Campus Audio

Listen Up: Creating More Equitable Learning Environments

By Ray Young

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the inequities that still exist in education, and the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show many students have fallen further behind in reading and mathematics. Some learners, such as non-native English speakers and those with disabilities, have been affected more than others.

A simple and tangible step that K–12 leaders can take to support all students more effectively is to make sure students can hear their teachers and their classmates. When students can hear instruction clearly, everyone benefits.

The Link Between Hearing and Achievement
Decades of research proves what common sense tells us: The more children hear in the classroom, the better they learn. Yet, students are missing a significant portion of the natural discourse that occurs during class.

For instance, a large-scale, multi-year study by the U.S. Department of Education, called the Mainstream Amplification Resource Room Study (MARRS), revealed that approximately 30 percent of the children in grades 3–6 at any given time have some form of mild hearing loss of up to 15 decibels as a result of ear infections, middle ear fluid, and other factors. What’s more, K–12 classrooms tend to have a lot of ambient noise. There may be sounds from street traffic, construction, HVAC systems, playgrounds, or adjacent classrooms—not to mention the chatter from students talking or small-group activities. This ambient noise makes it difficult for students to hear their teachers or their classmates, especially if they’re sitting farther away.

Many consonants, such as “s,” “v” and “f,” sound similar—especially when masked by background noise. When students can’t hear clearly, they miss parts of words, leaving gaps in their word recognition. While adults only need to hear about 60 percent of the words of a conversation to comprehend what someone is saying, young children and non-native English speakers don’t have this ability because haven’t developed the ability to use contextual cues to fill in the gaps—and their comprehension suffers as a result.

Ways to Address the Problem
The first step education leaders should take to address this problem is reducing the amount of ambient noise in classrooms. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has defined the standard for acceptable levels of background noise in schools as 35 A-weighted decibels (dBA) for a room up to 20,000 cubic feet in area. (An A-weighted decibel is an expression of the relative loudness of sounds as perceived by the human ear.) Designers use a number of methods to reduce ambient noise and meet this standard, such as constructing double walls, installing acoustic ceilings to minimize reverberation, using baffles in heating and cooling ducts to reduce air flow noise, and using carpeting and solid-core sealed doors to cut down on external noises.

However, even if classrooms do meet ANSI’s acoustic standards, barriers such as directionality, distance, and signal-to-noise ratio place the acoustic levels well below what is needed for good speech intelligibility, which affects both the students and their teacher.

Equipping learning spaces with microphones, speakers, and other instructional audio solutions is another necessary strategy for improving students’ ability to hear instruction. On top of this, instructional audio encourages students to share their voice with their classmates, engage in discussions, and participate more. Often, students feel embarrassed or self-conscious when asked to speak up or stand in front of the class. Instructional audio helps project students’ voices and contributes to a more engaging learning environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and thoughts. 

School districts have seen extensive benefits among students of all ages and abilities because of using instructional audio solutions in classrooms. For instance, the MARRS Project found significant improvement in the academic achievement of students with mild hearing loss when a teacher’s voice is augmented. Ninety percent of administrators responded positively to the effectiveness of instructional audio in classrooms, and the number of students placed in learning disability programs declined 40 percent when instructional audio systems were implemented.

Making Instruction More Equitable for Everyone
The significance of acoustics and providing audio equity so that every child can hear every word of instruction is well documented. But even with a design focus in this area, there are still key challenges—and studies have shown the vast majority of classrooms do not meet existing acoustical standards. The missing piece of the solution is an instructional audio system.

Ensuring that all students can clearly hear their teachers and their classmates can raise achievement for all students, but especially those who suffer from mild hearing loss—as well as those learning English. It’s a very simple yet powerful way to bring equity to instruction for everyone.

Ray Young is the Director of Education Design and Development for Lightspeed Technologies.

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].