5 Things You Might Not Know About Classroom Listening Environments
Young children spend 75 percent of their school day in listening activities—however, to understand the context of what’s being taught during that time, they must be able to understand over 90 percent of the words being spoken. In contrast, adults need to understand about 50 percent of the words spoken to piece together the same context—thanks, in part, to our fully-formed prefrontal cortex.
This data point underscores just how important it is for students to have clear, intelligible sound for learning—and for teachers to teach effectively. When students can’t hear their teachers or their peers, it affects more than just learning. Classroom management suffers, as students are paying less attention and are spending less time on learning tasks, which leads to an increase in redirections and potentially special education referrals.
Yet, even in modern K-12 environments, students and educators are consistently encountering listening barriers that make it difficult to hear, teach, and learn. However, mitigating these barriers—and improving our school and classroom listening environments—is possible.
In February, Lightspeeders Tony Zeikle, Senior Vice President and Merri Bragg, Director of Education Partnerships traveled to Indianapolis for the 2023 National ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Act) Conference. This year’s theme—“Lift Up!”—focused on creating ways for students to reach their potential through maximized access and expanded opportunities. Here are just a few of the important takeaways from their ESEA session, “Improving Academic Outcomes Through Improved Listening Environments.”
Takeaway #1: Hearing is an essential part of development—and is especially critical for young students.
It’s hard for most of us to think in noisy environments, and it’s especially tough for students to learn in noisy classrooms. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), noise is so much more than talking—it’s also about the acoustics of the learning space.
ASHA goes on to say there are two things that cause poor classroom acoustics:
- #1. Too much background noise, which consists of sounds outside the building (an ambulance with its sirens on, a loud lawnmower), sounds inside the building (a student running or talking in the hallway), or sounds inside the classroom (a loud air conditioning unit or a heat register)
- #2. Too much reverberation, in the form of sounds bouncing off walls or desks—can also increase the noise level in a classroom. Limitations of acoustic treatments, combined with the initial data point that young students need to hear at least 90 percent of what’s being spoken in order to understand what’s being taught—can lead to comprehension, concentration, and behavioral issues.
While all students are affected by classroom noise, it’s especially difficult for specific groups of students, including those who are hearing impaired, those who have an auditory processing disorder, or students with ADHD. In addition, these kinds of listening environments also impact language acquisition for English Language Learners, who need to clearly hear consonants and vowels.
Takeaway #2: Mild hearing loss is surprisingly common and greatly impacts student learning.
We often think of hearing loss as something that affects us as adults—the product of attending too many loud concerts or working in a noisy environment. However, mild hearing loss in young students is more common than we think.
According to the results of The MAARS Project research study, approximately 30 percent of K-3 children did not pass a 15 decibel (dB) hearing test. The study goes on to say that 70 percent of students with mild hearing loss will suffer academic deficiency by sixth grade. And it’s important to note that most school hearing tests are administered once a year, every other year—so these numbers might be even higher.
Hearing loss is an issue for older students as well. The American Osteopathic Association estimates one in five teens will experience some form of hearing loss—a rate that’s 30 percent higher than it was two decades ago.
Takeaway #3: Teachers’ voice problems are on the rise.
Teachers spend 80 percent of their day talking. They say anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 words a day—an even more astounding number when you consider the average person says about 5,000 words per day.
Using your voice all day, every day, week in and week out is bound to have some adverse effects. Teachers make up approximately 4.2 percent of the workforce in the United States, but they account for 20 percent of voice clinic clients. Additionally, 18 percent of teachers have reported that they’ve missed work due to voice issues. At a time when many schools around the United States are dealing with an acute teacher shortage, these absences due to strained vocal cords put additional pressure on school staffing.
Takeaway #4: Barriers to clear, intelligible sound can be removed with something as simple as a microphone.
There are plenty of tips to improve classroom acoustics—outfitting spaces with carpet or rugs, hanging blinds or curtains, replacing noisy fixtures, and even orienting tables and desks in a way that minimizes reverberation. But even with these measures, audibility and intelligibility still suffer. An easier way to overcome these barriers begins with a teacher wearing a wireless lanyard microphone around their neck. There are three distinct benefits to wireless, wearable microphones: improvements in audibility, intelligibility, and equity.
Audibility refers to the loudness of the sound. The American National Standards Institute—the nonprofit organization that oversees the development of voluntary consensus standards—have standards that define acceptable noise and reverb time in school classrooms. For example, a school that’s up to 20,000 cubic feet has an acceptable noise level of 35 decibels—40 decibels for those greater than 20,000 cubic feet. That’s a standard that’s tough to achieve, as even an empty classroom can have 40-50 decibels of white noise. Add students to those classrooms, and the decibel level quickly surpasses those numbers.
There’s also the matter of distance. Every time a distance doubles, sound intensity decreases by 50 percent. So, if a classroom is made up of a few rows—three, six, and twelve feet away from the teacher at the head of the classroom—the sound intensity will slide from 70 decibels to 58 decibels by the time it reaches the students in the back row. A critical component of audibility is also directionality. If a teacher walks back and forth as they speak, or turns away from the class to write something on a whiteboard, it can also decrease the sound level. A microphone that travels with the teacher allows all students to hear what’s being taught.
Intelligibility is all about the clarity of the sound. Consider the times you’ve turned the radio up in your car the moment you get on the interstate. It’s a decision you’re not even conscious of—but as the ambient noise from the road and traffic increases, you need to increase the radio so that you’re hearing what you want to hear.
In the classroom, intelligibility comes into play specifically when you consider the difference between consonants and vowels. It’s easier to project vowels with louder voices, but consonants—particularly soft consonants like “p,” “th,” and “sh” create an intelligibility gap. Hearing and understanding all these sounds are critical for language acquisition.
We want every child to have an equitable learning experience, no matter where they are in the room. By ensuring the teacher’s voice is heard regardless of where a child sits or individual learning differences, all students have equal access to the instruction.
For teachers, this means having the opportunity to use their conversational voice instead of their often relied-upon “teacher voice” to reach the students in the back of the classroom. When teachers use a wearable microphone and can speak in a normal tone while their voice amplifies, it also helps to decrease the stress level in the room: the teacher doesn’t feel like they’re inadvertently yelling instructions.
Instructional audio also enables more student voices in the classroom. Students don’t naturally project their voices the way teachers do, and being able to use a microphone can be an empowering experience that can make speaking in front of their peers that much easier.
Takeaway #5: Instructional audio should be viewed as essential.
Out of all the ways to improve listening environments in schools, it’s instructional audio that is among the simplest to immediately put into practice. Much of our technology, for example, is ready out of the box with no installation required—and many of the solutions work with the push of a button.
Modern learning environments must be designed to accommodate the varying needs of students, teachers and staff. To achieve this, classrooms must be designed so that every learner can hear every word—as noted by Ray Young, Director of Education Design and Development at Lightspeed:
“To design learning environments that are truly ‘modern’, K–12 leaders must recognize the critical link between speech intelligibility and learning. Instructional audio has gone from something that should be done to something that must be done.” (via Spaces4Learning)
Instructional audio should be viewed as an essential tool in K-12 classrooms—helping leaders address a variety of pressing challenges related to social-emotional learning and academic achievement while better meeting the needs for students, teachers, and staff.