Students develop the foundation for lifelong reading skills in early elementary school, and a new neuroscience study suggests they may be particularly hindered in that learning by background noise.
People often have trouble discerning one person’s voice amid many conversations—think of trying to follow a conversation at a party—but generally adults easily distinguish a voice from other background noises. A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience finds that we develop the ability to track voices over time, and children may be hampered more by additional noise than adults.
Researchers measured the brain activity of adults and children ages 6 to 9 as they listened to four recorded stories, each with different levels and kinds of background noise, either other people talking or just general sounds.
As the chart below shows, both children and adults showed brain activity in the auditory cortex— the portion of the brain associated with processing sounds—which tracked the speech of the storyteller in the recordings. However, children were significantly worse at distinguishing syllables generally, and they struggled much more than adults to follow the speaker as noise increased from other voices in the background.
Source: Ghinst et al., JNeurosci (2019)
Early reading instruction in the United States focuses heavily on teaching students phonics. These results seem to suggest that students may have a more difficult time distinguishing phonemes and following speech or instructions as classroom noise rises, and highlights the importance of quiet classrooms while children are learning to recognize language, said Marc Vander Ghinst, the lead author and a researcher at a developmental neuroscience center at the Free University of Brussels, in Belgium.
“The more teachers take time to do a correct pronunciation, the better the student understands,” he said. “Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that this also brings a better speech representation in the brain. My advice would be: Take the time to do a correct pronunciation, and try to do it in a calm atmosphere.”
Prior studies have identified similar differences in how children with and without dyslexia track speech in noisy environments, but Vander Ghinst said researchers still need to track students throughout their teenage years to tease out whether dyslexia-related listening comprehension problems are related to a developmental delay, or a separate issue. “We know that some differences persist in dyslexic adults, so we can probably hypothesize that a difference in their speech processing lasts,” he said.
Some languages may be easier to follow than others, too. This study involved students who spoke French as their native language, and Vander Ghinst noted that there are likely differences in how students learn to process English, which has more rhythmic syllable accents, or to process tonal languages such as Mandarin.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.