A device which parents attach to their babies has tracked their speech in a new project which is aiming to bridge the gap between how rich and poor kids speak.

The technology - being used for the first time in New Zealand - was brought to the country as part of the Talking Matters campaign, a cross-sector group including early learning centres, schools and researchers.

The campaign was started because of a widening gap between the speech of affluent children and those living in low-socio economic communities.

Some children were starting school with language expected of three-year-olds.


Developed by the Lena Research Foundation in Colorado, the Lena Recorder is worn by a child inside a colourful vest, similar to a bib. It works like a pedometer and records words and responses between a parent and a child.

The data is then kept, and studied.

In a trial of four Auckland mothers and children, the data was sent back to project manager Emma Quigan, a trained speech and language therapist, who met with them each week to discuss the results and suggest strategies to help them talk more frequently.

Quigan said the technology was trialled by women who lived in units run by the Anglican Trust for Women & Children in Auckland, in which they learn parenting and home-making skills.

Patrese Herewini trialled the technology with her son Saent and daughter Envy. Photo / Doug Sherring
Patrese Herewini trialled the technology with her son Saent and daughter Envy. Photo / Doug Sherring

More of the devices have been purchased in the hope the campaign can target teenage mothers.

"We were wanting to find ways that would help encourage parents to have more rich conversations with their children, both in quality and quantity," said Quigan.

"If the parents are able to have these quality conversations with their children on a regular basis, their speech will improve."

She said the number of times the children responded verbally during conversation with their parents had improved over the course of the trial, which started in February.


"I've been blown away with the level of personal development for themselves as well as their children.

"They feel confident about sharing; they feel much more secure in their parenting style. They love that they get the data and the reports and can make decisions about their parenting based on evidence rather than someone telling them what to do."

Children who don't experience a lot of interaction and talk may not grow a wide vocabulary, may struggle to express themselves, and may struggle to learn to read or write.

Children's verbal responses to their parents were found to improve during the Lena Recorder trial.
Children's verbal responses to their parents were found to improve during the Lena Recorder trial.

It could affect their thinking, creativity, problem-solving and ability to form relationships.

Quigan will present her findings from the trial at a summit run by Talking Matters - which is supported by Comet, an Auckland Council controlled organisation and independent trust - today at the Ellerslie Events Centre, where Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft will also speak.

Patrese Herewini, 25, who lives with her four children in Mt Wellington, trialled the technology with her son, Saent, aged 15 months.

"[I've] made heaps of progress with my son.

"The vest sort of helped us interact and talk more to our children.

"When we first started using it, I made an effort like I talked to him more and all that, and then it just became normal. The talking came freely and it didn't matter if they weren't wearing the vest anymore."

Herewini said it was as much of a learning experience for her as it was for her child.

"[I'm] reading more books to them and the kids like that and it actually works.

"It's brought us together ... I wasn't much of a reader but now I'm reading too."

Quigan said programmes like these are more respectful towards parents.

"What is different about it is it is it puts the power back to parents.

"A lot of programmes around parenting are very focused on, 'This is what the experts say', and is telling people how they need to change."