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Schools & Classrooms

How Obstacles to Listening become Barriers to Learning

Let's start with the simple facts. We know that children spend roughly 45% of the school day engaged in listening activities. We also know that students who have good listening experiences tend to become better learners.

Conversely, those who have difficulty hearing and understanding often engage in disruptive behaviour and are labelled as apathetic - or worse.

Part of the challenge is biological. We know that children's auditory processes aren't fully developed until their teen years. So, in order to comprehend what you're saying, students need greater speech clarity than adults.

And since what teachers say to students is, by definition, new and unfamiliar, your students can't easily rely on context when they miss a word. Unfortunately, typical classroom environments often compound the problem because of the following list of factors.

1. Distance

 - In simple terms, audibility decreases as the distance from the speaker increases. We know that students seated in the front row of a typical classroom receive about 83% of your speech "signal." That number drops to 66% in the middle row, and just 55% in the back row.

2. Noise

 - Chatting neighbours, air conditioning, squeaking desks and traffic all contribute to a classroom noise level averaging as much as 50 decibels (almost the same as a busy street). Since your comfortable speaking volume is not much greater, it's easy to see how students might have trouble distinguishing your voice from background distractions.

3. Reverberation

  - The smooth desks, high ceilings, windows, and uncarpeted floors, common to many of today's classrooms, can reflect all kinds of distracting sounds. Reverberation, also called "echo," can clearly have a negative impact on speech understanding.

Teacher Vocal Health

  • Half of all teachers will experience vocal problems during their career (vs. 5% for the general population) - according to the University of Iowa 's National Center for Voice and Speech , USA .
  • The combination of frequency and intensity of vocal use in a classroom contributes to general fatigue
  • Voice projection has an effect on the tone and subtlety of communication

Student Engagement and Behaviour

Studies undertaken in the United States of America in Escambia , Orange , Pinellas, and Sarasota ( Florida ) districts compared over 2,000 K-2 students found the following:

  • 53% of administrators noted a decrease in behaviour referrals among students in active learning classrooms
  • 96% of teachers noted improvement in attentiveness, listening, and comprehension among active learning students
  • 95% of active learning students said they could hear the teacher more easily

Rosenberg , Improving Classroom Acoustics, 1995


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