On Counting and Not Counting the Words

My initial reaction to Starling created by VersaMe was bafflement.

I read about it in a write-up School Library Journal‘s contributor Lisa G. Kropp did. She is currently the assistant library director at the Lindenhurst Memorial Library in Lindenhurst, NY. A former children’s librarian, Kropp often writes and muses on developments in early literacy and how they can be used at the library. She really does a terrific job, and I always look forward to this article.

Well, this one was a bit of a surprise and since School Library Journal doesn’t have the article up I wanted to open a dialogue about this device (the article is now up and even includes a response from Kropp; access it here). Like Kropp, I know the types of people who will purchase it (for $199) and use it willingly: they have money and worry about how they are as parents or what their child’s “word diets” are like (and get so caught up in their daily lives that they forget to talk to their kids). So maybe these are the children who would probably benefit from such a device…but most of these kids are already surrounded by attentive parents who talk to them.

The Starling works not as a recording device, but as a “word-o-meter.” You attach the cute star-shaped device onto your child’s shirt. Then, it records how many words are spoken to the child, within 15 feet. It also cannot distinguish between where the words originate from: from books or from simply talking, but it will not count words from technological devices, like a tablet.

After reaching out and asking fellow youth librarians and mothers (and my own linguistic husband) what they thought about the device and its intention, I believe that a device like this has good intentions, but fails to do what it intends.

So what about those that would benefit from a device reminding them to talk to their one-year old, i.e. folks in poverty? There is a documented word gap between children from poorer families and those from richer families because most, though not all, poor and rich families talk differently. I worry it would create a huge panic or feelings of inadequacy if their numbers were below the daily goal. Hey, I know talking is healthy for my children, but it isn’t about the numbers (read more about talking with babies here and with toddlers here). But with such a device as the Starling, folks would just be going by numbers, regardless of what words were used and ultimately feel like a “failure.” Personally, I doubt my son hears every day 30k words, but the words he hears are not just empty ones.

The Starling is basically like a fitness or diet app. You keep track for awhile and either forget to keep following through or begin to know what that many steps feels like or how many calories or grams of fat are in food. You eventually stop using it: either because you built the habit or maybe you didn’t and gave up.

Studies have shown that when families get out of language intervention programs, the interactions between parent and child go back to the way they were pre-invention a mere 4-months later. While in use, a device like the Starling, as with your FitBit, can be helpful. However, unless you really learn the habit the device is trying to teach you, you’ll need to be hooked up for life.

What are the real benefits of using a device that merely counts the number of words and ignores the quality of words? By quality of words I mean words that help and elicit communication. As a sociologist this question tickles me and as a librarian who focuses on early childhood literacy, I know the answer: not as much as you think, especially when it comes to raising an engaged converser.

Language learning should be relevant, and using a little device to count how many words my child is exposed to may go beyond merely making me feel inadequate for my paltry use of speech, but it could give me a sense of comfort when my child isn’t really mastering language in its truest form: to communicate. I’m just talking without engaging. Engagement is crucial. This is where SES doesn’t come in: poor families can actually be more engaged and communicative than rich families.

Language is more than the sum of knowing words. In our culture of standardization and testing, we focus on individual words apart from their context. We essentially isolate words. Flash cards, work sheets, and the anxiety about “keeping up” with the newest mommy blogger is actually doing a disservice to not only our individual child, but to our family. When we go beyond enjoying time together, conversing and sharing stories or talking during an app game, and merely do things to get things done, we aren’t knitting each other together.

I care about children learning language so that they can communicate effectively. If he can do that without me or those around him talking 30k words a day, then that’s ok. The most important thing isn’t the amount of words, but the quality behind them.

Thus, a device like this misses the mark and the ease I like to encourage. As the Every Child Ready to Read campaign says if you sing, talk, read, play, and write together, then your child will be a successful reader. Those simple activities done throughout the day without a time limit will cultivate a well-rounded, prepared, eager learner who has adults in her life that she knows cares about her and not merely her performance.

If you’d like to read more about why counting words spoken is not all it is made up to be, check out this article Mind the Gap: Assessing and Addressing the World Gap in Early Education by Erica A. Cartmill from UCLA.

2 Comments

  1. Hi Christina – I’m one of the creators of the Starling and wanted to take a moment to thank you for your post and clarify some things about the Starling.

    I agree with almost everything you said and appreciate the feedback. We’ve designed the Starling to encourage the basic joys of parenting in a positive way. For example, we chose the star as a shape because it’s aspirational, and we intentionally left a screen off the device to avoid distracting parents or children.

    There are two things I’d like to clarify:
    1. We don’t set a set word goal for every family. Instead, we establish a baseline for each family and try to nudge them to talk a little beyond that. Also, the 30,000 words per day you referenced has been updated with newer research (the original study extrapolated from a single hour per day, leading to a significant overestimate).

    2. On quality vs quantity. I get asked all of the time variations of the question “Which words matter?” My response is that the words that matter are the ones where a child is actively paying attention. For instance, my daughter not paying attention if her father reads a story like an auctioneer isn’t likely getting much out of that experience.

    Quality and quantity are highly correlated. In other words, parents who talk more tend to use a broader range of their vocabulary and have a higher ratio of positive to negative interactions. Also, the Starling does so much more than count words. We’re building an entire experience around coaching parents, including reading specific analysis and feedback that we’re actively testing now.

    I hope all of this makes sense. We love getting feedback, and I really do appreciate your constructive criticism as it helps us improve, so thank you again!

    1. Thank you Chris for chiming in and clarifying a few things. I still feel that we should promote the simple act of talking to and with our children without having to worry about number of words or even our vocabulary’s level of sophistication. Language is learned best, as you alluded to, with engagement and by paying attention. Whether words spoken during our talks are truly “rare” (as we all know the best “rare” words are found in books not normal, daily conversation) or are many, it probably doesn’t matter as much as making the dialogue one of meaning. Good discussion and best of wishes! I look forward to hearing more about such devices and their results in the long run.

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