Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen.
It’s deaf awareness week, so I wanted to shed some light on how important our listening environment is for learning. Not just for hearing impaired and deaf children, but for all children in our class.
When we think about it, children spend a lot of their day in the classroom, speaking and listening. This might be listening to the teacher, asking and answering questions, watching videos and demonstrations and following classroom discussions.
It is easy to conclude, that to do well at school pupils must have access to all the information provided to them through auditory signals. When we have a student in our class with known hearing impairment, we are quick to provide technological and environmental solutions to support these children. But, it’s less likely we will think about the listening environment for the average pupil. We assume that all healthy children can hear and have a fully developed listening system. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
In this blog, I talk about the effect of listening on learning and how in the longer term this will have an impact on social communication development. I will also discuss ways to improve and support the listening environment in your school.
Development of Listening
We all develop language by listening to what we hear around us. As adults we listen and interpret what we hear so automatically, we don’t always think about it. We are able to filter out background noise and focus on the important messages we want to listen to. As adults, we are also able to fill in the gaps of missed speech. We can listen to part of a message and make sense of it because we have a broader understanding of language and communication.
This ability to parse spoken messages and fill in the missing bits develops right up until teenage years and for some, this never develops, leading to difficulties understanding and interpreting others. It can also lead to a breakdown in communication with peers, isolation and difficulties with mental health and wellbeing.
Many children suffer from transient episodes of infection, like glue ear that create a conductive hearing loss during the infection. in fact, 80 per cent of children under the age of eight will at some time be affected by hearing loss due to ear infections. During that time, a month or more, a pupils’ hearing loss fluctuates, varying between 0 to 40 dB.
Think about this for a second – someone with a 30-40 dB hearing loss permanently, would find it difficult to hear a normal voice in a quiet environment. They would have difficulty hearing and taking part in a conversation in a noisy environment and would require the use of hearing aids in order to access language at the same level as their peers (4)
Listening and Phonics
When pupils start school in reception, they are still developing their listening skills, they don’t have the same abilities as adults which makes listening focused tasks (like phonics) very tricky.
The existing universal phonics system in primary schools favours synthetic phonics which relies on a pupils’ ability to detect, discriminate, identify and comprehend the structure of different sounds and blend them together to make words.
It relies on children having adequate listening skills and advances auditory cognitive skills allowing them to make sense of sounds and relate these sounds to meaning.
It seems obvious but, ‘If a child doesn’t ‘hear’ the difference between ‘p’ and b’ it is also likely that the child will not be able to establish sound-letter correspondences for these graphemes’ (1)
Improving the Listening Environment
Poor school acoustics have been proven to have a negative impact on attainment for all pupils. In a study of the performance of primary school children on literacy and numeracy tasks, it was found that background noise from other children has a particularly detrimental effect on children with special educational needs (3)
in fact, “Pupils with special educational needs are generally even more sensitive to the acoustic environment than others. Pupils with hearing impairment, autism and other special needs are often very sensitive to specific types of noise, particularly those with strong tonal, impulsive or intermittent characteristics. This should be taken into consideration in the design of areas which may be used by such children” (4)
High-quality acoustics in schools are essential for all children to be able to listen and learn. Recent research by the National Deaf Children’s society for their Sounds good? the campaign found only 21 per cent of local authorities involved in the survey were able to say with certainty that their schools had acoustics that met government standards (2)
Causes of Poor Classroom Acoustics
Two things cause poor classroom acoustics: too much background noise and/or too much reverberation.
Background noise is any sound that makes it hard to hear. In a classroom, background noise can come from many places, including the following:
- Sounds from outside the building, such as cars and lawnmowers
- Sounds from inside the building, such as students talking in the hallway
- Sounds from inside the classroom, such as air conditioning units and students in the room
Reverberation describes how sounds act in a room after they first happen. Sounds stay in the room when they bounce off desks or walls. If many sounds do this at once, it can get very loud.
It is important to think about background noise and reverberation in any space used for learning. Some simple ways to make a classroom quieter include the following:
- Place rugs or carpet in the room.
- Hang curtains or blinds in the windows.
- Hang soft materials such as felt or corkboard on the walls.
- Place tables at an angle around the room instead of in rows.
- Turn off noisy equipment when it is not in use.
- Replace noisy light fixtures.
- Show students how hard it can be to hear when many children talk at the same time.
- Place soft tips on the bottom of chairs and tables.
Improve Signal to Noise Ratio
Teachers need to talk approximately 15dB louder than the background noise, but this is rarely achieved in a typical classroom.
Many teachers are not able to speak loudly enough to overcome background noise all day long. This can lead to teachers developing hoarse voices, sore throats and laryngitis. Teachers who find themselves with extremely weak or hoarse voices can often take time off work to allow their voices to recover.
The Soundfield Equalisation Solution.
Soundfield equalisation is a classroom listening solutions that consists of creating an environment where each child is at a favourable speaker-listener distance by routing the teacher’s voice to loudspeakers around the classroom. A soundfield system picks up the teacher’s voice via a wireless microphone very close to the teacher’s mouth. At this location, the signal is stronger than any noise in the classroom. the signal is sent to an amplifier that drives loudspeakers that are positioned around the room. The amplifier is set and the loudspeakers are positioned to create a positive SNR (approximately +15dB) in all listening areas of the classroom. This means that the teachers’ voice is always louder than the classroom noise.
Digital Conversation Listeners
These are great for group work and help increase the signal to noise ratio for deaf pupils and those struggling to process auditory information. Simply point the device in the direction of the sound you need to hear, and it will amplify the conversation and transfer it to a pupils’ hearing aids, or ears. The signal can be enhanced and the clarity of the sound can be altered by adjusting high and low tones (bass and treble) to suit the particular type of hearing difficulties.
Individual listening devices
For children with ASD, ADHD and SLCN consider new technology such as Roger Focus it is a product that sends the teacher’s voice directly into the pupil’s ears. It cuts out distracting noise, like nearby conversations or their classmate’s movements of books and chairs, allowing the pupil to hear and act upon more of the teacher’s instructions.
- Vance M & Martindale N (2012) Assessing speech perception ability in children with identified language difficulties: Effects of background noise and phonetic contrast. International Journal of Speech & Language Pathology. 14, 1, 48-58
- NDCS sounds good 2009
- Dockrell, J.E. & Sheild, B.M. (2006) Acoustical barriers in classrooms: the impact of noise on performance in the classroom. British Educational Research Journal. 32 (3), pp509-525.
- Design of Buildings and their Approaches to Meet the Needs of Disabled People, Code of Practice’ and ‘Acoustics of Schools: a Design Guide
- Action Hearing Loss – Hearing Matters
I have no affiliation with these products or companies featured in this article, I have seen them used in many schools in the UK and seen the fantastic results they can achieve. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at Mable. I hope this article has given you some insight into listening and acoustics in schools. If you have any stories you would like to share please leave a comment below or tweet us @mableTherapy
Martha is a senior speech and language therapist with experience working with primary and secondary aged children. She has a special interest in hearing impairment.