Students spend between 75 and 80 percent in listening activities while in their classrooms every day. However, on any given day, there are a minimum of 30 percent who don’t clearly hear their teachers due to mild hearing loss caused by ear infections, allergies or other common childhood illnesses that may go undetected. When you add background noise, poor acoustics and classroom distractions, it’s difficult for young children to stay engaged.
For English language learners (ELLs), a noisy classroom with poor acoustics presents a greater challenge, impacting language acquisition and ultimately, learning. When learning a new language, you need to hear the correct pronunciation of a word, understand how words and sounds link together and know what syllables to emphasize. If those subtleties get lost in translation, learning and understanding English becomes much harder.
When non-native English-speaking students sat more than 18 feet from the teacher, their scores were 25 percent lower than their native language peers, according to The Effects of Noise on the Speech Perception of Non-Native English Children, published in 1994. However, when they could hear and understand their teachers clearly, ELL students scored as much as 30 percent higher on word/sentence recognition tests in a classroom that uses an instructional audio system, the study said.
Schools continue to work hard to re-engage students post-pandemic. Dependence on virtual learning platforms affected younger students and students of color disproportionately, widening the learning gap for these groups. When in-person learning commenced, all students struggled to understand their teachers, whose voices were muffled by masks.
Challenges for ELLs
Non-native English speakers have distinct challenges when it comes to acquiring language. These can include navigating:
- Density of unfamiliar vocabulary,
- Grammar usage, especially the “exceptions to the rules,”
- Use of regional U.S. dialects; and
- Fear of participation and interaction with other students.
There is a difference between being able to hear a teacher’s voice and being able to clearly understand what is being said. We know that the physical distance between a teacher and student has a great impact on the student’s ability to not only hear the teacher but clearly understand what is being said. Often, a teacher’s voice level drops by 75 percent for students seated at the back of the classroom and ambient noise can impair any students’ listening abilities if they sit more than 12 feet from the teacher. Instructional audio, or classroom audio systems that evenly distribute sound, helps ELL students improve pronunciation, expand their vocabulary and boost their confidence. These systems provide clear and even distribution of voice and multimedia throughout the room so that every student hears the teacher at the same decibel level.
The National Education Association predicts that nearly 25 percent of public school students will be non-native English speakers by 2025. By investing in a tool that addresses their unique needs, schools can provide a more equitable classroom experience. Here are some ways instructional audio can help improve outcomes for non-native English speakers in your school.
- Proper pronunciation
It’s critical for students to clearly hear each phoneme spoken in the classroom either by the teacher, fellow students or through media, especially when there are new, non-shared sounds and consonants, or when there is considerable phoneme overlap. In these situations, it’s even more important for students to accurately perceive and comprehend the sounds their teacher makes. Instructional audio can help make sure that all students can hear their teacher clearly and at the right volume, helping them improve their word pronunciation. Because the teacher can speak naturally using instructional audio, they can focus more on conveying sounds.
● Greater focus on instruction
No matter how many years teachers have spent talking to ELL students in front of a classroom, it’s still challenging for them to project their voices so that all students can understand them. At the same time, studies show that speaking louder doesn’t always necessarily help students better understand what teachers are saying. In fact, some studies showed that students perceived their teacher was yelling at them when they spoke louder. Instructional audio allows teachers to speak in natural tones and emphasize hard and soft phonemes—without raising their voices.
● More confident students
Instructional audio systems also encourage student interaction, helping ELL students move beyond the “silent phase” and become more comfortable speaking in the classroom.
Instructional audio benefits all students
Twenty years ago, schools primarily invested in instructional audio to support students with hearing impairments or learning differences. However, we’ve gained a greater understanding of the impact that sound has on student learning. Research shows that when a teacher’s voice is amplified 15 decibels above ambient noise, that teacher can better capture students’ attention and suppress their sensitivity to other sounds and movements in the classroom.
By removing background distractions and putting the teacher’s voice at the forefront, children better respond to the instruction. Students learning in classrooms with instructional audio systems also gain a consistent understanding of their teachers’ expectations, which invigorates their desire to learn and gives them more confidence to speak out loud in the classroom.
Sound-field studies show that amplifying a teacher’s voice results in higher reading and language test scores for all students at all elementary levels. Some studies have shown a 7 to 10 percent improvement in academic test scores for typical hearing children.
Instructional audio in the classroom
Several instructional audio options are available to classrooms and align with school districts’ needs, budgets and resources.
Installed solutions provide high speech intelligibility and full range multimedia sound, enabling a clear, consistent audio from the teacher and other audio sources such as panels and laptops. These installed solutions can also be configured to mute when important paging and intercom announcements occur.
Best of all, an instructional audio classroom solution supports teachers. They simply speak in a conversational voice, reducing their vocal strain—helping them maintain high energy levels throughout the school day.
At one time, instructional audio was used only to support deaf and hard-of-hearing students, but it’s crucial we leverage instructional audio to improve outcomes for ELL students, students with learning challenges and the student body as a whole. When students can clearly hear every word, they gain the skills and self-confidence to succeed.
About the author
Merri Bragg began her career as an audiologist, earning her Master of Arts in audiology at Hofstra University. Since 2005, she’s worked at Lightspeed where she’s held various leadership roles and currently serves as Director of Education Partnerships, East.