Dial Down the Noise to Improve Children’s Ability to Learn


Noise. It’s everywhere.

The roar of traffic pours down the street. Cellphones ping announcing the arrival of texts. Music wafts out of unseen speakers in stores and elevators. Televisions blare in doctors’ offices and medical buildings.   Here at Kars4Kids,  the tap-tap-tap of keyboards continues throughout the day.

Unless you are standing on a hill out in the country, there doesn’t seem to be a quiet place anywhere.

Even classrooms buzz with the sounds of computers and squeaks of chairs and desks. A study released in 2004 by the Oldenburg University in Germany confirmed that too many classrooms are much too noisy.  Researchers reported noise during a regular lesson at a primary school was measured at levels between 70 and 77 dB.

New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience*  indicates that all this noise may be hampering children’s ability to learn. The study found that children are more sensitive to noise than adults and have difficulty separating the sounds of voices – including their teachers – from the general background noise in the classroom.

Researchers measured the brain activity of adults and children ages six to nine as they listened to four recorded stories, each with different levels and kinds of background noise, either other people talking or just general sounds.

The results showed that children were significantly worse than adults at distinguishing syllables generally, and they struggled much more than adults to follow the speaker as noise increased from other voices in the background.

In the U.S., reading instruction in the lower grades relies heavily on phonics. These study 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 the Free University of Brussels in Belgium.

The researchers recommend that teachers take the extra time to pronounce words clearly to overcome the level of noise.

Educators can also take steps to reduce noise levels in the classrooms, including:

  • Adding felt pads under table and chair legs
  • Fixing squeaky drawers and uneven chairs or tables
  • Adding curtains or blinds
  • Installing cork covering and bulletin boards on walls
  • Installing sound absorbing carpeting


*Cortical tracking of speech-in-noise develops from childhood to adulthood

Co-Authors: Marc Vander Ghinst, Mathieu Bourguignon, Maxime Niesen, Vincent Wens, Sergio Hassid, Georges Choufani, Veikko Jousmäki, Riitta Hari, Serge Goldman and Xavier De Tiège

Journal of Neuroscience 11 February 2019



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