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School Acoustics May Hinder Your Child's Learning

Written by Rita Kennen

Sound bounces off hard classroom surfaces. When noise blocks a teacher's words, children have a hard time understanding.

Ask parents if their children listen and many will just shake their heads and sigh. When you're talking to kids, those who lend an ear are rare. Those who do listen have a distinct advantage in developing speech.

Even basic listening skills are hard to nurture in many schools. Recent evidence shows poor classroom acoustics may be serious enough to impair learning. Researchers found that only two out of 32 classrooms in central Ohio met standards recommended by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Economics or whether the school was old or new appeared to have no bearing. Background noise and echoes were loud enough to interfere with comprehension. Kids with hearing problems or those for whom English is a second language suffered the most. Even children with temporary hearing loss while recovering from an ear infection were affected.

Researchers say sound bounces off hard surfaces and most classrooms have hard floors and walls. "When sound bounces around it creates its own masking noise," says Lawrence Feth, professor of speech and hearing science at Ohio State University.

Children are more sensitive to poor acoustics simply because they are still learning language. An adult with a larger vocabulary makes up mentally for what they can't hear. Feth says, "It takes only a small change in speech-to-noise ratio for a child to go from understanding almost everything to understanding very little."

The solution

Carpeting helps but may be problematic for children with allergies or asthma. If you think your child is at risk, ask school officials about draperies, wall hangings or sound absorbing panels.

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