Addressing unfinished learning with instructional audio

Experts warn the pandemic’s interruption to in-person classroom learning – spanning 18 months in some communities – had serious consequences for students. 

Virtual platforms proved a poor substitute for in-person education, particularly for the social-emotional learning (SEL) crucial to keeping students engaged and motivated. Without in-person connections with teachers and other students, many students lagged projected academic gains, and in some cases, ceased participating altogether.  

A recent report by McKinsey & Co. showed that by the end of the 2020-21 school year, students were on average five months behind in math and four months behind in reading, figures that don’t take into account students who remained remote for the entire school year. While all students experienced unfinished learning, students of color and low-income students were disproportionately affected.  

Educational gaps that existed before the pandemic are widening. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education cited the negative impacts from the interruption in learning are falling disproportionately on students from historically marginalized and underserved groups who went into the pandemic with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities.  

The toll on learning when kids are out of the classroom was well documented even before the pandemic. Sometimes referred to as the “summer slide” – research shows interruptions to classroom time can erode academic gains. As a result, educators to spend the first part of each school year reviewing previously covered lessons. This is especially true for students from disadvantaged communities.  

While students have returned to the classroom, masks, distancing and restrictions on student interaction to help prevent disease transmission pose additional barriers to learning. 

How instructional audio can help students 

Instructional audio is an important tool to supporting students as they struggle to overcome barriers in the classroom and recoup unfinished learning. A seminal body of research – Improving Classroom Acoustics (ICA) Studies – found 95% of students said instructional audio made it easier to hear their teacher and helped them listen better.  

In additional to speech perception improvement, instructional audio systems have been shown to improve learning and social behaviors, including increased communication with peers and teachers.  

Recent studies have identified associations between use of instructional audio systems and educational achievement, including literacy, reading fluency, listening comprehension and reading vocabulary.  

Connecting with students 

Instructional audio can help educators re-establish relationships with their students. When students can hear clearly, educators can make a stronger connection, something crucial to learning.  

“You can’t get anywhere in academics until you’ve built that relationship with your students,” said Kristin Ortiz, a second-grade teacher at Dora L. Small Elementary School in South Portland, Maine.  

Ortiz, a 20-year veteran of the classroom, sometimes takes a playful approach, using Lightspeed’s mic to welcome students into the classroom like a game show host as they enter, or to quickly change students’ moods as energy lags or focus wavers.  

“It allows me to just be silly at times, but it also allows me to just bring it down and talk with them,” she said. “No matter where I am, they’re all really right there with me because they hear that. They can get off task and as soon as I turn this back on, they’re back on again.” 

Creating a calmer environment 

Maggie Beck, an ELL teacher at Plano ISD’s Shepton High School who works with smaller classes, saw student behavior and participation improved once she started using instructional audio. 

“You get a calmer environment, because you’re calmer,” she said. “You’re not using your “teacher voice.” 

Using a natural tone of voice also helps build confidence among her students, Beck said. “My lessons can be heard… it really invites the students to listen, and a higher interest from them as well.”    

More efficient – and effective instruction 

Instructional audio system also helps teachers be more efficient, enabling all students to hear the answer to an individual answer, said Philip Scrivano, IT Director for California’s Simi Valley Unified School District. 

“By the end of the day, they’ve talked about 50% less,” he said. “The teacher has more energy, they have more patience, but the main thing is that every student gets the benefit of that teacher.” 

Supporting ELL  

The positive impact of amplification has been especially clear for English language learner (ELL) students, many of whom were among the hardest hit populations of COVID-19. 

In noisy classroom environments, ELL students had an average decrease in performance accuracy that was four times greater than monolingual children. Research shows the impact of instructional audio systems is significant: Speech perception scores improved up to 30% for ELLs.  

Instructional audio systems also encourage student interaction, helping ELL students move beyond the “silent phase” and become more comfortable speaking in the classroom.  

Building early literacy 

Developing the early literacy skills that enable students to transition from learning to read to reading to learn is foundational to later academic success, but many lost critical momentum during the pandemic. A report by PACE notes that students that fall behind in reading may struggle to keep up with other coursework.  

survey by Reading is Fundamental found educators and families struggled to keep students motivated to read while learning remotely and gain access to print books.   

Instructional audio systems can have a big impact on early literacy skills, including speech recognition and listening abilities because children “write as they speak and speak as they hear.” 

That speech intelligibility is hindered by masks, which are required in many classrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Researchers at the University of Illinois found the same frequency range most important for speech intelligibility is the one face masks affect the most.  

Tapping funding support for instructional audio 

Federal COVID relief funds represent important funding opportunities for K-12 schools, who may use the resources to purchase of educational technology such as Lightspeed instructional audio systems – including hardware, software, and connectivity –to facilitate educational interaction between students and their instructors.  

These funds enabled Simi Valley USD to accelerate its plans to install the wireless instructional audio systems as part of regular facilities upgrades stretched over many years. By leveraging federal COVID relief funds, the district was able to make the systems available in more than 900 classrooms across 30 schools by the time students returned to the classroom. 

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