Marathon County Graduated Its First 2 Classes of LENA Start Students :: FREE Early Language Program Expected to DOUBLE for Fall

Written by Dr. Corina Norrbom


If you haven’t heard by now…

LENA Start Marathon County is a program for local parents that utilizes a device that functions like a “talk pedometer” to measure language exposure for children from birth to 32 months. Children wear the LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) device in a vest pocket, and results are then measured by trained professionals and shared with parents on how to improve language interactions with their children.


Wearable LENA technology device.

Language is the single best predictor of future cognition in a young child. Gaps in exposure to words, books, and conversation during early childhood adversely impact important brain pathways, so early language interactions are vital to a child’s future.

But simply telling parents to “talk more” is not enough.

That’s where LENA Start comes in…

LENA Start is a program designed to help parents improve not only the quantity of words they use with their young children, but also the quality of their interactions with them.

The LENA Start program is currently being implemented across the country as part of LENA’s mission “to accelerate language development in children birth to 3, in order to improve their cognitive, social, and emotional health and to close opportunity gaps.”

Recognizing its potential, community partners came together to bring the LENA Start program to Marathon County, making it the first LENA Start site in Wisconsin.

U.S. LENA Start program sites,

From February to May of this year, 21 families from diverse socioeconomic, ethnic, and educational backgrounds participated in the first LENA Start Marathon County classes.

Of the 21 families, 18 met the graduation requirements — a program completion rate of 86%.

One of the two graduating LENA Start Marathon County classes (May 2018).

In fact . . .

The results of the first LENA Start Marathon County graduates were so positive that we will be doubling the number of groups offered for fall 2018, as well as expanding the program to new locations.

This sizeable expansion is well ahead of our planned schedule of growing the program in 2019. We hope to reach at least 50 families for our fall session.

So, what did the spring LENA Start Marathon County program entail?

For 13 weeks, two parent groups met weekly for 1-hour sessions at the Marathon County Public Library–Wausau Headquarters. Each week, families completed a day-long recording with their child, measuring:

  • Adult word count
  • Conversational turns
  • Reading minutes (self-reported)
  • Electronic/TV noise

During the weekly sessions, parents then received a feedback report, learned evidence-based talking tips, and were instructed in the importance of making time for shared book reading.

LENA Start Marathon County parent discussion.

Knowing that parents are busy and often stretched for time and money, the program offered:

  • A free snack or meal at each session
  • Free childcare during classes (to ensure this cutting-edge program was accessible to all parents)
  • Free class materials and free use of LENA technology devices
  • 13 free children’s books (one could be chosen by families each week of class)
  • Gas card rewards (periodically given out to encourage attendance)

Children whose parents participated in the program gained over 1 ½ months of developmental skill every month. This means that rather than these children falling further behind, the children were actually catching up.

What’s more . . .

  • 80% of families showed gains indicating positive influences on parent perceptions and interactive behaviors.
  • Parents reported reading more with their children at graduation compared with the start of the program.
  • Families whose first recording fell below the 50th percentile had the greatest gains in adult words and conversational turns. On average, children in the lower-talk groups heard 5,210 more words per day than when the program began.
LENA Start Marathon County graduate from May 2018.

Here are a few participant comments recorded by a medical student during a blinded focus group discussion at Week 12:

“I personally had reading and math problems when I was in school, so if I can do something to offset that for my child, I want to.”

“The reports make you aware of how you are doing and show where you are compared to other families.”

“My son is only 3 months, but as we started following the talking tips, he started talking more and making a lot more noise. Even when we took him to the pediatrician, he said, ‘Wow, he’s really making a lot of noises!’ And I’m like, ‘We followed the talking tips!’”

“One of the things I loved was being at the library, so we would get a book each week but also pick out some books from the library, and our son could help pick them out, too.”

“I’ve been using the talking tips with all my kids, and I’ve already noticed a difference. It will probably make even more a difference for my younger son.”

LENA Start clearly motivated parents to talk more and gave them the tools to close the gap.

LENA Start Marathon County graduate from May 2018 with diploma.

Do You Know a Family Who Could Benefit from LENA?

We’re actively recruiting families for fall. Classes will be running mid-September through mid-December.

The 4 sites for fall will include:

  • Head Start Barrington Center – Tuesdays 5:30–6:30 p.m. (dinner served at 5:00 p.m.)
  • North Central Health Care (NCHC) – Wednesdays noon–1:00 p.m. (lunch served)
  • Northcentral Technical College (NTC) – Thursdays noon–1:00 p.m. (lunch served)
  • Marathon County Public Library – Thursdays 5:30–6:30 p.m. (dinner served at 5:00 p.m.)

NCHC will be piloting our first employer-hosted model. Participating NCHC employees will be given lunch and have the opportunity to have 30 minutes of paid time combined with their personal lunch time to complete 1-hour sessions during their workday.

Given our expansion of sites, we are currently pursuing donations to cover meals at the Head Start and NTC locations.

All classes are FREE and open to the public. Slots are limited, and registration is required.

To register for our fall classes, please call Nicole Tank at 715-848-1457, email, or text 715-660-0397.

Fall 2018-LENA flyer

Please download and share our flyer with those who may be interested in this exciting new program.

Enriching early childhood throughout our communities can produce a significant return on investment and help prevent achievement gaps before they start.

We hope that you — or someone you know — will join us this fall to improve parent talk and encourage parent participation in local early-childhood education programs!

A Thank-You to Our Partners

LENA Start Marathon County came to be through the work of an amazing group of dedicated partners from…

…aided by supportive individuals, foundations, and organizations throughout the community.


Support for this project was also provided through:

  • Caroline S. Mark Legacy Fund of the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin
  • B.A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation
  • Dudley Foundation
  • CoVantage Cares Foundation
  • Marathon County Public Library Foundation
  • Northcentral Technical College
  • Marathon County
  • Generous anonymous donors

We would also like to thank the Friends of the Marathon County Public Library for their donation of Thursday evening meals and graduation party pizzas.

For more information about the project — or to learn more about how you can help or donate to the program — please contact Dr. Corina Norrbom, Program Director for LENA Start Marathon County, at 715-881-1816 or

Dr. Corina NorrbomCorina Norrbom, MD

Physician / WIPPS Health Policy Fellow

Dr. Norrbom is a family medicine doctor with Aspirus. In addition, she is a 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. In addition to patient care, Dr. Norrbom is passionate about addressing the many factors outside of the clinic that affect the health of individuals and their communities. Email Dr. Corina Norrbom.

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