Noise annoys: are classrooms too loud?

Independent speech and language therapist Elaine Giles hears too many rumblings in the classroom

One of my friends was having a birthday party at Wagamama recently. In case you don’t know, it’s one of those Japanese-style restaurants, a minimalist environment with no soft furnishings. It looked attractive, but I had to lip-read and strain across the table to decipher what people were saying. It was exhausting. Luckily, we don’t expect children to learn in an environment like Wagamama. Or do we?

50 per cent of schools tested do not meet current acoustic guidelines, according to a recent campaign by the National Deaf Children’s Society, who are concerned that few authorities test, monitor or regulate acoustics, and that new building programmes are ignoring current standards.

Echoic surroundings are commonplace in big, old Victorian schools with high ceilings and huge glass windows, and in sports halls and swimming pools. In studies of inner city schools, the background noise, even at night, has been found to be louder than a teacher’s speaking voice (65 to 70 decibels). No wonder teachers are the professionals most likely to develop hoarse voices!

I know of a six-year-old girl with “normal hearing” who burst into tears when she first saw “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” written down, as she had always heard it as “Dwindle, Dwindle…”. In her school the louder vowel sounds reverberated too strongly on the hard surfaces and masked the consonant sounds.

Young children cannot fill the missing gaps in unclear or fragmented speech in the same way that adults can. If it’s hard for those with normal hearing, consider the six to ten per cent of children in mainstream school with auditory processing difficulties, or the up to 50 per cent with speech, language or communication difficulties in primary school. These groups are likely to include pupils with dyslexia, dyspraxia, attention deficit disorder and/or autistic spectrum disorder, as well as the precocious talkers/readers with, for example, Asperger’s syndrome.

Unfortunately, misleading reassurances of normal hearing are often given following routine hearing assessments, which do not measure speech perception, just pure tones. But in reality, these children may need the teachers voice to be fifteen to twenty decibels louder than the background noise, often already at 60 to 65 Decibels. Indeed, the Disability Discrimination Act 2004 requires this. Is it so surprising, then, that a shocking 80 per cent of those identified as having significant communication or literacy difficulties in primary school, still have significant difficulties at secondary school? Poor acoustics may not be the cause of their difficulties, but boy, can they make a difference!

So, if you know children whose drawings are age appropriate, who pay attention, at least to topics which interest them, but who fatigue easily, and who aren’t making progress with learning language, social skills, rhymes, phonics, or reading, the chances are, they just might not be hearing speech well enough. For example, to hear the difference between the sounds b,d and g, we have to hear chords with pitch sweeps lasting only 40 milliseconds.

Whilst my ideals of screening children for cognitive, auditory and visual abilities at school entry, and reducing all class sizes, are unlikely to become reality for decades, there are simple ways we can help now. Children should be encouraged to let us know when they haven’t heard or understood, and adults should model this for children, using phrases such as “I am sorry, I can’t hear. Please say that again”. Alternating groups’ turns for speaking tasks within a class can reduce the number of people speaking at any one time. Asking the speaker to come to the front to address the class can help the children who need the visual support from lip reading, who should be sitting at the front. Visual support, in the form of pictures, photos, drawings or mind maps can also make a huge difference.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 44: January/February 2010.