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Summary  •  Poor Acoustics  •  Hearing Problems
Immature Auditory Capabilities  •  At-Risk Students

Problems: Children At Higher-Risk for Not Hearing in the Classroom


ALL children, those with perfectly normal healthy hearing, are at risk for not hearing the teacher in the classroom due to acoustic detriments caused by the facilities and the underdeveloped cognitive hearing abilities inherent in all children. But there are clearly certain subsets of children (Children From Poverty, Learning Disabled, English Language Learners) that are at an even greater risk for not hearing or mishearing information in the classroom. That puts these children at an even greater disadvantage for achieving academic success, and for some, they are already part of the achievement gap that exists because of physical, social, economic, and ethnic reasons.

Today’s student population is drastically different from that of years ago, as recent as twenty years ago. Any teacher that is a “seasoned” professional can testify to a change in the students and in the families of those students. Parents, who are involved with their children’s schools through volunteering or routine observation, can see a dramatic change in education from the time they were in school. The typical American classroom today is comprised of students with learning disabilities, physical disabilities (including hearing loss), attention issues, and behavioral issues. We also have a large number of students who come from families where English is not their native language. According to the U.S. Census Bureau report (2012), in 2009, 21% or 11.2 million school-aged children speak a language other than English in their home, with 5% to 11% of students having limited English Proficiency.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising, that the number of children living in low-income and poverty level households has increased during the last decade of 2000, due to poor economic conditions. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP, 2010), U.S. children represent 24 percent of the population yet, they comprise 34 percent of all U.S. people in poverty. As of 2010, 44% or 31.9 million children live in low-income families and 21 percent or 15.5 million children live in poor families. This is an increase of 11 and 17 percent respectively, from 2005 (NCCP, 2010). Poverty is defined using the U.S. Census Bureau’s official measure. The federal poverty level in 2011 was $22,350 for a family of four. Poor is defined as families having income less than 100% of the poverty threshold. Low income families are defined as having income below 200% of the federal poverty level.i The conditions of poverty affect all aspects of a child’s life including that child’s education. Unfortunately poverty is the single most important determinant of academic performance, and those effects multiply through generations. Lack of education contributes to poverty, poverty decreases educational opportunities and successes, perpetuating the poverty cycle. Therefore, children of poverty grow-up to be parents of poverty. How do we stop this growing trend before it is too late?

The other significant change in the family structure relates to who takes care of the children before and after school. This has become the generation of a two-income producing family, which may be in part due to increasing expenses and in effort to avoid becoming part of the low-income family figures. Today, around 80% of married couples in the United States are now dual income earners, the highest it has ever been. ii This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it does mean that the child’s home life surrounding and supporting academics has been altered. Children may not have access to the support systems for homework, test preparation, literacy, and material reinforcement that they used to have. It also means that teachers may not have the volunteer support in the classroom that existed years ago.

All of these factors make the classroom a “melting pot” for combined cultures, backgrounds, and abilities. Unfortunately, while the some changes have been made to schools and curriculums to accommodate the diverse student population, for the most part, the schools still “sound” the way they did thirty years ago. Yet this changing population has very different auditory needs, which if not attended to, put those students at greater risk for academic failure and perpetual increase of the existing achievement gap.


As previously mentioned, The National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) published a report that as of 2010, 44% (31.9 million) of children live in low income families. 64% (6.5 million) of black children and 63% (10.7 million) of Hispanic children make up that figure. iii The United States has the highest percentage of poor children amongst twenty-one of the most affluent nations. Our rate is twice that of any other country next in line. iv What effect does this have on education, and more specifically how does it affect hearing in the classroom?

The effects that poverty has on education seem obvious enough. Most of these children have not received the proper nourishment for the early years of their lives, leaving them physically and mentally deprived, unable to keep up in class. They routinely come from unsafe homes often with illiterate or poorly educated parents or a single parent. Daycare conditions are poor. They are sleep deprived. The caretaker/s may not be concerned with following up on completed homework and school work. But there are other factors at work as well.

Carol Flexer, University of Akron, has studied the learning and listening styles of urban children. She reported how all children are rich in “auditory designated neural tissue” but this tissue needs to be stimulated in order to grow and develop. This is particularly important if children had not been exposed to sufficient early verbal stimulation before beginning school. (Flexer, The Hearing Journal, August 2002.) Remedy for this lack of early, home verbal stimulation for poverty children is key to reducing the achievement gap between them and other students, especially in urban and inner city schools.

In 1995, Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risely at the University of Kansas produced some of the most eye-opening research ever produced on children’s early lives. They carried out a unique long-term investigation of the direct effects of home experiences on children’s development. They looked at the verbal interactions between parents and their children and analyzed monthly, one hour tape recordings taken from the age of about 10 months to 3 years. There were 42 families involved, each classified into three main groups. The first group was defined as “Professional Families” where parents were college professors. The second group was defined as “Working Class Families”, and the third was defined as “Families on Welfare Support.”

Hart and Risley’s first main findings were of progressive differences in the language abilities of the children from the three types of home backgrounds. Although all children started to speak at about the same time, those from “Professional Families” demonstrated significantly higher cumulative vocabulary (number of different words used) than the other two classes of families. By age three, children from the Professional Families used about 1,100 words; from the Working Class Families about 750 words; and from the Welfare Families just above 500 words. v

Parents were also evaluated for the types of phrases used with their children. Sentences were defined into categories of question, affirmation (praise), and prohibition (punishment). Regardless of socio-economic level, the families did the same things with their children, implying that all parents have the same basic instincts when communicating with their children.

Perhaps most astonishing was the results showing how many words the children in each social class heard. In Professional Families, children heard an average of 2,153 words per hour; in Working Class Families 1,251 words per hour and in welfare families only 616 words per hour. Extrapolating these figures to cover 4 years of experience yields 11 million words heard by a child in a professional family, 6 million for a child in working class family and 3 million for a child in a welfare family. vi Therefore, it can be interpreted that children from poverty receive only 20% of the early verbal stimulation compared to their middle class peers. All three classes of children attended kindergarten on the same day. But, the children from the professional class had heard 8 million more words by that point, preparing them for words that they would encounter when listening and learning to read in school.

The importance of verbal (auditory) stimulation cannot be over-emphasized. Studies by Hart and Risely (1995) and by the National Institute of Children’s Health (Lyon, NICH, 2003) reported the difference in the amount of verbal stimulation the poverty child receives at home when compared to the middle class child is huge. It is essential then, that young urban students have the benefit of enhanced teacher communication in early elementary school. Without this language interaction and a classroom listening environment that the child can hear clearly the nurturing vocal tones and verbal stimulation of the teacher, children “rarely catch up.”

Recent studies in brain development show that stimulation of the auditory centers of the brain is critical (Berlin & Weyand, 2003; Boothroyd, 1997; Chermak & Musiek, 1997; Sharma, Dorman, & Spahr, 2002; Sloutsky & Napolitano, 2003). vii Anything that can be done to stimulate the important centers in the brain increases a child’s opportunity for auditory learning, literacy, and higher level academic success.

Learning Disabled

The term “learning disabled” is an umbrella term used to describe children with neurologically-based processing problems that interfere with their ability to learn. The regulations for Public Law (P.L.) 101-476, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), formerly P.L. 94-142, the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA), define a learning disability as a “disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or to do mathematical calculations.” viii “Generally speaking, these children are of average to above average in intelligence which creates a gap between the child’s potential and actual achievement.” ix Parents of children with a learning disability that has not yet been correctly diagnosed, often hear the teacher say, “I just don’t understand. He’s seems very capable.”

In 1987, the Interagency Committee on Learning Disabilities concluded that 5% to 10% is a reasonable estimate of the percentage of persons affected by learning disabilities. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education reported that during the 2008-2009 school year,  5% of all school aged children received special education services for a specific learning disability. x Of the learning disabled population, 20-25% have histories of, or ongoing ear problems related to, hearing loss. As many as 38% have been found to have abnormal hearing thresholds. Sufficient data is available to suggest that children with early, recurrent ear problems are at risk for developing delays in auditory, language and academic skills. xi

Auditory learning disabilities occur when the auditory information becomes blocked, garbled, or delayed on its way to the brain. It is referred to as an auditory processing problem, and occurs when a child cannot understand or interpret what they hear. This relates to what is discussed in the Problems: Immature Auditory Capabilities section concerning the neurological aspect of hearing. For these children, their ears capture the sounds perfectly, but their brain is not processing the information fast enough or correctly to make sense of what they are hearing. It may not only affect the information entering into their brain, but the storage, organization, and retrieval of that information to get it back out. Three to six percent of the U.S. population of children is diagnosed with an auditory processing problem, but many more are presumed to be incorrectly diagnosed with ADD or ADHD, or not even diagnosed at all because it is assumed that children aren’t putting forth the effort to learn.

Children with this type of disability may have difficulty discriminating subtle differences in sounds, called phonemes, or they may have difficulty distinguishing individual phonemes as quickly as other children their age. To these children, the consonants ‘d’ ‘t’ ‘v’ ‘b’ all sound the same. They may hear certain sounds in the middle of the word, but ignore the sounds at the end or beginning of the word. For example: instruction, destruction, construction, all sound the same. So does potato and tomato. So the child learns to use these words interchangeably and incorrectly in their own language. Sounds also tend to get re-organized because they are not being processed fast enough. For example, a child with APP may hear the word FIST as FITS. Speech and language impairments are the natural byproduct of the auditory processing disorder.

Because these children have such difficulty discriminating between sounds and identifying what sound is being made, and they have not learned to use language correctly, the process of learning to read by decoding words becomes extremely difficult. If they cannot associate sounds with letters, the letters themselves become meaningless. It prevents an intelligent child from mastering basic skills and reaching higher level learning potential. This may cause extreme frustration and poor self esteem in light of their average to above average potential.

The classroom environment is particularly harmful to children with an auditory learning disorder. It becomes the fertilizer of humiliation; because that is where embarrassment and failure cultivate, reminding children everyday of their own inadequacy. Classroom acoustics are extremely detrimental. A noisy classroom obscures the enunciation of words, making it increasingly difficult to discriminate sounds and identify what the teacher and their peers are saying. In some cases when the child acknowledges that he heard the teacher, both child and teacher do not realize that the child heard something, but not correctly. This can be more damaging than not hearing it at all, because the child (oblivious to the problem) has learned something that’s incorrect and does not make sense.

Preferential seating is usually recommended, but this will not help when the teacher is moving about the classroom or other students in the room are speaking. “Children with learning disabilities, language disorders, and auditory/attentional processing problems all have learning strategies that impair to one degree or another their ability to perceive or use acoustic signals in the classroom.” xii Therefore these children have difficulty paying attention which may cause them to act out their behavior or withdraw. Those who act out mistakenly get labeled with a behavioral problem or ADHD. “Often the inattention is derived from the fact that the desired signal is masked to some degree by surrounding ambient noise, or aspects of the signal simply are not loud enough to reach audibility.” xiii

Inattentiveness of the learning disabled population also results from fatigue. Children exert much more mental and physical stamina in trying to neurologically process what they hear. The child with a processing problem uses significantly more energy to listen, understand, store, and retrieve information. When that energy is exhausted, they “tune out” due to overload and fatigue.

Those classified as Learning Disabled encompass a variety of behavioral and learning issues that manifest themselves in different ways. However, all of these children have issues that make it difficult to focus their attention, control their behavior, and maintain a level of self esteem that innately encourages them to “want to learn.” Poor acoustics, mainly background noise creates two problems, which for these individuals may significantly impede their learning. It distracts the children and interferes with their ability to understand the subtle differences in the spoken language. These children need the optimal classroom environment to remain on task and to increase their ability to understand the verbal instruction.

English Language Learners

The demographics of the classroom have changed greatly over the past few years as a result of record high levels of immigration. “Between 14 and 16 million immigrants entered the country during the 1990’s, up from 10 million during the 1980’s and 7 million during the 1970’s.” xiv

These immigration rates far exceeded those of any prior decade in our nation’s history. “Legal immigration ranged from 700,000 to more than 1 million people a year during the 1990’s, while undocumented migration added an estimated 500,000 foreign-born people a year by the end of the decade.” xv

More immigrants yield more children of immigrants in our American schools, and a higher percentage of children speaking a language other than English in our classrooms. By 2000, immigrants represented one in nine of all U.S. residents, but their children represented one in five of all children under the age of 18. The share of children of immigrants among the school-age population has also grown rapidly, from 6 percent in 1970 to 19 percent in 2000. By 2000, there were 11 million children of immigrants out of 58 million total children enrolled in PK through 12th grade. xvi As of 2009, 11.2 million or 21% of children ages 5 to 17 years old speak a language other than English in their homes (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).

Unfortunately this growth has been predominately in the secondary schools where there is no structure for language acquisition and mastery, as there is in elementary school. However, there are still a significant number of immigrant children in elementary school who have limited English proficiency (LEP). The LEP share of students in elementary schools rose from 5 to 7 percent from 1980 to 2000, with the highest concentration in kindergarten (10 percent). xvii

The rising number of LEP students coincides with the No Child Left Behind Act under the 2002 federal law. This law requires that schools be accountable for measuring and improving the academic performance of limited English speaking students whom also overlap into other targeted groups such as low-income and minority. Most key provisions affecting limited English proficient (LEP) and immigrant students are set out in Title I and Title III of the Act. Title I requires schools to improve the performance of LEP students on assessments of reading and math beginning in 3rd grade. Title III requires schools to measure and improve students’ English proficiency, with states held accountable for improving English proficiency on an annual basis.

Hearing plays an extremely important role in academic success, a poor acoustics in our classrooms deny children with immature auditory capabilities acoustic accessibility. The impact for children who speak a language other than English and have minimum English proficiency is even more devastating. These children have limited knowledge of the English language and the various sounds that make up that language. They have no stored linguist information to pull from and from which to make comparisons. It is similar to a native speaking toddler.

Adult listeners for whom English is a second language (ESOL) often experience greater speech-perception difficulties than their native English speaking counterparts, particularly in a degraded listening environment (Bergman, 1980; Crandell, 1991, 1992,; Crandell & Smaldino, 1995a, 1995b; Nabelek & Nabelek, 1985). These adult related findings have significant implications for the 5-11% of our school population that is minimally English proficient (U.S. Census Bureau report 1998.) Carl Crandel examined in 1996 the speech-perception abilities of twenty native English-speaking children and twenty nonnative English-speaking children under commonly reported classroom signal to noise ratios. Results from this investigation reported the non-native English group performed significantly poorer at signal to noise ratios ranging from +3 to -6 decibels. xviii

Therefore, ESOL children exhibit greater speech perception difficulties than English speaking children; and thus, require a quieter environment in which to learn. The teacher’s voice needs to be louder in order to emphasize the phonemes that are the building blocks of the English language.



  1. http://www.nccp.org
  2. http://marriage.families.com/blog/dual-income-blessing-or-curse; “Dual Income: Blessing or Curse?” by Gillian Markson 6/17/06
  3. http://www.nccp.org
  4. http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/childpov.htm; “Children in Poverty: America’s Ongoing War”
  5. http://www.psych-ed.org/Topics/Hart_and_Risley.htm “The Importance of Home Environment”
  6. http://www.psych-ed.org/Topics/Hart_and_Risley.htm “The Importance of Home Environment”
  7. Carl Crandell, Joseph Smaldino, Carol Flexer; Sound Field Amplification: Applications to Speech Perception and Classroom Acoustics. Second Edition, page 6.
  8. http://www.kidsource.com/NICHCY/learning_disabilities.html; “General Information about Learning Disabilities”, Fact Sheet Number 7 (FS7), 1997.
  9. http://www.Idanatl.org/aboutld/teachers/understanding/ld.asp; “Learning Disabilities: Signs, Symptoms and Strategies.”
  10. http://www.kidsource.com/NICHCY/learning_disabilities.html; “General Information about Learning Disabilities”, Fact Sheet Number 7 (FS7), 1997.
  11. Reicham J & Healey WC; Learning disabilities and conductive hearin gloss involving otitis media. J or Learning Disabilities 1983; 16: 272-278.
  12. Crandell, Carl C., Joseph Smaldino, and Carol Flexer. Sound Field Amplification: Applications to Speech Perception and Classroom Acoustics. (page 67) Canada: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2005.
  13. Crandell, Carl C., Joseph Smaldino, and Carol Flexer. Sound Field Amplification: Applications to Speech Perception and Classroom Acoustics. (page 67) Canada: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2005.
  14. Capps, Randy et al. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act.” Published by the Urban Institute. Posted 9/30/05 (obtained through http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311230)
  15. Capps, Randy et al. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act.” Published by the Urban Institute. Posted 9/30/05 (obtained through http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=30)
  16. Capps, Randy et al. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act.” Published by the Urban Institute. Posted 9/30/05 (obtained through http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311230)
  17. Capps, Randy et al. The New Demography of America’s Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act.” Published by the Urban Institute. Posted 9/30/05 (obtained through http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=311230)
  18. Crandell, Carl C., Joseph Smaldino, and Carol Flexer. Sound Field Amplification: Applications to Speech Perception and Classroom Acoustics. (page 64) Canada: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2005.