Consider the “Listening Lens” as Schools Balance Safety and Learning

Recalling a recent experience in a grocery store, Dr. Carrie Spangler, Au.D., CCC-A, found herself unable communicate with a grocery clerk wearing a mask without a tool she’s relied on throughout her life: the ability to read speech and facial cues. 

“I really had no idea what she was saying,” said Spangler, who grew up with hearing loss and now works as Lead Educational Audiologist for Summit Educational Service Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. 

It was an experience that illustrates the significant problems that educators and learners face this academic year. In a recent webinar presented by Lightspeed, Spangler discussed the added challenges COVID-19-related measures such as masks and physical distancing pose to young learners, especially those with hearing loss. 

“There’s a real big balancing act between being safe and healthy and also ensuring that we can do our job as educators in providing a free and appropriate education,” Spangler said. 

Greater barriers for all students

Noting that about 75% of what kids learn in the classroom is through listening, Spangler described how environmental factors, such as reverberation, background noise, physical distancing and even the direction of a speaker’s voice can significantly degrade auditory accessibility. 

“As we go back into the classroom, every student will be at risk for degraded speech and physical distancing,” she said. 

Masks – a key tool to preventing community spread of COVID-19 – decrease the ability to access auditory information by muffling volume and clarity. Masks also impede important tools listeners use to fill in auditory gaps and deciphering speech, such as speech reading and facial cues, Spangler said. 

Challenges intensify for hearing impaired

Spangler, who runs a support group for tweens and teens with hearing loss, said additional barriers to understanding speech levy a social and emotional toll as such students face greater isolation in social situations. She described a recent Zoom meeting in which each of the participants shared stories about finding themselves unable to understand a speaker wearing a mask and fears about how they will communicate with teachers or peers.  

Spangler noted that clear face shields and masks, which offer greater visibility of facial cues, could help listeners decipher speech.  

“If we can help students in any way to overcome some of those barriers in a little way, that will be critical as we move forward in going back to school, she said.  

Safety measures present new learning challenges

For educators, masks may drive added voice fatigue as they attempt to compensate by raising their voice, an action that actually works to muffle speech and add additional background noise, Spangler said.  Masks may also impact student behavior, as they fidget or struggle with wearing them throughout the class day.  Added physical distance between educators and students also decreases audio quality. 

Auditory risk is not limited to in-person environments. Spangler emphasized the importance of implementing technologies such as remote amplification, captioning and videos of the teacher speaking to help learners who have hearing loss.  

The increased challenges underscore the importance in considering the “Listening Lens” as new instructional models are developed and technologies implemented, Spangler said, who added that distributing audio throughout the classroom or personal digital modulation systems may be critical to helping students learn.  

“Many teachers have said, ‘I don’t need a microphone, I talk loud enough,’ but with the amplified barriers for students and all students, an improved signal-to-noise ratio is going to be critical for students to overcome some of these safety and hygiene factors that are going to have to be put into place,” she said. 

Learn more about how classroom audio factors impact learning and what schools can do to adapt by watching Lightspeed’s webinar “Understanding and Overcoming Listening Challenges When Schools Reopen.”