motivation and we can have behavior problems. Retention is expensive; it’s costly in terms of dollars and in terms of children’s self-esteem,” Beecher said.

“Literacy is not just the teacher’s job. It’s not just the parents’ job. It’s everybody’s job in a community. It only helps us as a society to have children be ready to learn and be literate,” Beecher said.

“Read to your child every day in a wide variety of books. And then also have really good conversations with your child every day about things that are happening in your life,” Beecher said.

Iowans who are interested in bringing “Small Talk” to their community may contact Constance Beecher at cbeecher@iastate.edu.

Contact: Constance Beecher, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach, 515-294-4512, cbeecher@iastate.edu.

Writer: Laura Sternweis, Advancement, 515-294-0775, lsternwe@iastate.edu

Small Talk Story County Wins First Place and $10,000 in 2017 Library Awards for Innovation

Small Talk Story County — a collaboration between Ames Public Library, Raising Readers in Story County, and Iowa State University — captured first place and will receive a $10,000 grant in Penguin Random House's Library Awards for Innovation. See the news release.