The BBC reports a US study saying that children with dyslexia find it harder to hear in noisy classrooms than those without the condition. Here is the full article.

Pupils with poor reading skills were likely to struggle to retain information when there was background noise, researchers reported.

Children with the condition may struggle to process voices when there is competing noise. The researchers set about testing the theory by getting children to watch a video with background noise. At the same time, they were asked to repeat sentences they heard.

Lead researcher Professor Nina Kraus said the study was important in understanding the difficulties children with dyslexia face. “The ability to sharpen or fine-tune repeating elements is crucial to hearing speech in noise because it allows for superior tagging of the voice pitch,” she said.

The vast majority of school-aged children can focus on the voice of a teacher amid the cacophony of the typical classroom thanks to a brain that automatically focuses on relevant, predictable and repeating auditory information.

But for children with developmental dyslexia, the teacher’s voice may get lost in the background noise of banging lockers, whispering children, playground screams and scraping chairs, the researchers say. The study presents evidence that children who report problems hearing speech in noise also suffer from a measurable neural impairment that adversely affects their ability to make use of regularities in the sound environment.  Dyslexics’ brains lack the adaptive auditory system that continuously changes its activity based on the demands of context and consequently do not have the remarkable ability to tune into relevant aspects in the sound scape.

There will be many more youngsters who struggle to concentrate on individual voices – or sounds within words – within busy classrooms than just those with dyslexia. The incidence of glue ear, for example, is considerably higher than most teachers realise. And glue ear can be intermittent and thus easy to miss. Sometimes children turn off or become frustrated when they are uncertain what is going on because of poor hearing or slow auditory processing. As someone who wears hearing aids, I understand how stressful a noisy environment can be.

There are no simple solutions. The researchers suggest that placing children with dyslexia in front of the teacher could make a big difference, but 21st century classrooms rarely have static teachers talking to passive audiences. Vibrant classrooms, full of activity, represent good pedagogy. Excluding children with dyslexia would deprive them of important social and educational benefits. However, there might be occasions when withdrawing an individual or group to focus on a specific task in a more peaceful environment or giving them headphones to block out extraneous noise when concentrating is the right option.

 The research provides some evidence to support the theories developed by Alfred Tomatis,  in the mid twentieth century, about the role the ear plays in reading. The Tomatis Method uses altered recordings of the patient’s mother and extensively uses electronically modified music by Mozart. Some people therefore call it the Mozart Effect. However, there is considerable debate about the efficacy of his Listening Programme, although a Support for Learning colleague in East Lothian sings its praises for learners on the autistic spectrum.