The School Sound Scandal

Why pupils are really failing phonics

We develop language through listening to what we hear around us. As adults we listen and interpret what we hear so automatically, we don’t always think about it!

Pupils coming into school in the early years are still developing their listening skills. Children don’t have the same abilities as adults. They are unable to fill in the gaps of missed speech until teenage years and this is a skill known as auditory cognitive closure.


The existing universal phonics system in primary schools favours synthetic phonics. Synthetic phonics relies on a pupils’ ability to detect, discriminate, identify and comprehend the structure of different sounds and blend them together to make words.

It relies on children having adequate listening skills and advances auditory cognitive skills allowing them to make sense of sounds and relate these sounds to meaning.

It seems obvious but, ‘If a child doesn’t ‘hear’ the difference between ‘p’ and b’ it is also likely that the child will not be able to establish sound-letter correspondences for these graphemes’ (1)


School acoustics are usually bad

High-quality acoustics in schools are essential for all children to be able to listen and learn. Even with clearly set government regulations, recent research by the National Deaf Children’s society for their Sounds good? Campaign found only 21 per cent of local authorities involved in the survey were able to say with certainty that their schools had acoustics that met government standards (2)

Poor acoustics have been proven to have a negative impact on attainment. In a study of performance of primary school children on literacy and numeracy tasks, it was found that background noise from other children has a particularly detrimental effect on children with special educational needs (3)

To know whether new buildings comply with acoustic regulations, they need to be tested. This is recommended by the Government but, in many cases, buildings are not being tested because it is not mandatory nor a condition of receiving capital expenditure for all new schools.

Children are susceptible to ear infections

80 percent of children under the age of eight will at some time be affected by hearing loss due to ear infections. During that time, a month or more, a pupils’ hearing loss fluctuates, varying between 0 to 40 dB.

Think about this for a second – someone with a 30-40 dB hearing loss permanently, would find it difficult to hear a normal voice in a quiet environment. They would have difficulty hearing and taking part in conversation in a noisy environment and would require the use of hearing aids in order to access language at the same level as their peers (4)

Signal to noise ratio in classrooms affects learning

The national standards for the UK suggest signal-to-noise ratios should be suitable for ‘clear communication of speech between teacher and student’ They recommend acoustically satisfactory primary classrooms should have an indoor ambient noise level of 35dB.

In order for  a teacher’s speech to be intelligible, it must be at least 15-25dB above the ambient noise in a classroom. The further you are from the sound source, the more difficult it is to recognise speech. Find out what it sounds like here. 

  • If a teacher is talking at about 70 dB the front row students will hear the teacher at 65 dB
  • Middle row at 59 dB  (already below class noise level!)
  • Back row at 53 dB(A) 15%-50% of consonants can be lost by distance.

Unless the teacher’s voice is well above the ambient sound in the classroom they will be unable to follow lessons. Lessons such as phonics that rely on excellent listening skills will be extremely difficult.


  • Invite your local sensory need team to talk to you about listening. Teachers of hearing impaired children can give you advice on how to improve the listening environment of your school and how you can help students that have difficulty listening and attending in class.
  • For children with ASD, ADHD and SLCN consider new technology such as Roger Focus it is a product that sends the teacher’s voice directly into the pupil’s ears. It cuts out distracting noise, like nearby conversations or their classmate’s movements of books and chairs, allowing the pupil to hear and act upon more of the teacher’s instructions.
  • Do you have a deaf or hearing impaired student at the school? If they are a confident speaker you could ask them to talk about their listening device, how it works and how it helps them to listen.
  • Consider installing Soundfield technology FrontRow are a UK company that have some fantastic products that will improve signal-to-noise ratio in classroom environments.


  1. Vance M & Martindale N (2012) Assessing speech perception ability in children with identified language difficulties: Effects of background noise and phonetic contrast. International Journal of Speech & Language Pathology. 14, 1, 48-58
  2. NDCS sounds good 2009
  3. Dockrell, J.E. & Sheild, B.M. (2006) Acoustical barriers in classrooms: the impact of noise on performance in the classroom. British Educational Research Journal. 32 (3), pp509-525.
  4. Action Hearing Loss – Hearing Matters 

To be clear, I have no affiliation with these products or companies featured in this article, I have seen them used in many schools in the UK and seen the fantastic results they can achieve. If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at Mable.  I hope this article has given you some insight into listening and acoustics in schools. If you have any stories you would like to share please leave a comment below or tweet us @mableTherapy

Martha Currie

Martha Currie

Speech and Language Therapist

Martha is a senior speech and language therapist with experience working with primary and secondary aged children. She has a special interest in hearing impairment.

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