The Influence of Greenery on Learning

“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.” 

—Li & Sullivan, 2016

    When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx. 

Joe’s neighborhood from a bird’s eye view, courtesy of Google Maps

You might be forgiven for assuming this is all so normal for Joe that he has neither any conception nor desire for the vistas his peers raised in lusher landscapes have constant access to. Yet when Joe came to interview at the middle school where I worked (we interviewed our prospective 6th graders) and was asked, “What would you like to improve in your community?”, he replied that he would like to reduce trash and noise, and, furthermore, that he would like to live somewhere with more space and trees.

It wasn’t only Joe who responded in this way. Other students we interviewed voiced similar wishes, though they said it in different ways. For one it was a desire for more flowers, for another less violence, or a bigger bedroom, or a backyard, or no upstairs neighbor who made so much noise. I haven’t surveyed all the kids in the poorest areas of the city, but I’d wager they’d also appreciate a little more peace and quiet or nature, if given half the chance to express it.

Actually, many kids have been asked, and their answers were uncannily similar to Joe’s. In the early 1970s, urban designer Kevin Lynch organized a survey of teenagers in cities across four different countries. “When children were asked to imagine the best place to live in, they often mentioned trees, and as beautiful places, gardens, and parks” (Lynch, 1977, as summarized by Chawla, 2015, p. 436).

A craving for access to a beautiful natural expanse may be an intrinsic aspect of being human. There’s even a term for this, biophilia (introduced by Erich Fromm in 1973 and expanded on by E.O. Wilson in a 1986 book by the same name), which means that we have an innate urge to connect to nature and other living things. This doesn’t mean everyone wants to go camping nor be anywhere near a wilderness. But at the very least, we are all likely sustained by an occasional walk through a stand of whispering trees or an urban garden, just as we are by a visit with a friend.

In fact, even a mere view of living green things out of a window can be vicariously invigorating, as a wide array of studies have shown in a wide variety of settings, from our homes and neighborhoods to institutional settings such as hospitals, prisons, offices and—of course—our schools.

The Impact of A Green View on Student Learning

A Room With a View

    The idea that greenery could be rejuvenating was kickstarted by an influential study in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, in which he found that surgical patients in a hospital whose windows looked out onto trees recovered more quickly—and with less pain medication—than patients in rooms facing a drab brick wall.

    Prison inmates similarly benefit from glimpses of nature. A study found that prisoners in cells with outward facing views of farmland were sick less often than their counterparts with views of the inner yard (Moore, 1981). Of prison inmates, there are none more deprived than those placed in solitary confinement: they are enclosed in a cell for up to 23 hours a day for days, months—sometimes years—on end. Forget windows. Just showing videos of natural landscapes to prisoners in solitary confinement can help them to remain calm and reduce violent behavior (Nalini, et al., 2017).

    Perhaps it is unsurprising people confined, whether to a hospital bed or a prison cell, would benefit from a small peek at something, anything, vibrant and alive. What may be more surprising is how subsequent studies have shown that “views of nature out of an office or factory are associated with increased employee productivity, enhanced feelings of job and life satisfaction, greater psychological and physical well-being, and reduced levels of frustration and stress” (Matsuoka, 2010, p. 274). This suggests that a green vista is not only a spark of life to a desperate inmate or sick patient, but a rejuvenative force for all of us who toil indoors for the majority of our day.

    An accumulating stream of studies have shown that views and access to green space can improve the well-being and learning of students in K-12 schools. Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college, with a concomitant decrease in stress and criminal behavior (Matsuoka, 2010; Wu et al., 2014; Dadvend et al., 2015; Li & Sullivan, 2016; Hodsen & Sanders, 2017; Kweon et al., 2017). Furthermore, greenery in a student’s neighborhood can result in an increase in mental health and a decrease in aggression (Alcock et al., 2014; Younan et al., 2016).

    Sounds too good to be true? Maybe you think this is fluffy sociological stuff written to assuage the confirmation bias of tree huggers. It certainly sounds fluffy to say greenery is calming. We could say the same sort of thing about aromatherapy, crystals, and listening to whale sounds. But the significant and positive impact of the presence of greenery has been confirmed through randomized controlled trials and longitudinal studies. Fluffy? Maybe not so much.

    There’s two theories about why greenery is rejuvenative: one is Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and the other is Stress Reduction Theory (SRT). ART theorizes that green space restores focus and fights fatigue, whereas SRT hypothesizes that nature reduces stress. Both theories have evidence to back them up, so there may be some interplay between reducing stress and restoring focus.

    The natural views that seem to wield the greatest restorative and calming effects are from a school’s cafeteria and hallways (Matsuoka, 2010; Li & Sullivan, 2016). Li and Sullivan’s study suggests that “a 10-min break [with a natural view] would suffice in restoring students’ attentional capacities and help them recover from stressful tasks” (p. 156). Another study found even only five minutes of exposure to nature could help to reduce stress (Barton & Pretty, 2010; as cited by Kweon et al., 2017, p. 36). Ensuring that cafeterias, hallways, and other spaces, such as gyms, have a sightline to nature could be an effective way to support students in reducing their stress and restoring their ability to focus when they return to class.

    According to one randomized controlled experiment, views of green expanses from a classroom can also support the cognitive performance of students, leading to 13% greater attentiveness than students with views of a parking lot, other buildings, or without any windows (Li & Sullivan, 2016). Another study found that schools with higher levels of nearby tree canopy cover had higher scores on tests of reading comprehension (Hodsen & Sander, 2017). One study even suggests that a mere glance of 40 seconds out of a window onto a green roof rather than a concrete one can serve to sustain attention on a challenging task (Lee et al., 2015).

    And we’re still just talking about the presence of greenery outside of a school building. What kind of greenery is most influential? What about greenery within a building? And what about getting kids out of a building to interact with the real thing?

It’s All In the Canopy

    Greenery, or green space, could mean a wide variety of things. Are we talking grass? Shrubs? Trees? Astroturf? Let me give you a hint. It’s not lawns. It’s not athletic fields. In fact, those land features, along with parking lots, are associated with reduced academic goals and achievement, and even higher criminal activity (Kweon et al., 2017). Shrubs don’t really do much, either.

    It’s those trees, man. It’s that breathing green canopy cover that is the most focusing, calming, and restorative.

    This isn’t so strange, when you think about it. Dallying under the dappled shade of trees is the hallmark of the good life. That soothing sound of breeze moving through leaves. The way sunlight shimmers across a variegated green marquee. There’s just something about trees. Something magical and magisterial. They buffer us from wind and rain. They enrich and entrench the soil and bear us fruit. They even communicate to one another through their root systems (Wohlleben, 2015). Some live on a timespan so protracted it’s unfathomable to our puny human minds. Trees bestow us with a sense, however subconscious, of flourishing ethereality that we may only most appreciate in their absence.

I was fortunate to grow up with this stout olive tree poised outside my bedroom. I spent many an afternoon playing or resting in its branches and shade.

    More practically, trees also help to reduce air and noise pollution, and help get people to exercise more (Dadvand et al., 2015). Trees can do much to not only “soak up fine particle pollution from cars, power plants, and factories” but furthermore “cool down neighborhoods anywhere from 0.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius on the hottest summer days” (Plumer, 2016). Pleasing on the eyes? Check. Providing ecosystem services for the public health and well-being of mankind? Check.

It is possible that trees only have a restorative visual impact within a certain range of density. For example, one study suggests somewhere between 24-34% tree cover* is a sweet spot (Jiang et al., 2014). Intriguingly, this may reflect an evolutionary preference for savannah-like landscapes and acacia-like—or thin trunk, large canopy—tree forms (Falk & Balling, 2010). Another study suggests that it’s not simply about the quantity of trees, but the quality of those trees, such as how well maintained, varied, and orderly they are (De Vries, van Dillen, Groenewegen, & Spreeuwenberg, 2013). This makes more sense. You could meet any quantitative quota with a sickly or monotonous row of trees, but a healthy, diverse copse will do much more for both your health and your soul.

    I suspect there’s something about the just-right visual complexity and dimensionality of a healthy tree canopy that is especially pleasing to our mind’s eye—there’s just enough subtle unpredictable movement, variation, and depth to stimulate, while just enough light and green shade to soothe. In fact, there is the possibility that it is the fractal nature of tree canopy that makes it so pleasing to the eye and the brain (Cepelewicz, 2017).

In barren environments, like the flat expanses of the interstate highway in Kansas or like most school playgrounds, our minds grow desperate for distraction. And indeed, one study found that if a school has a barren playground, children with ADHD have greater difficulty concentrating after recess (Taylor & Kuo, 2001).

    Man-made visual complexity, such as urban landscapes, can certainly inspire their own form of awe and appreciation, but as of yet, our architecture can hardly replicate—in a cost effective manner—the gentle scintillations of leaves nor the myriad other environmental benefits, like air filtration, that trees provide.

    I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think we need trees not only to feel most fully alive, but in order to truly live.

*Having trouble visualizing what 24-34% tree cover looks like? I was, too. Fortunately, MIT offers a nifty tool that provides percentages for the density of tree cover in cities across the world. Head to senseable.mit.edu/treepedia to take a peek. You can zoom in on a specific spot in a city that has a density within that range, then pull up Google Streetview to get a ground-level visual. Compare between spots with a large percentage of tree cover, such as 50%, to ones with barely any, such as 2%. That disparity will give you an idea why there may be a sweet spot for restorative effects, at least from a visual standpoint.

Trees and Green Spaces Combat Inequality

Here’s a riddle for you: how can you tell the difference between a poor and affluent urban neighborhood from outer space?

A more expensive neighborhood only 4 miles away from Joe, also courtesy of Google Maps

Yep. It’s that mass of green.

One longitudinal study found just moving to a greener urban area not only immediately improves mental health, but sustains positive psychological benefits for at least three years (Alcock et al., 2014). That’s all well and good, but there’s another compelling reason to get more trees into your ‘hood: they help raise the property value (Mullaney, Lucke, & Trueman, 2015). Even better yet, “planting 10 or more trees per city block is equivalent to increasing the income of every household in that city block by more than $10,000” by improving perceptions of health, while decreasing “cardio-metabolic” conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease (Kardan et al., 2015).

Not many can afford to move to a greener area, but even small injections of green into dense urban neighborhoods, like replacing vacant lots with gardens, can reduce symptoms of depression in local residents (South et al., 2018). A longitudinal study in 2016 by Diana Younan and her colleagues furthermore found that green space in urban neighborhoods in Southern California reduced aggressive behavior in teens. The researchers found no evidence that this effect was strongly influenced by either sociodemographics nor the quality of the neighborhood, which suggests “the universal benefits of neighborhood greenspace” (p. 9). This corresponds with research showing that “building areas with high levels of vegetation can have approximately 50% lower crime levels than areas with low levels of vegetation (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), and a 10% increase in the amount of tree cover has been associated with a 12% decrease in crime (Troy, Grove, & O’Neil-Dunne, 2012)” (as cited by Mullaney, Lucke, and Trueman, 2015, p. 159).

Joe and many other children in our densest urban areas crave natural environments with green space and restorative shade. One of the most sustainable and cost-effective interventions we can take to support future generations of children is simply to plant more trees—most especially near homes and schools.

Bringing Greenery Into Schools

    Here’s the reality, though. Most schools are already built, and whether or not they are so lucky as to have any windows, let alone views of trees, is entirely outside the realm of their direct and immediate control. We may not be able to plant trees in classrooms, but is there any way we could bring some of that green juju indoors?

This is a school, not a prison. Get this place some trees and windows, stat!

Some research suggests that the presence of plants in a hospital room can increase tolerance for pain (Grinde & Patil, 2009), while indoor plants in an office may reduce fatigue and health complaints (Grinde & Patil, 2009; Ranaas et al., 2011). But most of the research on the impact of indoor plants on classroom well-being, performance, or stress reduction, while suggestive, remains mostly inconclusive (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009; Han, 2009, 2018; Berg et al., 2016). 

I’ve been grappling with this, given the more robust effects for outdoor greenery. Is it because potted plants in most studies are not selected and situated primarily for visual complexity? If there were more plants or greenwalls with a diversity of size, form, and color placed around a classroom, could these have greater restorative effects?

There may be a sweet spot between quantity and quality which has not yet been discovered for indoor plants. Each study uses different variations and configurations of plants. As one reviewer put it, “although the evidence suggests indoor plants can provide psychological benefits, the heterogeneity amongst the methods and results may imply the benefits are contingent on the context of the encounter with indoor plants and the participants in the experiment” (Burnard & Kutnar, 2015, p. 972).

Furthermore, no study (to my knowledge) has yet examined the two areas where green views are most likely to have the greatest restorative impact: school cafeterias and hallways. Clearly, we need further research (while we’re waiting on the research, to add some dimensionality to your own indoor plant collection, try placing plants at different heights, such as on stools, boxes, or crates, as “garden stylist” Satoshi Kawamoto suggests (Gordon, 2015)). But here’s a short quiz that may help you to determine whether or not you want to bring plants into your classroom or school: 

  • Do you prefer a few plants near where you work or relax? Do you liven up your workspace or living room with a flower or succulent? 
  • If so, why, and if not, why not? 

Let your answer to this be your guide.

Indoor Plants for Air Filtration?

Even if they may not have the fully restorative or stress reducing impacts that views of outside tree canopy can provide, could they filter and reduce indoor air pollution? If they could, this would be huge because poor indoor air quality impacts learning. Effects reported by various studies have been a reduction in cognitive performance and the ability to make complex decisions, and an increase in sleepiness (Carrer, 2018). In other words, everything you don’t want in a classroom.

This tiny drab classroom could sure use some green air filtration. And windows, while we’re at it.

A widely cited NASA study in 1989 (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) found that a wide variety of plants filtered volatile organic compounds (VOCs) often present in indoor environments, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia. Some later studies support this initial finding (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), but unfortunately, it seems that outside of a lab setting and in the much larger, real-world spaces of offices and schools, plants do very little to filter indoor air (Meyer, 2019). Well, OK, maybe they don’t filter pollution much, but another side benefit of indoor plants is that through the process of transpiration, they can add moisture to the air, which is good for dry skin (Horton, 2015).

Overall, unfortunately, it appears that indoor plants do not provide the same benefits that outside greenery does.

    Keeping plants in a school requires careful consideration, such as how much daylight, if any, is available in a given space, as well as who will be responsible for watering and upkeep, not to mention the issue of safety. Ideally, the plants you select should require little sunlight and watering, provide air filtration benefits, be visually appealing, and highly durable.

    Through a survey of friends and online sources, I drew up a shortlist of promising plants for school use, most of which are within the $15-30 range if you buy them pre-potted:

  • Variegated Snake Plant
  • Chinese Evergreen
  • Peace Lily
  • ZZ Plant
  • Pothos
  • Philodendron
  • Cast Iron Plant
  • Peperomia

If you are fortunate enough to have access to some sunlight in your school or classroom, then look also into the following:

  • Palms
  • Succulents, such as aloe
  • Spider Plant (hang these from the ceiling and they can also help absorb noise!)
  • Begonias
  • Rubber plants

    If you are even more fortunate and can secure funds, you could also consider the installation of greenwalls. While further research is required, there is potential in the biofiltration potential of a greenwall (Pettit, Irga, & Torpy, 2018), as well as possible restorative effects (Berg et al., 2017).

Bringing Schools Into Greenery

    So far we’ve focused primarily on the mere presence of trees and greenery, which even passively can be powerful for learning and health by reducing stress and increasing attention, in addition to reducing pollution. But given our focus on education, the logical next question is: does interacting with nature amplify and deepen these effects?

    The answer thus far, at least according to research on playgrounds and gardens, is “Yes.” School gardens help to increase physical activity (Wells, Myers, & Henderson, 2014), while playgrounds that are surrounded by greenery promote better cognitive functioning (Kuo, 2010), “concentration and relief from stress,” in addition to more imaginative, explorative, and socially cooperative play (Chalwa, 2015, p. 445). It should also be recognized that just spending time in nature can support the development of stronger immune systems. One study found that walking in a forest boosted anti-cancer cells by 50% or more, which remained elevated even a month after returning to everyday urban existence, while also decreasing inflammation (Li, 2010, Mao et al., 2012, as cited by Kuo, 2015, p. 4).

    But there is much more to interacting with nature than the solely utilitarian benefits to health and well-being. Access to nature provides opportunities to build greater self and world knowledge. How can you truly understand how food grows, or how plants utilize photosynthesis, or what it means to cultivate microbial soil life, unless you get your hands dirty? How can you truly develop resilience, fortitude, and patience without having experienced the alternating awe and weariness of spending a day walking through the woods or up a mountain? Some studies have suggested that simply playing in nature increases the likelihood of environmental stewardship later in life (Wells & Lekies, 2006; Thompson et al. 2008). Imagine having a curriculum that includes not only reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but moreover a scientific and aesthetic engagement with real plots of land?

    Hosting school outside may sound radical at first, but ‘forest kindergartens’ are a thing in Germany, Finland, Switzerland, and . . . Vermont (Gregory, 2017; Schoolsoutfilm.com, 2012; Walker, 2016; Hanford, 2015). Given the research we’ve just reviewed, such seemingly hippie-dippy programs now seem eminently sensible. The key hurdle is whether you happen to have a forest handy nearby. But what about schools in local parks? Actually, I wrote that sentence, then poked around on the web for a minute, and lo and behold, there’s classes called Tinkergarten at a park near me that promotes learning through play in local outdoor spaces (and maybe one near you; check it out at tinkergarten.com).

    Humanity now faces repercussions from the incredible stress we have placed on the natural world. The great diversity of microbes, habitats, plants, and animals our earth once carried is swiftly ebbing. Traditional ways of living and knowing are preserved primarily for entertainment, rather than as respected sources of wisdom. If developing an appreciation of nature, both scientific and aesthetic, means getting children outside into whatever local park, water feature, grassy knoll, garden, flower box, or forest you may be fortunate enough to have near to your home or school, then let’s do it. If it means bringing plants into a school via hydroponics, as teacher Stephen Ritz does at CS 55 in the Bronx (Check out Ritz’ website greenbronxmachine.org or read his book, The Power of a Plant, to learn more about his work), or via potted plants or greenwalls, or lining playgrounds, starting rooftop gardens, or even just gazing out at a natural landscape from windows or in videos . . . then, hey. We’ve got to start somewhere.

What We Can Do

    Trees take a long time to grow. Unfortunately, leaders in education tend to focus on shallower, shorter-term initiatives, like tablets or teacher evaluations.

    There has been a growing recognition of the general importance of greenery in our communities, and many trees have been planted in areas that were once urban deserts. Here in NYC, organizations like GrowNYC, Bronx Green-Up, Learning Gardens, and many others are available to help get kids get their hands dirty in a garden. And city-wide initiatives like Greenstreets and MillionTreesNYC have brought street trees to nearly every block. 

For students like Joe living in dense urban neighborhoods, this means a lot. But having a row of street trees is not enough. We need more vacant lots converted to green space, more green roofs, more parks, and far, far greater access and opportunities to interact with nature on a frequent basis.

It may be that growing a green thumb may be one of the most beneficial things you could do to support the learning of future generations.

In Sum

  • Greenery around a school building supports an increase in test scores, grades, working memory, attention, and plans to attend a four year college
  • Greenery in a neighborhood decreases stress, aggression, and criminal behavior
  • Views of trees can both soothe (reduce stress) and stimulate (refocus attention)
  • Views of trees from school cafeterias and hallways seem to have the greatest restorative and calming effects 
  • Views of greenery from a classroom can also lead to 13% greater attentiveness
  • Trees help to reduce air and noise pollution, and support an increase in exercise and property value
  • It’s less about quantity and more about the quality of the trees and tree canopy
  • Indoor plants don’t seem to provide the same benefits as external greenery
  • Moving school playgrounds and classrooms outdoors can provide a range of benefits to health and learning, in addition to building a greater sense of environmental stewardship

Extra Credit: The Ecology of Greenery

Clearly, it’s not within any individual school’s purview alone to increase the greenery within a neighborhood, and nor is one dedicated community organization that receives some grant funding enough. It takes a coordinated effort between local businesses, governmental agencies at different levels, nonprofits, and civically engaged citizens to make it happen. It truly takes a community to plant, sustain, and scale the kind of quality tree canopy our children need.

Caring for plants—and for animals—can not only strengthen a community, but also provide therapeutic benefits for individuals.

Bill Thomas, a NY professor and physician on a mission to improve the care of our elderly, has come up with a model of elderly care he calls the “Eden Alternative” (Bahrampour, 2016). Instead of cold, clinical institutions, he creates environments that are more akin to gardens. He stocks nursing homes with cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds in addition to an array of plants. The effect is reduced need for medication, lower death rates, raised spirits, and greater autonomy.

In Baltimore, one volunteer, Gene DeSantis, has planted over 15,000 trees, overcoming a childhood of trauma while contributing to the long-term health and well-being of his community (Zaleski, 2019).

In D.C., a former drug dealer’s love of birds helps him to discover his better self. He now works with children, introducing them to the beauty of raptors, to help them learn to engage with the natural world, and in the process, also discover their better selves (Daniel, 2016).

In schools across our nation, our children are struggling to cope with chronic and acute stress, trauma, and poverty while attempting to learn in environments that offer little rejuvenation nor tranquility.

It’s not only the immediate adults around them who need to build lattices and networks of love, resilience, and calm, but furthermore the sustaining canopies and anchored roots of trees in the land that surrounds them, planted and nurtured by the many diverse people, groups, and organizations of their community.

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The Influence of Acoustics on Learning

With a classroom having good acoustical characteristics, learning is easier, deeper, more sustained, and less fatiguing.

—The Acoustical Society of America, in its introduction to Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools

When I first moved to NYC from California, I was taken aback by the unceasing din. In our first apartment, my wife and I were treated to an all-night alleyway party each weekend by our downstairs neighbors. In desperation, we bought a white noise machine, but this proved to be a mostly futile gesture.

Our second apartment was perched above a popular nightspot, which considerately recycled its beer bottles outside our bedroom window at three AM every morning. We got an additional white noise machine and put up layers of cardboard against the windows. But outside of professional acoustical treatment, there’s no hiding the intense, high decibel sound of twenty-five gallons of beer sodden glass bottles slamming repeatedly into their brethren as they are dumped into a bin.

So I well know how noise can impact a person’s well-being. But maybe I’m just overly sensitive. I see people everyday move along unphased as truck horns blast in their face. Humans are a highly adaptive species, after all, and we go on about our business with a cacophony of ambient noise hovering about us like smog.

While many of us may consider noise to be a minor nuisance (except, perhaps, when we are trying to sleep), it can have a profound impact on our health. Studies have shown that constant exposure to noise, such as living near a highway or airport, can lead not only to loss of sleep, but hypertension, higher blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and lower birth weight, just to name a few long-term consequences (Casey, James, & Morello-Frosch, 2017).

There’s a lot more we could say about the impact of sound on health, whether physical or psychological. But most pertinent to our focus are the findings on how harmful noise can be for learning, most especially in the places where learning should be what is held most sacred: our schools.

Given that children are far more vulnerable to noise than adults (Klatte, Lachmann, & Meis, 2010), ensuring that children have a learning environment unthreatened by noise should be a commonsense goal. Yet how frequently have you heard an education reformer discuss acoustical treatment as a school or district improvement initiative? […silence… crickets… beeping horns…]

Never? Exactly. So let’s start talking about it. In this post, we’ll examine the impact of noise on students and on teachers, then consider what we can do about it.

The Impact of Noise on Student Learning

Chronic Noise: What You Hear Is How You Learn

The natural sensitivity that the human ear has to auditory vibration is not a primary design consideration for most schools. Surfaces are hard. Corners are sharp. Floors are tiled. Every squeak of a sneaker, shout of a hormonally charged teen, recurring bell at the end of a period, each slam of a heavy door can be amplified, reverberating throughout the building and, especially during fire drills, deep into the marrow of one’s bones. 

In 1975, a seminal study by Arline Bronzaft and Dennis McCarthy at a school in NYC illuminated the impact of noise on learning. At Public School 98 in uptown Manhattan, the elevated 1 train roared by a mere two hundred feet from the southeast side of the building every few minutes, disrupting learning in nearby classrooms.

One can imagine a teacher hovering exasperated in mid-sentence for the 6th time that period, awaiting the rumbling clatter of the train to recede into the distance, her students’ flighty attention ebbing away just as rapidly.

P.S. 98 in Inwood, Manhattan on an overcast spring day in 2018. You can see the tracks of the 1 train at the far end of the street.

Four year’s worth of data show that students located in classrooms nearest the train had far lower reading scores than those on the quieter side, lagging behind by three months to as much as a year. 

Imagine if your child were placed in a classroom where they might lose an entire year’s worth of reading ability simply due to where the classroom happened to be located in the building.

 To their credit, these results were significant enough to spur the NYC Board of Education and MTA into immediate action (a verb phrase not commonly associated with either entity). The school installed special tiling in the classrooms facing the train, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority insulated the tracks adjacent to the school. In a follow-up study, students across all classrooms were found to have comparable reading levels as a result of these simple interventions (Bronzaft, 1981). This demonstrates that the delay in student reading ability was not due to the quality of the staff nor curriculum, but solely to the location of the classrooms in the building.

Later studies have further revealed the impact of noise and school acoustics. Chronic exposure to noise, such as residing near a highway or airport, impairs a child’s ability to learn. In 1973, researchers measured the reading and auditory processing abilities of children living on different floors of the Bridge Apartments, a quartet of 32 story high rises bestride one of the busiest highways in uptown Manhattan (Cohen, Glass, & Singer). They found that children living on lower floors, in greater proximity to the unrelenting noise of the highway, had lower reading scores compared to those on higher floors. The longer a child lived on a lower floor, the greater the gap.

 This is a vivid visualization of how where a child lives can either expand or inhibit their opportunities to learn—down to the floor they may happen to live on within the very same building. Noise pollution, as with pollution of other sorts, is worse in neighborhoods segregated by race or class (Casey et al., 2017). Schools serving primarily poor, Black, or Latinx communities thus tend to have greater amounts of ambient noise, which most likely means their classrooms will also be noisier—unless those spaces are constructed with materials that absorb external noise, or are belatedly given acoustical treatment (we’ll look more at how to fight noise in a minute).

In a series of studies of schools located near airports in New York, Munich, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, cognitive tasks requiring memory and language processing, such as learning a word list, were impaired by aircraft noise, as were reading comprehension scores and auditory tests of speech perception (Evan & Maxwell, 1997; Hygge, Evans, & Bullinger, 2000; Stansfeld et al., 2005).

In sum, noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.

Now is probably a good time to highlight the strong connection between reading comprehension and auditory learning. While our visual system is clearly an important component of reading, comprehension of the written word is founded on the ability to discern the sounds that letters and words are composed of. For children that struggle with reading, especially those classified as dyslexic, their difficulty is closely related to trouble with auditory processing (Hornickel & Kraus, 2013).

All children should learn in environments in which speech can be clearly heard, but it is especially critical for young children, children with hearing impairments, learning challenges, or learners of a new language (Kristiansen et al., 2011).

The Importance of the Intelligibility of Speech

The connection between noise and learning makes a lot of sense when you consider that speech and language are central to most classroom instruction. The more difficult it is to discern individual words, the more cognitive energy a brain must exert to fill in the gaps, drawing from prior knowledge and context (Pichora-Fuller, 2007). This is similar to the challenge a struggling reader faces when they expend more cognitive energy decoding words rather than deciphering meaning. And while you may be able to hold a conversation in the middle of a dance club and understand what your inebriated friend is saying, don’t expect that children can so easily fill in the blanks. Even those adults who are deaf—and are therefore experienced lip readers—do not recognize a large majority of words spoken to them without signing (Altieri, Pisoni, & Townsend, 2011).

A 2000 report, “Classroom Acoustics: A Resource for Creating Environments with Desirable Listening Conditions,” framed the difficulty children face in understanding classroom speech thus:

In many classrooms in the United States, the speech intelligibility rating is 75 percent or less. That means that, in speech intelligibility tests, listeners with normal hearing can understand only 75 percent of the words read from a list. Imagine reading a textbook with every fourth word missing, and being expected to understand the material and be tested on it. Sounds ridiculous? Well, that is exactly the situation facing students every day in schools all across the country. (Seep et al., 2000)

Let me repeat that claim above again in a different way to stress this point: in many classrooms, due to poor acoustics, children may not understand 25% or more of the words their teacher speaks. It’s hard to verify a statistic like that, but there have been some surveys of acoustics across many schools in the world, and what is clear is that the acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can vary quite dramatically (Mealings, 2016).

Given that the majority of learning in most classrooms is based upon speech, you might conclude that acoustics would be one of the primary concerns of classroom design. You may also think that it would be one of the first things a school leader considers when evaluating the learning conditions of their classrooms. The reality is that acoustical design is rarely considered due to cost and complexity, and noise continues to be dismissed as a minor nuisance. Meanwhile, children are sitting in classrooms where they miss a substantial portion of what their teacher says each day, due to no fault nor inattention of their own.

Noise Begets Noise

But it is not only chronic, deafening noise from cars, airplanes, and trains that can impair learning. The background noise within a classroom can also be harmful. In a 2006 study, 158 eight-year-olds were randomly assigned to classrooms with three different noise conditions and administered tests: normal sound levels during testing (no talking), a constant stream of children babbling (around 65 decibels), and classroom babble with intermittent external noise events, like sirens (Dockrell & Shield). One of their findings was that classroom chatter can have a detrimental effect on student performance on both verbal and nonverbal tasks. Which should surprise exactly no one who has ever tried to concentrate while others around them were gabbing.

In a survey of secondary schools in London, researchers measured the unoccupied levels of ambient noise and reverberation in classrooms and compared it against sound levels during lessons across multiple subjects and activities (Shield et al., 2015). They found that sound levels during instruction were related to the acoustical quality of the rooms themselves, and that disruptions to learning, such as students talking or shouting, were correlated to rooms of poorer acoustical quality. Thus, the poorer the acoustical quality of room—as measured before anyone occupies it—the noisier the room is likely to be once kids are in there. And the more likely, as a result, learning will be thrown off track.

This gives us a general principle: when a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use. In other words, noise begets noise. And noise tends to lead to less self-regulated behavior. In a bar or a club, maybe that’s a desirable thing. But not in a school.

We can see this everyday in school cafeterias. Cafeterias can be some of the worst acoustical offenders, becoming deafeningly loud, which is hardly surprising given they are chock full of hungry students with pent up energy socializing in giant rectangular spaces rife with reflective surfaces. Rather than a respite after a long morning of thinking and learning, lunch breaks instead become a time of sensory overload due to poor acoustics. If it’s an option, students sensitive to noise seek to escape to the calm, restorative environment of the classroom of their favorite teacher instead.

All teachers dread the class that must be taught after lunch. That’s the period when kids come in buzzing with the latest scuttlebutt. In my first years of teaching in a self-contained 5th grade classroom, I learned that transitioning my students into academic learning too swiftly after lunch would result in no academic learning. It was as if they needed a break from their lunch break. Looking back, I wonder how much the frayed nerves of my students can be attributed to a lunch period spent in a noisy basement with terrible acoustics?

Because noise doesn’t only hinder learning. It also causes fatigue. Earlier, we discussed how when it is harder to hear, our brains must work harder to fill in the blanks. This can not only be taxing, but furthermore cause us to miss subtle cues and thus have distorted perceptions in social situations (Anderson, 2001). When you consider the trouble that adolescents already have with self-image and complex social situations, now consider the fisheye effect of cafeteria noise. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Another overlooked area of poor acoustics are school stairwells. Again, these tend to be filled with hard, reverberant surfaces that echo with the scuffle of sneakers and shouts. Some stairwells, like the one at a Bronx middle school in the picture below, carry sound across multiple floors. As groups of students traverse the stairs, noise magnifies. Students grow louder as they enter the stairwell in an effort to be heard, demonstrating the power of the signal-to-noise ratio in real-time.

Signal-to-noise ratio is the audibility of what you want to hear (such as someone’s voice) against background noise. In order for speech to be intelligible, a positive signal-to-noise ratio must be maintained, which is why we tend to raise our voices when there is more noise around us.

This Bronx middle school stairwell becomes a sea of noise when students use it.

The Impact of Noise on Teachers

Unwittingly, teachers themselves may exacerbate the noise in their classrooms. It is natural to speak more loudly when there is noise around us. Given the prevalence of reverberating sounds in classrooms, compounded by frequent group work and the natural propensity of children to speak loudly and excitedly, teachers invariably end up talking at higher volumes in the battle to make themselves heard. Some teachers operate nearest to a level of hoarse hollering as a matter of normalcy. They may proudly term this their “teacher voice.”

 But speaking constantly at higher volumes has consequences: teachers are more susceptible to voice-related issues. Across two studies, one in Sweden and one in the U.S., teachers were “the commonest ‘at risk’ occupation” and “four times more commonly represented clinically than in the population at large” (Williams, 2003). Another study found that poor acoustics and related voice problems reduced teacher well-being, as well as increased absences due to illness (Kristiansen et al., 2011). Teacher voice problems also may have an impact on the economy: one study estimated a cost of $2.5 billion per year to the U.S. economy due to effects such as absences, clinical visits, and medication (Verdolini & Ramig, 2001), while another study of Colombian teachers estimated the cost as potentially up to 37% of a teacher’s monthly wage (Cantor Cutiva & Burdorf, 2015). Even more importantly, a teacher’s vocal impairment can make it difficult for students to understand what a teacher is saying (Rogerson & Dodd, 2005).

Another way of saying all of this is that while it may be obvious that loud, constant, chronic noise hinders learning, the poor acoustical quality of schools and classrooms can also have a cumulatively detrimental impact, both for teachers and for students.

This doesn’t mean that classrooms and schools should all be expected to be hushed rectories where you can hear a pin drop. A certain degree of ambient sound may even support focus, at least for tasks involving creativity (Mehta, Zhu, & Cheema, 2012). I find that I can sometimes be more focused and productive when writing, for example, when I am somewhere with an ambient buzz of social activity and conversation, like at a cafe.

But it does mean that too much noise, whether chronic or acute, external or internal, will make learning significantly more difficult for the students who can least afford to fall behind.

Add to all of this the unceasing calls over a loudspeaker that can interrupt instruction throughout a school day. Well-organized schools ensure such calls are only made when absolutely necessary. At some schools, however, unscheduled announcements cause needless additional noise and constantly impede classroom learning.

Can we quantify the impact of interruptions from loudspeakers? This should be an area for further research. But having been interrupted in the middle of a lesson countless times myself, I can state pretty confidently such interruptions devalue learning. It’s hard enough as it is to maintain the attention of children without additional distractions.

School Design for Acoustics

What is it about a classroom or school that determines the quality of its acoustics? 

One key factor is reverberation, which refers to the amount of time that it takes a sound within a room to fade. Too much reverberation intensifies and complicates spoken language, making it harder to understand. Imagine giving a speech in an unfurnished apartment with hardwood floors, as an example. Rather than hearing your words directly, listeners would also hear it reflecting off multiple surfaces, muddying your delivery. But some reverberation time (RT) can also be desirable, especially in a larger space, as sound needs to carry to listeners seated furthest from the speaker (ANSI/ASA, 2010). The more that reflective surfaces are covered over, RT is reduced, such as in a room with a carpet or with tapestries or pictures hanging off the walls.

There are recommended guidelines for how much reverberation is acceptable in a classroom environment. RT is generally measured in unoccupied classrooms through the creation of a sharp, sudden sound, such as by clapping two boards together or popping a balloon (there’s videos on the internet demonstrating measurement of different RTs in classrooms before and after acoustical treatments: search for something like ‘classroom reverberation time’). For hearing impaired children, less than 0.3 seconds of RT is recommended, while 0.4 to 0.6 seconds is recommended for general education classrooms (Mealings, 2016). In a 2001 survey by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of U.S. children were estimated to have hearing loss due to noise exposure (Chepesiuk, 2005). It therefore seems to me that we would want all our children, regardless of disability, to learn in classrooms with a RT closer to 0.3.

In surveys of school spaces across different countries, actual reverberation times varied dramatically from 0.2 to 1.9 seconds. To put this in context, a RT of 0.2 – 0.5 seconds is akin to what you would get in a recording studio, while a RT of 1.0 – 1.9 seconds would be akin to the amplified echoes of a concert hall. Reverberation time in large spaces is great for performances. But in a classroom, where both individual and group work is the norm, fluttering echoes make concentration and learning all the more difficult.

Fighting Noise in Schools

Acoustical Treatments

For schools that are already built and suffer from poor acoustics—the majority of our schools—there’s investments that can be made in acoustical treatment targeting floors, ceilings, or walls. As you consider which kind of treatment you or your school may want to invest in, bear in mind that absorptive materials work best when spread throughout a room, not concentrated in any one area (Seep et al., 2000).

Carpets and Floors

Carpets are one of the most direct methods to control sound levels. They also provide an area for class gatherings. However, carpets collect dirt and dust and need to be well-maintained, requiring more intensive upkeep than a laminated floor. And as anyone who has worked in a school knows, carpets don’t get replaced often, and rarely steam cleaned, if ever.

If you can’t get a carpet, reduce noise from the daily clatter of moving chairs and desks. While some teachers cut tennis balls and place them under chair and table legs, you may be inadvertently increasing indoor air pollutants. Instead, get “floor savers” (little felt disks) that adhere to chair and table bottoms. For a classroom with 32 chairs, this would cost around $75 at the time of this writing (packs of 24 for $15).

Ceilings

A better target for absorbing reverberation in classrooms is the ceiling, as absorptive ceilings can be more effective at absorbing sound than carpets (Shield et al., 2010). Some schools may already have some form of suspended acoustic ceiling tile, but those tiles may not be high performing enough to reduce reverberation times to adequate levels.

Swapping existing ceiling tiles with higher-performing ceiling panels can go a long way towards reducing reverberation time. Seep et al. recommend tiles of noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher (2000), while another source recommends NRC 0.9 or higher (Betz, 2015).

Not all spaces have suspended ceilings, however, and some ceilings are very high. Another method to absorb sound can be to hang acoustical treatments from the ceiling. These can come in various forms and colors, such as cubes, tetrahedrons, or waveforms, and are referred to by nifty names like baffles, clouds, and canopies. These decorative treatments could be well-suited for school hallways or entryways.

For a less expensive DYI approach, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “suspending banners, flags, student work, and plants from the ceiling to contribute to the reduction of noise and reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Your ability to do this will depend on the nature of your ceiling, of course.

Walls

Most classrooms have parallel walls, which means that sound reverberates between them. Even if ceilings are acoustically tiled and floors carpeted, walls can still reflect a lot of sound.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends “placing mobile bulletin boards and bookcases at angles to the walls to decrease reverberation” (ASHA, 2015). Another expert also recommends hanging “portable corkboards” at an angle on the walls (Betz, 2015).

Portable corkboards and mobile bulletin boards can be pricey for an individual teacher to purchase, but the basic idea here is that any furniture, like bookcases, with a large surface area can be angled to help diffuse sound and keep it from reverberating back and forth between the walls.

It’s not clear how absorbent cork in general is for sound, but it seems to be a material that could work well as a DIY panel. Collect enough wine corks, and you can make your own corkboard! I don’t know how well these would work as sound absorbers (more research, please!), but might be worth a shot if you can’t afford professional paneling. Other low cost options may be furniture stuffing or denim.

Classroom furnishings in general can help to dull sound, but for larger spaces like science labs, cafeterias, or auditoriums, strategic placement of acoustical wall panels may be necessary. Acoustical panels are made of a foam or fabric that can absorb and diffuse sound.

Teacher and Student Actions

The simplest and most direct approach is to seat students who have the most trouble hearing the closest to the teacher (Klatte, M., Lachmann, T., & Meis, 2010). Generally speaking, students that have an identified problem with hearing will have this recommendation mandated as part of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), but it’s a good rule of thumb to bring students who seem to struggle with retention or following directions closer. It may be an auditory or visual issue that can be supported with proximity.

Think also about how much your instruction relies on auditory learning. Supplement and reinforce auditory learning with tasks and texts (edu jargon: plan for multiple modalities). Use visuals and gestures when speaking, and ensure that directions for tasks are provided on a chart visible from the back of the room or as a handout.

Be aware of the signal-to-noise ratio in your room. When the background noise increases, resist the urge to speak louder. Teach your students to recognize sound levels that are most appropriate for different tasks (i.e. whispers during reading time, “4 inch voices” during partner/group talk, across-the-room projection during class discussions).

 As I was drafting this, I facilitated a professional learning session for teachers in a classroom on the historic DeWitt Clinton campus in the Bronx, and because all of this research was fresh on my mind, I was hyper-aware of the terrible acoustics of the room. The ceilings were high and did not have any acoustical tile. All it took was one pair of teachers having a side conversation to raise the overall background noise of the classroom.

 When I found myself raising my voice, I spoke to my participants about the acoustical quality of the room to make us all aware of it, and I noticed that framing my request for one voice at a time in this way was also more effective. It depersonalized the refocusing needed during discussions or work time. Building a similar awareness with students in our classrooms can support collective ownership of sound levels in the learning environment, rather than making it incumbent on the teacher to constantly monitor and shush students.

In fact, why not teach students directly about the importance of the impact of noise in the places they learn and live? The NYC Department of Environmental Protection has free resources to teach students about sound and noise available on its website: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/environmental_education/sound_noise.shtml. There is a guide on sound mapping, and this could be done as part of an interdisciplinary project using tools for sound measurement. Student experiments measuring the sound levels in their own school and community can be an enlightening exercise for both students and the adults. For example, a group of 5th grade students in Alexandria, Virginia, discovered that “the decibel level in the cafeteria could reach an average of 101 decibels, equivalent to the noise in a subway station” (NIDCD, 2016). 

If we want our students to become civically engaged citizens, advocating for their own needs and the needs of others, then the acoustics in their own classrooms would be a wonderful place to start.

Amplification

Amplification systems could be of some benefit to both teachers and students, but if an amplified voice just reverberates around the classroom walls, it may lend itself to the creation of more noise. Amplification systems also tend to amplify only the teacher, not students, and asking students to pass around a microphone to speak is not an ideal workaround for every group discussion (Seep et al., 2000). Designing classroom walls and surfaces to dampen noise may be the wiser investment.

Policy

The best way to solve problems with acoustics is to prevent them beforehand, not correct them after the fact (Seep et al., 2000). And there is evidence that regulations of new school construction can have a positive impact on the acoustical quality of classrooms. In England and Wales, legislation introduced in 2003 required new school buildings to meet specifications for noise, reverberation time, and acoustical treatments. A study in 2015 that measured 185 schools across a range of representative secondary UK schools found that the amount of spaces that met the requirements doubled in those built after the regulations, compared to those built before (Shield et al.).

So regulations matter. Unfortunately, many schools are constructed with cost as the most important factor, and acoustics can be all too easily overlooked, despite their centrality to learning. Regulations that provide clear specifications for acoustical design would help to ensure that built spaces provide an environment where speech can be heard.

 The good news is that the U.S. has a set of rigorous acoustical standards that could guide school design. In 2002, the Acoustical Society of America and American National Standards Institute published the American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, which were further revised and updated in 2010 (ANSI/ASA). For classrooms and other school spaces, they provide design specifications to address background noise, reverberation times, and more.

 The bad news is twofold. First, these standards are not compulsory. Since the federal government does not collect and publish information on school construction, it is unclear how many schools built after 2002 comply, and furthermore, how many schools built prior to 2002 may be anywhere close to these standards.

 Second, construction authorities already must adhere to a biblical amount of code, and they are not necessarily receptive to adding more costly and complex ones on top of it.

At the time of this writing, a clearer and narrower technical standard associated with reverberation time was proposed for inclusion in the International Building Code, a well-respected code created by the International Code Council and adopted by many states and municipalities (NRMCA, 2017). For reference, this proposal would establish a scope for technical criteria in Section 808 of the ICC/A117.1 – 2017 Section 1207, “Enhanced Classroom Acoustics” (ICC, 2018). This update will apply for new school construction when and where the code is adopted in 2021. But this highlights a key caveat: a state or municipality still needs to adopt that updated building code in order for it to apply and become enforceable — so we’re still kicking the can down the road.

What can citizens who care about this do? Instead of waiting for the updated International Building Code to be adopted, we can advocate for more rigorous acoustical guidelines to be applied now by our school construction authorities for all new school buildings.

And we’re still only talking about new school building construction. Noise abatement and quality acoustical treatment in older buildings becomes even more costly and complex.

Grant funding for schools is frequently targeted for items of more immediate concerns, like technology or musical instruments. But why not seek to gain capital funding for acoustical treatments for classrooms and cafeterias? The impact could not only be significant, but furthermore sustained over the course of life for the school building, impacting countless students and teachers.

It’s also important to remember from an advocacy perspective that acoustics are an accessibility issue. If a child is hearing impaired, their Individualized Education Program (IEP) should address the acoustical environment—this is especially important the younger the child is. But a child’s IEP is only an avenue for advocacy on a case-by-case basis. Advocacy to a public office of disability and to our public representatives is a broader way to tackle the issue, in conjunction with advocacy for individual students within the school.

In Sum

  • Noise makes it harder for all children to hear, to read, and to remember.
  • Children in many classrooms miss 25% or more of what their teacher says each day due to poor acoustics.
  • When a space is of poor acoustical quality, it is more likely to become noisier once in use.
  • Poor acoustical quality not only impedes student learning, but furthermore creates costly teacher voice problems.
  • Reverberation times in classrooms should ideally be 0.4 seconds or less.

To combat noise in schools, we can:

  • Stick “floor savers” (little felt disks) on the bottoms of chair and table legs
  • Install or replace acoustical ceiling tiles with noise reduction coefficient (NRC) values 0.75 or higher
  • Install acoustical panels in cafeterias and auditoriums
  • Hang stuff from the ceiling, such as:
    • Acoustical baffles, clouds, or canopies
    • Banners, flags, student work, or plants
  • Place furniture and other large surfaces at different angles to the walls and ceiling to help diffuse sound
  • Support students in understanding and taking ownership of sound levels in their living and learning environment
  • Advocate for new school construction to adhere to ANSI or updated International Building Code guidelines for classroom acoustics
  • Seek funding for older school buildings to obtain professional acoustical treatment

Extra Credit: The Ecology of Acoustics

Schools leaders constantly scan the acoustical environment of their building. They can tell when an escalating voice may mean a fight is about to break out, versus when a class performance is about to occur. The subtle yet critical distinction between the emotional valence of kids having fun or experiencing crisis is something that becomes instinctual.

    What about the cumulative types of sounds that kids make over time? What is the positive-to-negative ratio of words used? Can we identify the frequency and patterns of positive or problematic speech? 

Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause has recorded the sounds of natural ecosystems for nearly half a century. From his experience listening intensely, over time, to the sounds associated with specific places, he has developed a hypothesis that the health of an ecosystem can be gauged by the layered diversity of its sounds (Keim, 2014). According to this “niche hypothesis”—which he calls biophony—in a complex, diverse, and well-balanced ecosystem, each animal’s call finds its place within a tapestry of sounds, in the manner that the leaves of a thriving tree stagger themselves three dimensionally to best catch the light.

Conversely, in a damaged ecosystem, animal sounds thin out, devolving into extremes of either noise or silence. Due to the increasing noise of human traffic and industrial activity, animals sensitive to noise may have difficulty finding a niche in which they can be heard, thus reducing their ability to procreate and thrive.

In the ecosystem of a school, one hopes that every child’s voice will find its niche. Yet all too often, there may be more noise than signal.

Can we gauge the health of a school ecosystem through the tapestry of its sounds?

Is there a threshold that could be identified in the trends and types of school sounds, where we could intervene before problems occur? Could issues with school climate be identified more swiftly?

In many cities in the U.S., scanners are programmed to automatically detect gunshots, using a technology called ShotSpotter. Once gunfire has been detected, it is submitted to police dispatchers with a GPS location in order to be investigated (Smith, 2016). Similarly, scanners are now being embedded in natural areas that are in danger of illegal logging or poaching that can alert rangers (Hausheer, 2017).

Maybe one day automated scanners will monitor the sounds within school hallways, stairwells, and cafeterias, supplementing the instinctual sense of school leaders with acoustical data over time.

References

Altieri, N. A., Pisoni, D. B. and Townsend, J. T. (2011) ‘Some normative data on lip-reading skills (L)’, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 130(1), pp. 1–4. doi: 10.1121/1.3593376.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (n.d.). Classroom Acoustics (Practice Portal). Available at:  www.asha.org/Practice-Portal/Professional-Issues/Classroom-Acoustics (Accessed: 30 May 2018).

Anderson, K. (2001) ‘Noisy classrooms: What does the research really say?,’ Journal of Educational Audiology, 9, pp. 21–33.

ANSI/ASA S12.60-2010/Part 1 (2010) American National Standard Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, Part 1: Permanent Schools. Acoustical Society of America, 35 Pinelawn Road, Suite 114E, Melville, NY 11747, USA.

Betz, K. (2015) ‘Struggling To Hear, Learn, And Teach’, Commercial Architecture Magazine, 1 March. Available at: https://www.commercialarchitecturemagazine.com/struggling-to-hear-learn-and-teach/ (Accessed: Accessed: 28 May 2018).

Bronzaft, A. L. (1981) ‘The effect of a noise abatement program on reading ability’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1(3), pp. 215–222. doi: 10.1016/S0272-4944(81)80040-0.

Bronzaft, A. L. and McCarthy, D. P. (1975) ‘The Effect of Elevated Train Noise On Reading Ability’, Environment and Behavior, 7(4), pp. 517–528. doi: 10.1177/001391657500700406.

Cantor Cutiva, L. C. and Burdorf, A. (2015) ‘Medical Costs and Productivity Costs Related to Voice Symptoms in Colombian Teachers’, Journal of Voice: Official Journal of the Voice Foundation, 29(6), pp. 776.e15–22. doi: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2015.01.005.

Casey, J. A. et al. (2017) ‘Race/Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Status, Residential Segregation, and Spatial Variation in Noise Exposure in the Contiguous United States’, Environmental Health Perspectives, 125(7), p. 077017. doi: 10.1289/EHP898.

Casey, J. A., James, P. and Morello-Frosch, R. (2017) Urban noise pollution is worst in poor and minority neighborhoods and segregated cities, The Conversation. Available at: http://theconversation.com/urban-noise-pollution-is-worst-in-poor-and-minority-neighborhoods-and-segregated-cities-81888 (Accessed 19 May 2018).

Chepesiuk, R. (2005) ‘Decibel Hell: The Effects of Living in a Noisy World’, Environmental Health Perspectives, 113(1), pp. A34–A41.

Cohen, S., Glass, D. C. and Singer, J. E. (1973) ‘Apartment noise, auditory discrimination, and reading ability in children’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(5), pp. 407–422. doi: 10.1016/S0022-1031(73)80005-8.

Dockrell, J. E. and Shield, B. M. (2006) ‘Acoustical barriers in classrooms: the impact of noise on performance in the classroom’, British Educational Research Journal, 32(3), pp. 509–525. doi: 10.1080/01411920600635494.

Evans, G. W. and Maxwell, L. (1997) ‘Chronic Noise Exposure and Reading Deficits: The Mediating Effects of Language Acquisition’, Environment and Behavior, 29(5), pp. 638–656. doi: 10.1177/0013916597295003.

Hausheer, J. E. (2017) Forest Soundscapes Hold the Key for Biodiversity Monitoring, Cool Green Science. Available at: https://blog.nature.org/science/2017/07/24/forest-soundscapes-hold-the-key-for-biodiversity-monitoring/ (Accessed: 14 June 2018).

Hornickel, J. and Kraus, N. (2013) ‘Unstable Representation of Sound: A Biological Marker of Dyslexia’, Journal of Neuroscience, 33(8), pp. 3500–3504. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4205-12.2013.

Hygge, S., Evans, G., and Bullinger, M. (2000) ‘The Munich airport noise study – effects of chronic aircraft noise on children’s perception and cognition,’ Inter.noise 2000, The 29th International Congress and Exhibition on Noise Control Engineering, 27-30 August. Nice, France

International Code Council (2018). 2017 ICC A117.1-2017 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. Available at: https://codes.iccsafe.org/public/document/ICCA117_12017 (Accessed: 10 June 2018)

Keim, B. (2016) Decoding Nature’s Soundtrack, Nautilus. Available at: http://nautil.us/issue/38/noise/decoding-natures-soundtrack-rp (Accessed: 13 Jan 2018).

Klatte, M., Lachmann, T. and Meis, M. (2010) ‘Effects of noise and reverberation on speech perception and listening comprehension of children and adults in a classroom-like setting’, Noise & Health, 12(49), pp. 270–282. doi: 10.4103/1463-1741.70506.

Kristiansen, J. et al. (2013) ‘Effects of Classroom Acoustics and Self-Reported Noise Exposure on Teachers’ Well-Being’, Environment and Behavior, 45(2), pp. 283–300. doi: 10.1177/0013916511429700

Mealings, K. (2016) ‘Classroom acoustic conditions: Understanding what is suitable through a review of national and international standards, recommendations, and live classroom measurements’,  Proceedings of ACOUSTICS 2016

Mehta, R., Zhu, R. (Juliet) and Cheema, A. (2012) ‘Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition’, Journal of Consumer Research, 39(4), pp. 784–799. doi: 10.1086/665048.

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (2016) ‘Students ask “How loud is too loud?” in the cafeteria,’ 22 July [Online]. Available at: https://www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/have-you-heard/how-loud-is-too-loud-in-the-school-cafeteria (Accessed: 15 June 2018)

National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (n.d.)  Building Code Adoption by State. Available at: https://www.nrmca.org/Codes/downloads/Master-I-Code-Adoption-Chart-Feb-2017.pdf (Accessed: 10 June 2018) 

Pichora-Fuller, M. (2007) Audition and cognition: What audiologists need to know about listening. Paper presented at the Adult Conference.

Rogerson, J. and Dodd, B. (2005) ‘Is there an effect of dysphonic teachers’ voices on children’s processing of spoken language?’, Journal of Voice: Official Journal of the Voice Foundation, 19(1), pp. 47–60. doi: 10.1016/j.jvoice.2004.02.007.

Seep, B. et al. (2000) ‘Classroom Acoustics: A Resource for Creating Environments with Desirable Listening Conditions’. Acoustical Society of America Publications.

Shield, B. et al. (2015) ‘A survey of acoustic conditions and noise levels in secondary school classrooms in England’, The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 137(1), pp. 177–188. doi: 10.1121/1.4904528.

Smith, R. (2016) ‘Here’s how the NYPD’s expanding ShotSpotter system works,’ DNAInfo, 18 May [Online]. Available at: http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20160518/crown-heights/heres-how-nypds-expanding-shotspotter-system-hears-gunfire/ (Accessed: 14 June 2018).

Stansfeld, S. A. et al. (2005) ‘Aircraft and road traffic noise and children’s cognition and health: a cross-national study’, Lancet (London, England), 365(9475), pp. 1942–1949. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)66660-3.

United States Access Board (n.d.) About the Classroom Acoustics Rulemaking. Available at: https://www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/buildings-and-sites/classroom-acoustics (Accessed: 30 May 2018).
Verdolini, K. and Ramig, L. O. (2001) ‘Review: occupational risks for voice problems’, Logopedics, Phoniatrics, Vocology, 26(1), pp. 37–46.

To Rime, or Not to Rime?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

After posting my last piece extolling the virtues of rime, I’ve been forwarded critiques suggesting rime awareness is in actuality not all that useful, with links to corresponding research, from a few critical friends on Twitter. Thank you, critical friends!

Like I said in my last post, I’m no reading specialist, just an educator trying to figure this stuff out as best I can so I can better serve and support the Bronx teachers and schools I work with. The schools I mostly work with are the ones with the lowest ELA proficiency rates in the city, and the highest concentrations of students in poverty. The students in my schools need their teachers to teach them how to read the most. The situation is dire, and urgent, and massive. So when I hear challenges to the way I’m developing my understanding of reading, I take them very seriously, because I need to get this right.

Also I want to give a little more context about where I’m coming from: I work with some elementary schools, but the majority of my schools are middle schools, and my background is special education, so my guiding focus tends to be: how do I help students who are struggling the most and who are way, way behind? So the lens I tend to use is looking backward, rather than forward from a preventative preK – 2 stance. This may complicate some of the way I also present what I’m learning. One of the reasons I got so excited about rime is that it seemed like a potential way to begin intervention for students way behind with phonological awareness and orthographic mapping.

One other thing before we look at the critiques: I have been relying heavily on David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success manual as a guide, and I don’t want to misrepresent his presentation of the science. He in no way suggests that onset-rime teaching is sufficient — he outlines the importance of letter-sound proficiency and basic phonological awareness before beginning word study activities, and he stress the importance of phonemic awareness as the basis for strong reading throughout. He also notes that his program should be taught alongside of a phonics program.

The Claims Against Rime

OK, let’s get to the criticisms of rime, in order of the published date of the research. First off is a 1997 study, “Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills.” This was shared with me by Jo-Anne Gross, who has warned me against an onset-rime focus since I first tweeted mention of it:

This critique, as in the next study we’ll look at, argues specifically against a theory proposed in the early 1990s by Goswami and Bryant, in which they seemed to echo very strongly the ideas I proposed in my last post:

According to their view, most children are aware of onsets and rimes (e.g., train (/tr/ – /ein/) before they are able to analyse and manipulate words at the level of the phoneme, and awareness of onset and rime is crucial to the very earliest stages of literacy acquisition. Goswami and Bryant argued that children who are able to recognise and categorise words that rhyme are sensitive to the phonological rime unit and this awareness, in turn, phonologically underpins early reading in that it allows children to map between sound and spelling at the level of the rime unit (Goswami, 1993).

Nation, Kate & Hulme, Charles. (1997). Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills

But in this study, they fail to find any correlation between onset-rime segmentation and reading or spelling ability, whereas they found a strong correlation with phonemic segmentation. This suggests that time spent on instruction is best spent on phonemes, rather than on rime units.

I received a similar piece from Miriam Fein that also critiques Goswami and Bryan’s stress on onset-rime importance, this one a meta-analysis from 2002, “Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.”

Their review looked for evidence of 3 claims: 1) rhyme awareness is not only related to, but is predictive of reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects or determines reading ability, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to phoneme awareness.

It is claim 3 that is most relevant to my last post, since the theory I proposed was that an understanding of rime supports development to the further abstraction of individual phonemes. The author, Macmillan, lays out a few different studies that directly contradict that theory, and much like the conclusion drawn by the 1997 study above, they argue that time is better spent on individual phonemes, rather than rimes.

“Much of this evidence suggests that it is letter-sound teaching, not rhyme or rime instruction, which is responsible for producing phoneme awareness. . . there is no reliable evidence to date that teaching children how to link spoken rhyme segments with printed rime units, or how to use a rime analogy strategy will speed early reading progress over other forms of instruction.”

Macmillan, Bonnie. (2002). Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.

The Wind Is Let Out of My Sails . . . BUT

Man. I was so excited to think I was gaining a deeper understanding of phonological awareness, and these two papers really blew a hole in my sail!

Yet. . . that last study was 2002. And there’s a few things still holding me up from jumping on the teaching and assessing onset-rime is a complete waste of time bandwagon just yet.

  1. The PAST assessment of phonological awareness moves from syllable-level, to onset-rime-level, to phoneme-level, and in the assessments I’ve administered thus far, I can witness a clear progression in difficulty as students move up the levels. So if onset-rime awareness isn’t indicative of reading ability, while phonemic awareness is, it still seems to make sense that onset-rime awareness is a progression towards phonemic awareness.
  2. Goswami and Bryant, the originators of the theory on the importance of onset-rime awareness, are still kicking it, and in a 2017 chapter of Reading Acquisition, they state: “Three longitudinal studies have shown a striking relationship between children’s early rhyming skills and their later progress in reading.” (Update 1/1/2020: Sarah Glaser corrected me and noted that this is actually a chapter from 1992, it was just an updated edition. Goswami does have more current stuff, which is fascinating in and of itself, but Tiffany Peltier has also forwarded a long piece by Goswami and Ziegler in 2005 that actually addresses Hulme’s 2002 critique and goes quite in depth. It lays out a theory called “psycholinguistic grain size theory” that is relevant to rime and everything else discussed here. More to come!)
  3. A chapter on spelling instruction and intervention provides an overview of linguistic strategies that seem very closely aligned with David Kilpatrick’s outline in Equipped for Reading Success, and also notes some more recent studies that seem to present some benefit for rime unit instruction when implemented in a specific manner:

This chapter from the 2013 Handbook of Language and Literacy was forwarded to me by Sarah Glaser:

This chapter is available online at ResearchGate. There’s a lot of good stuff in there on the importance of teaching morphology and word study activities that allow students to problem-solve and apply their reading and spelling skills.

They refer to a concept new to me, “mental graphemic representations,” (MGRs) which sounds in their first description disturbingly similar to the idea of “sight words” as whole word memorization. But they then outline a specific form of MGR formation, termed the analogy method, that sounds very closely related to orthographic mapping and the word study strategies Kilpatrick describes. The analogy method:

“. . . is a strategic method for memory of letter combinations within words is the analogy method. This method can be generalized to words that students have not directly memorized and refers to the process of applying MGRs of familiar words to an unknown word that has a similar rime unit. . . . Although this strategy of using analogies requires some phonological awareness in that the rime unit is blended with the onset, the main focus is on the application of the MGR spelling of the rime unit.”

Wolter, Julie & Squires, Katie. (2013). Spelling: Instructional and intervention frameworks.

I also did a quick Google Scholar search for “rime reading” since 2002, and I can say that it looks like there is still healthy debate ongoing between researchers about this.

So I’m not going to rule out the magic of the rime just yet, folks! I’m certainly open to it, and those two aforementioned studies seemed to clearly poke major holes in the way I laid it out, but I’m beginning to think I may have just laid it out too simplistically.

Let me test out another way of saying where the teaching of rime units can fit in:

  • Students need proficiency with letter-sounds
  • Then they need proficiency with basic phonological skills
  • As they begin deepening their phonemic awareness, teach explicit rime units and engage them in word study activities that support their ability to recognize and map those rime units into spelling (analogy method)
  • Work with rime units in this way can support the statistical learning and orthographic mapping process as they encounter new words on their own

OK, that’s where I’m going to leave this for now. I can see myself going down a rabbit hole, so will open it up to other practitioners and any experts who can share their expertise. Please continue to push my thinking, share relevant research, and help me get this clear so I can support clarity in the thinking of others!

And wishing you all a very happy new year, filled with new learning on the science of reading.

Applying What I’m Learning About How Kids Learn to Read

It was pretty cool to see my last post catch 🔥 and link me in to a vibrant and smart community of educators committed to the science of reading.

To review, in that post I laid out what I’d begun learning after realizing I knew absolutely nothing about learning to read:

Summary of critical points on word-level reading

The Simple View of Reading provides us with a clear and research-based model of reading comprehension

  • This doesn’t mean it’s completely definitive–no model is. But it does give us a useful map for aligning and targeting our assessments and instruction

Anyone who hears and speaks can be taught to decode words in print

  • IQ is not the basis for the ability to decode
  • Nor is it ever too late to address decoding issues

Units of sound (phonemes -> phonology) are the basis of written language (graphemes -> orthography)

  • Most word-level reading challenges are related to issues with hearing and speaking the sounds of the letters in words

We acquire new words as we read via a process called orthographic mapping

  • It is the phonological part of our brain that anchors the written word in our memory, not our visual memory
  • We learn the vast majority of words (after we have decoded them) by rapidly and unconsciously recognizing the sequence of the sounds of the letters in a word — even when they are irregular

The root cause of most struggles in word-level reading is a lack of proficiency with advanced phonemic skills

  • Students require fluency with deleting, substituting, and reversing phonemes to acquire a large stock of sight vocabulary

Since Then

Since writing that post, it’s felt like a whirlwind of learning. In the NYCDOE, I learned that there are K-2 supports in many elementary schools called Universal Literacy coaches, and they are trained in the science of reading. I spoke with a few and saw how they are attempting to bridge the various programs and curricula schools use to the science. I read Robert Pondiscio’s superb book on Success Academy, How the Other Half Learns, and struggled to square how SA consistently achieves the highest reading proficiency rates in NY state, while applying some reading approaches not fully aligned to the science. (More on that in another post; there’s a lot to dig into from that book, and I’d like to do it justice.)

I then went to a training on Equipped for Reading Success with David Kilpatrick, and got to ask him directly about the distinction between statistical learning and orthographic mapping. He views them as different processes — orthographic mapping refers specifically to the mapping of individual phonemes, and it’s far more quickly acquired (1-4 exposures), as compared to statistical learning, which is a more global pattern recognition process that requires far more exposures. He had a nifty little chart he pulled up to explain the distinctions. Either way, however, I found Marnie Ginsberg’s explanation in a comment on my last post to be a pretty good way to think of it, though with the key addition being that while proficient readers can rapidly do all of this on their own, we need to explicitly train and teach the skills required for orthographic mapping (a chart that outlines those skills below).

A graphic from Equipped for Reading Success that should be widely known in every school.

It can be hard to gain clarity on anything in the world of education, but most especially when it comes to reading. So even as I take one step forward, I often take two steps back further steeped in doubt. Yet I’ve decided to commit to Kilpatrick’s manual as my North Star for the next quarter.

The Knowledge

I’m still moving through the Equipped manual a little each day on my commute, marking it up and imbibing what I’ve taken to calling “the Knowledge” in my annotations, an allusion to the famed test for London cab drivers. The Knowledge, in this case, being terms like digraphs, blends, diphthongs, onset, and rime.

Terms like these, much like grammatical terminology, can seem unnecessarily technical and unessential to good teaching. Yet imagine a world in which it was required for teachers to learn and be assessed on the knowledge behind the terms of word-level reading! I never understood– nor was exposed to–what “onset-rime” means until I read Kilpatrick’s manual. Yet once I grasped it, it served as a threshold concept for understanding phonological awareness.

Here’s the passage from Equipped for Reading Success that expanded my mind and made me aware of a key distinction between the syllable level and onset-rime level of phonological awareness:

“The onset-rime level of phonological awareness goes beyond the syllable level because the child has to break apart the syllable. . . . Onsets and rimes can only be understood within the syllable. Not every syllable has an onset, but every syllable has a rime. This is because every syllable has a vowel.”

–David Kilpatrick, “Equipped for Reading Success” pgs. 20-21

Remember how in my last post I had the big realization that phonemes are an abstraction from our everyday experience of spoken language as a stream of sound? The onset-rime level of sound awareness is one further abstraction from hearing syllable level sounds. There are gradations of abstraction on the road to distinguishing those individual phonemes, and that progression moves from syllable level (“baseball” = 2 claps), to onset-rime level (“baseball” = 4 claps (“b” is onset, “ase” is rime, “b” is next onset, “all” is final rime), to phoneme level (“baseball” is 6 claps (/b/, /A/, /s/, /b/, /a/, /l/).

I’ve begun playing some of the “word games” in Kilpatrick’s manual with my two and a half year old son to cultivate phonemic awareness, and I’ve noticed he can’t yet isolate the second part of a two syllable word. He can identify the first part, however. Which is of absolutely no concern to me, given his age, but I found it revealing of an even more fundamental progression in terms of working memory and the awareness that we can break up multisyllabic words into smaller parts.

When it comes to foundational reading skill knowledge like this, it’s always been something I’ve wished I’d known, but didn’t consider it essential, because the expectation was that I focus on grade-level texts and content. And yet I had students reading far below grade-level. One would think that this would have compelled me to learn it at that point–and I did try, I went through some of the files from my first years of teaching, and I found a whole set of phonics related stuff I’d amassed–but the reality is that it was something else on top of many other things I needed to know and do, and I put my primary focus on grade-level texts and skills. Not a bad focus, of course, but I look back on my many students who were struggling with decoding words, and I feel like I have failed them. I have failed them.

Teaching is a hard job. But so is nursing, and I’m watching my wife as she goes through a nursing program and struggles to acquire a vast body of knowledge that must be applied on a daily basis in a clinical setting. Nurses have to acquire this knowledge and be able to apply it, their jobs demand it. People’s lives are literally on the line. And yet, when it comes to teachers, our society seems to be perfectly fine to let them off the hook.

In How the Other Half Learns, Pondiscio has an especially wry zinger (in a book full of them) in Chapter 1 when he states, “Teaching is the easiest job in the world to do badly. . . But it’s the hardest job to do well.”

We are graduating too many students who are functionally illiterate. We all need to step up our game.

My Theory of Action

My working hypothesis, based on Kilpatrick: many of the struggling readers in the schools I support are struggling with a core phonological deficit. Therefore, if I administer the PAST and identify where a student’s phonemic awareness level is (and train teachers to do so), and support targeted daily instruction in phonemic awareness until proficiency is attained, then those students’ reading levels will improve.

I’ve brought the PAST, a short phonemic awareness assessment from Equipped for Reading Success, to a few of the middle schools I work with, and have begun pilots with self-contained classrooms and students. I just administered the PAST to my 1st student last Wednesday. We selected him because we knew he was struggling with reading. But it still shocked me with just how basic his phonemic awareness level was. He was at nearly the lowest level, the syllable level, a pre – mid kindergarten level.

Let me frame the wider context of what we’re up against: in that school, roughly 40-50% of students across the 6-8th grades are identified as struggling with decoding, according to an iReady diagnostic. Of that ~50%, how many are struggling with a phonological deficit? I’d like to find out. And help to do something about it.

Finding a way to tackle something that massive, while continuing to ensure that core instruction demands grade-level expectations, is a tough challenge. Because let it be known that I am in no way suggesting that kids struggling with word-level reading should no longer be exposed to grade-level texts and content. What I am suggesting is that it is incumbent on teachers at any level (and schools) to be knowledgeable enough of foundational skills and grade-level content and skills to scale their instruction accordingly. And yes, this is a heavy lift indeed. There’s never enough time in the day.

Yet I’ve found Kilpatrick’s materials promising in this regard, because some of the phonemic awareness activities are “1 minute” practice sessions. Every single minute we have with a student is precious time, all too easily squandered.

I recognize there’s many other aspects to this, such as administering a phonics screen or oral fluency task and pairing students with different programs depending on the need. But I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m going to start small to see if my hypothesis is verified and if I can help to enact instruction that will target those needs. This is where the rubber hits the road.

I may fail. This whole thing is, ironically enough, a pet project of mine. It is no official aspect of my duties and role in the schools I support. And I take on too many side projects as it is. I’ve got a book I’m supposed to be writing, by the way, but can no longer find the time for, let alone post on this blog. But I have a hard time thinking of anything more important than getting this right. So I’m saying this publicly so the network I’ve begun connecting to can help support me, so I can better help support the students and teachers I touch each day.

If you are on a similar journey, please connect with me here or on Twitter @mandercorn and let’s work through this together. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there, we just have to each individually connect the dots.

Thank you in advance, and thank you for reading. In solidarity.

Learning How Kids Learn to Read

You might assume I know something about teaching kids to read. I studied English at UCLA and obtained my master’s in education at The City College of NY. I taught special education grades 5-8 for 7 years, and I’ve supported schools and teachers throughout the Bronx with K-8 ELA instruction over the past 3 years.

Yet you’d be wrong. I’ve come to realize I know next to nothing.

In case you haven’t been aware, there’s been a firestorm of educators on platforms like Twitter gaining newfound awareness of the science of reading, with an urgent bellows inflamed by the ace reporting of Emily Hanford. For a great background on this movement, with links, refer to this post by Karen Vaites. And make sure you check out Hanford’s most recent podcast (as of today!!! It’s amazing!) outlining how current classroom practice is misaligned to research.

Impelled by this burgeoning national and international conversation, I’ve sought to educate myself about the science of reading. I began with Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight, took a linguistics course, and have just completed David Kilpatrick’s Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Seidenberg is not only pithy, but furthermore impassioned, while Kilpatrick is deeply versed in both the research and application in practice as a former school psychologist. Both experts provide an incendiary takedown of more than a few sacred cows in the educational establishment.

It’s been fascinating to learn more about the science of reading while simultaneously working with a school where I could see problems elucidated by reading researchers and advocates play out in real-time. It has made what I’m learning gain an even greater sense of urgency. I would read pages critiquing the “three-cueing system” and balanced literacy approaches on the bus in the morning, then walk into classrooms where I saw teachers instructing students, when uncertain about a word, to use guessing strategies such as “look at the picture” and the “first letter of the word,” rather than stress the need to be able to decode the entire word (for more on the problems with current classroom practice, listen to Hanford’s podcast).

There’s so much to digest and apply from all of this. This post is my attempt to begin synthesizing the information I’ve read. I’ll start general and then focus on the word-level reading aspect of the research in this post. And there’s so much more I want to cover, but I’ll be leaving tons of stuff out that I would love to explore further. Someday . . .

Reading Can Be Simple

First off, though reading is complicated, it can be outlined by a simple model, known aptly enough as The Simple View of Reading. It can even be put into the form of an equation. The theory was first developed in 1986 by researchers Gough and Tunmer. The original formulation was D (decoding) X LC (linguistic or language comprehension) = Reading Comprehension.

After years of further research, this distinction has mostly held up, though it has become greatly expanded, especially in our understanding of what constitutes language comprehension.

Decoding has been clarified as one umbrella aspect of word-level reading, which is composed of many sub-skills. A more updated formula, courtesy of Kilpatrick, is:

Word Recognition X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.

If you struggle with word recognition (such as with dyslexia), or if you struggle with language comprehension (English language learner), then you have difficulty reading.

Protip: if you are an educator in NY, know that this distinction can be framed around the language from Advanced Literacy as code-based (word recognition) and meaning-based (language comprehension) skills. And if you are a NYC educator, you can furthermore align this to the Instructional Leadership Framework. Bonus points for alignment to state and city initiatives! Yay!

Within each of these two domains lie the various sub-skills and knowledge that make reading so very complicated. Here’s a chart I made to visualize the “Expanded” Simple View:

Protip: Most educators are already familiar with the “five pillars” or “Big 5” of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, so it can be helpful to build a bridge between that knowledge and the Simple View. At a recent session I facilitated, I asked teachers to consider the Big 5, introduced the notion that they are composed of subskills, then asked them to sort those subskills into code-based or meaning-based groups. Here’s a print-out you could use to create the sorting strips.

Note that word recognition skills are mostly mastery-based. And a key point experts like Seidenberg and Kilpatrick make about word recognition is that word recognition can be acquired by all children. IQ discrepancy is not a factor.

Here’s Seidenberg:

“For children who are poor readers, IQ is not a strong predictor of intervention responses or longer-term outcomes. Moreover, the behavioral characteristics of poor readers are very similar across a wide IQ range. . . Within this broad range of IQs, poor readers struggle in the same ways, need help in the same areas, and respond similarly to interventions. In short, the skills that pose difficulties for children are not closely related to the skills that IQ tests measure. The primary question is about children’s reading—whether it is below age-expected levels—not their intelligence.”

Here’s Kilpatrick:

“Discrepancies between IQ and achievement do not cause word-reading problems. Rather, deficits in the skills that underlie word-level reading cause those problems. The component skills of word reading can be strong or weak, independently of IQ test performance.”

“A common belief that continues to be recommended is that some students with severe reading disabilities simply cannot learn phonics and they should be shifted to a whole-word type of approach. This recommendation is inconsistent with the accumulated research on the nature of reading development and reading disabilities

“The simple view of reading applies to poor readers with IDEA disabilities (SLD, SLI, ID, ED/BD, TBI) and poor readers not considered disabled. Thus, when asked the question, ‘Why is this child struggling in reading?’ we would no longer answer, ‘because the child has an intellectual disability (or SLI or ED/BD or whatever).’ Those disability categories do not cause reading difficulties—specific reading-related skill deficits cause reading difficulties.”

What this means for educators: there is simply no excuse for any student to graduate from any of our schools without the ability to decode words in print. As Kilpatrick stated in a presentation (thanks to Tania James for her wonderful notes), “If a child can speak, they can learn phonics.”

Language comprehension, on the other hand, may be a tougher beast to tackle. Linguistic skills and knowledge are cumulative and on-going. Most importantly, a core component of language comprehension is background and topical knowledge, in addition to grammatical and syntactical knowledge — both which are inadequately taught in most schools due to the lack of a strong and coherent core curriculum.

I should note that Siedenberg doesn’t seem to fully subscribe to the Simple View, and that by no means should we begin to think any one model can adequately describe something so complex as reading. In his endnotes he states, “The main weakness in Gough’s theory is that it did not make sufficient room for the ways that the components influence each other. Vocabulary, for example, is jointly determined by spoken language and reading. Vocabulary can also be considered a component of both basic skills and comprehension.”

Kilpatrick contradicts this view when he states, “In the context of the simple view of reading, it appears that vocabulary belongs primarily on the language comprehension side of the simple view equation, not necessarily on the word-reading side.”

Seidenberg proposes his own model, based on computational simulations, which looks something like this (Figure 6.2 from Chapter 6):

I think this model is useful for conveying why reading is complicated and can be hard to learn, but maybe not quite as useful for guiding school-based assessment and instruction.

Why is The Simple View of Reading important?

Having a clear model for reading comprehension means we have a guide for aligned assessment, prevention, and intervention. Unfortunately, many schools base ELA instruction primarily on state assessments, which tell you very little about a student’s reading needs. People seem to forget that the function of a state assessment is for school, district, and state level accountability, not to direct classroom instruction.

Protip: One “research snapshot” I found useful from Nonie Lesaux and Emily Galloway’s Advanced Literacy framework is the distinction they make between “literacy performances” and “specific skills and competencies.”

A state literacy assessment is a “literacy performance.” Here’s an explanation in their book, Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills:

“There is a tendency to examine the results of outcome assessments at the item level—to figure out the types of items groups of students struggled with and then go back and teach to support this understanding. Perhaps the most universal example is ‘finding the main idea’ in a passage . . . the problem is that finding the main idea—among many other similar performances or exercises—is just that—a reading performance. It is not a specific skill. That is, to perform the task at hand, in this case to find the main idea, the reader draws on many component skills and composite competencies and initiates those in concert with one another. In turn, when a student is not able to find the main idea, we still do not know why.”

In order to know why, we need assessments that can better pinpoint where the breakdown occurs, whether in word recognition or in language comprehension, or both. And then we need to do something about it. This is where it gets hard.

Reading is Hard

Though we can draw on a simple model to explain it, in actuality reading is complicated.

First of all, it’s completely unnatural. While we acquire spoken language organically, reading requires the imposition of an abstract system onto that language, a grafting of a fragmented alphabet onto a river of sound. Writing is something our species invented, an ingenious mechanism to convey information across space and time. While the first writing appeared around 3,200 BC, humans have been speaking for anywhere between 50,000 to 2 million years prior (we don’t know for sure because we couldn’t record anything yet, duh).

There are many irregular words in the English language, which would appear to make the teaching of something like phonics a daunting endeavor. We assume that kids need to be taught the rules, and then memorize the exceptions (these are known as “sight words.”) Makes sense, right?

Yet research has made it clear we don’t acquire most sight words through memorization. Instead, we draw upon our letter-sound knowledge and phonological analysis skills to recognize new written words and unconsciously add them to our “orthographic lexicon.”

What’s interesting on this point is there appears to be some disagreement between the models Seidenberg and Kilpatrick use to explain this process. Seidenberg calls it statistical learning, meaning that we learn to recognize patterns in common words, from which we then can recognize many others, including ones with irregularities. Kilpatrick, on the other hand, terms it orthographic mapping, which is the process of instantaneously pulling apart and putting back together the sounds in words, drawing upon letter-sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. In either model, what is acknowledged is that children learn to recognize a large volume of new words primarily on their own, but that such an ability is founded upon a strong understanding of sounds (phonology) and their correspondences in written form (orthography).

Honestly, I find both concepts—statistical learning and orthographic mapping—hard to wrap my head around.

It’s also possible they describe different things. Seidenberg’s term seems more global, explaining how we acquire vocabulary, while orthographic mapping refers more specifically to the relationship between decoding and acquiring vocabulary. I should note here that Kilpatrick did not come up with the term, “orthographic mapping,” but rather draws on the research of Linnea Ehri.

Here’s Seidenberg on statistical learning:

“…learning vocabulary is a Big Data problem solved with a small amount of timely instruction and a lot of statistical learning. The beauty part is that statistical learning incorporates a mechanism for expanding vocabulary without explicit instruction or deliberate practice. The mechanism relies on the fact that words that are similar in meaning tend to occur in similar linguistic environments.”

Here’s Kilpatrick on orthographic mapping:

“Roughly speaking, think of phonic decoding as going from text to brain and orthographic mapping as going from brain to text. This is, however, an oversimplification because orthographic mapping involves an interactive back and forth between the letters and sounds. However, it is important that we do not confuse orthographic mapping with phonic decoding. They use some of the same raw materials (i.e., letter-sound knowledge and phonological long-term memory), but they use different aspects of phonological awareness, and the actual process is different. Phonic decoding uses phonological blending, which goes from “part to whole” (i.e., phonemes to words) while orthographic mapping requires the efficient use of phonological awareness/analysis, which goes from “whole to part” (i.e., oral words to their constituent phonemes).”

Kilpatrick notes that “The vast majority of exception words have only a single irregular letter-sound relationship.” This means that if a reader knows their letter-sound relationships well, they will be able to negotiate the majority of words with exceptions and irregularities.

What this means is that students need to be provided with sufficient practice to master phonological awareness and phonics skills. And we can not blame the failure of a student to learn to decode on the irregularity of the English language.

Phonology: What We Can Hear and Speak is the Root of Written Language

In Seidenberg’s book, he argues that phonemes are the first abstraction on the road to the written word. A phoneme is the individual sound that a letter can represent (e.g. the sound of “p”). While we learn many such sounds as we acquire spoken language, the need to disaggregate a single component sound into a phoneme only becomes necessary in the translation of speech into the written form. As Seidenberg puts it:

“Phonemes are abstractions because they are discrete, whereas the speech signal is continuous. . . The invaluable illusion that speech consists of phonemes is only completed with further exposure to print, often starting with learning to spell and write one’s name.”

No wonder “phonemic awareness” is central to learning to read! The ability to know and discern individual sounds, and then to be able to play with them and put them back together, is the core skill of reading. In other words, if you struggle with blending and manipulating the sounds in words, you struggle with reading.

And indeed, this is why far too many of our kids have problems with reading. As Kilpatrick puts it, “The phonological-core deficit is far and away the most common reason why children struggle in word-level reading.”

Once I grasped this deceptively simple idea—that fluent reading is dependent on the ability to hear and speak the sounds of letters within words—prevention and intervention began to make more sense to me. Before, my understanding of the distinction between phonological awareness and phonics and what this meant for instruction was muddy. Now, I know that before even looking at a letter or a word, a student needs to practice hearing and speaking the sounds. This is how the student develops phonemic awareness. Phonics, on the other hand, is taught when those sounds are then applied to letters.

Protip: “A good way to remember the difference…is that phonemic awareness can be done with your eyes closed, while phonics cannot” (Kilpatrick, 2015a, p. 15).

The Importance of Advanced Phonemic Awareness

That may sound straightforward (no pun intended), but one of the key understandings I gained from Kilpatrick is that we too often stop at basic phonological awareness, both in our assessments and in our intervention. While sound instruction in grades K-1 in phonological awareness and phonics should help to prevent most word reading difficulties (“Intervention researchers estimate that if the best prevention and intervention approaches were widely used, the percentage of elementary school students reading below a basic level would be about 5% rather than the current 30% to 34%”), there are some students who will present with more severe difficulties. And those difficulties often stem from lacking more advanced phonemic awareness. He also points out that these advanced phonemic skills continue to typically develop in grades 3 and 4, well past the point that most schools provide systematic phonemic and phonics instruction.

Kilpatrick stresses that intervention and remediation for such students requires explicitly teaching advanced phonological skills.

So What Can We Do?

The great thing about Kilpatrick’s book—and why you should buy it—is that unlike many writers in the field of education, he actually goes through what assessments you can use and what you can do instructionally, both for prevention (K-1) and for intervention (grades 2 and up), to address reading needs. He calls out programs by name and praises or critiques them based on key understandings from the research, and some of it was pretty surprising to me.

But I’m going to stop here for this post before it gets overlong. When I can find time to post again (it’s seriously hard with a 2 year old and 9 month old and the school year is about to begin), I’ll share some of the assessments and programs that I think are most accessible from Kilpatrick, as well as dig into some of the sacred cows that Kilpatrick, Seidenberg, and Hanford have slayed.

Afterword

You’ll notice I didn’t mention what I learned from my linguistics course, which was just an online series. It was fine, but I only found it useful insofar as it equipped me with some terms like lexicon, morphology, semantics, or pragmatics. If you have any recommendations for further learning in linguistics, please let me know.

Also, if I’ve demonstrated any misconceptions in this piece or you would like to challenge or add to anything I wrote, please share!

And thank you for reading.