Marathon County Public Library to Become First “LENA Start” Site in Wisconsin

Written by Dr. Corina Norrbom

NOTE: Updated 10/26/17 to include links to the LENA Foundation’s blog.

Early talk is vital to a child’s future, but simply telling parents to “talk more” is not enough. Research is showing that conversational turns — back-and-forth interactions between adults and children — are more important than the number of words.

Gaps in exposure to words, books, and conversation during early childhood adversely impact important brain pathways, and these gaps persist throughout a person’s life.


Judi and the late Terry Paul — the Port Edwards, Wisconsin, couple who founded Accelerated Reader/Renaissance Learning — established the LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) Research Foundation.

Because of their devotion to close achievement gaps before they start and the belief that “you can’t improve what you don’t measure,” they invested $50 million of their own money to develop a wearable technology device (shown below and tucked in a pocket of the vest on the child pictured above) to measure language spoken to infants and toddlers.


Their LENA technology is used worldwide to measure and provide feedback on early language, but the Pauls always envisioned it as a tool for parents.

LENA Start is a parent group model that utilizes LENA’s “talk pedometer” technology to support interventions that improve early language exposure.

In the LENA Start program, cohorts of 10–15 parents participate together for 13 weeks. Each week, families complete a day-long recording with their child wearing the device, and parents attend weekly 1-hour sessions in which they receive a feedback report and learn evidence-based Talking Tips.


Scripted instruction, videos, and even text reminders help caregivers using this 13-week program increase the interactions and amount of words they use with their children.

Shared book reading is encouraged, and parents report reading twice as much with their children as they did before. Graduates have shown increased quantity and quality of talk with their babies.

There are currently 16 LENA Start implementation sites across the country, 11 of which began just this fall.


The Marathon County Public Library, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin-Community Services, Medical College of Wisconsin-Central Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service have been working together to bring LENA Start to Marathon County.

Ours will be the first LENA Start site in Wisconsin!

In addition, our site is unique in that we are developing a public–private employer partnership that will be an integral part of the program and its sustainability.

The Marathon County Public Library (MCPL) Foundation recently awarded $25,000 to the LENA Start project, as it supports the Foundation’s goal of enhancing lifelong learning and early childhood brain development. As per the library’s mission, LENA Start connects people with information, ideas, and one another and helps cement the library’s role as a Community Center.

As such, MCPL will be the home for LENA Start in Marathon County, and MCPL Director Ralph Illick will be visiting the Ames Public Library (awarded 1st Place in the 2017 Penguin Random House Foundation Library Awards for Innovation) to learn more about their LENA Start implementation, as well as successes, challenges, and results thus far.

Child with LENA device in vest

We are grateful to the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin, the BA and Esther Greenheck Foundation, and the Dudley Foundation for helping to fund the implementation of LENA Start in Marathon County.

In addition, a group of public and private employers have been convening to help develop a sustainability plan through combined investment, recruitment of families, and in-kind support, as well as development of a future governance structure. For example:

  • Brad Karger is submitting a proposal to the Marathon County Board for $7,875 per year x 5 years.
  • Northcentral Technical College pledged $7,000 per year beginning in 2020 for sustainability, and we will be working with NTC on in-kind options/synergies with their early childhood program and workforce development.

A big thank-you also goes out to The Greenheck Group, North Central Health Care, and United Way of Marathon County for their letters of support and continued project input.


The LENA Research Foundation is willing to come to Marathon County to get the ball rolling once we have secured at least $125,000 in funding.

Thanks to last week’s grant from CoVantage Cares and a gift from a generous anonymous donor, total secured funds are now at $129,000 and we are ready to roll!

LENA training will take place this fall/winter. We will subsequently recruit families for our first 13-week cohorts, which will begin in late February or early March 2018.


I attended the LENA Research Foundation biannual conference in September. It was one of the best conferences that I’ve ever attended. Independent researchers from around the country, and the world, presented new brain science, parent behavioral studies, and economic implications of achievement gaps — corroborating the importance of reducing early language gaps and the methodology of LENA Start.

I am more motivated than ever to bring LENA Start to Marathon County!

Investing in the education of young children provides a significant return on investment. Critical brain development occurs from ages 0–3 years, so fostering the ability of parents to give their children the interaction and care that they need during this crucial period maximizes the potential of our future workforce.

Central Wisconsin is facing a worsening workforce shortage. Supporting parents in enhancing their children’s cognitive, social, and language development (and preventing and remediating child language delays and disorders early on) also helps attract and retain productive workers for regional employers and businesses.

Bringing the LENA Start program to Marathon County is truly a WIN-WIN for everyone!

For more information about this innovative program helping families to close the talk gap, please visit the LENA Foundation’s blog.

Dr. Corina Norrbom

Corina Norrbom, MD

Physician / Health Policy Fellow / Faculty

Aspirus / Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy & Service / Medical College of Wisconsin–Central Wisconsin

Dr. Norrbom is a family medicine doctor with Aspirus. In addition to patient care, Dr. Norrbom is passionate about addressing the many factors outside of hospital and clinic settings that affect the health of individuals and their communities. She is the Health Policy Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service and she co-directs the Physician in the Community course at the Medical College of Wisconsin–Central Wisconsin.  Email Dr. Corina Norrbom.

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