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One in Five Children Struggles to Distinguish Speech in the Classroom Says RNID

It is likely that more than a million* schoolchildren are missing out in the classroom, believes RNID. The charity for deaf and hard of hearing people has discovered that under 14s can often find it difficult to distinguish speech in noisy environments, a skill which develops as they grow older.

The surprise findings were discovered when analysing the results drawn from RNID's 'Breaking The Sound Barrier' telephone hearing check, which was launched in December 2005 to reach out to people who may be losing their hearing but doing nothing about it. So far, nearly 300,000 people have taken RNID's hearing check and, although the check was aimed at adults, around 2,500 callers have been children.

The results from the 'Breaking The Sound Barrier' hearing check show that from a self-selecting sample of over 2,000 children aged 10-14, one in five are unable to distinguish speech in noise at the normal level expected of adults. These children register as having hearing levels below normal, not because of problems with their ears, but due to a cognitive inability to distinguish sounds clearly in noisy environments.

These findings add weight to earlier academic research (Blandy & Lutman, 2005, International Journal of Audiology) which demonstrates that some seven-year-old children cannot distinguish speech against background noise in instances where adults would not have a problem.

RNID is calling on all schools to ensure they have the best acoustic environment for children to hear properly to enable them to get the most benefit from their education. RNID's results suggest as many as 20% of children in the classroom aged between five and fourteen years old could be missing out on what their teacher says. Whilst the new regulations which the Government has introduced relating to acoustic environments in new schools will help, this does not address the issue in existing schools. The use of straightforward microphone and speaker systems or sound field systems could significantly address this problem in all schools and benefit teachers and pupils in all acoustic environments.

Dr Mark Downs, Executive Director of Technology, RNID, says: "It is striking that over 20% of children calling RNID's hearing check aged under fourteen receive a response of 'below normal' or 'well below normal' for their hearing check. This should not be cause for parents to panic**, as it does not necessarily mean that these children are hard of hearing or deaf. Instead it shows that they cannot recognise speech well when there is background noise, which could be anything from chattering pupils, rustling papers, scraping chairs or traffic noise from outside the building. This is a surprising result but it backs up fully validated work carried out on seven year olds published last year by leading academics."

He continued: "These results have significant implications for children's education and make it vital that all schools ensure the acoustic environment in the classroom allows each child to hear as well as possible. RNID is calling on the Government and schools to place greater emphasis on the acoustic environment of the classroom and encourages the use of sound field systems."

Professor Mark Lutman, University of Southampton, comments: "The ability to hear well is especially important for children at school, where listening is a major part of the learning process. RNID's findings reinforce the earlier research into seven year olds' ability to distinguish speech in noisy environments. It further demonstrates that children face challenges when processing sound, especially when there are high levels of background noise, which could impact on their education."

RNID's telephone hearing check operates on the basis of speech in noise where the listener responds using their telephone keypad to digits which are spoken against varying levels of background noise. By analysing the responses to this speech in noise test, the system is able to provide feedback on the caller's level of hearing.

The specially developed hearing check can be taken over the telephone by calling 0845 600 5555. It is part of 'Breaking the Sound Barrier,' (www.breakingthesoundbarrier.org.uk), a campaign launched by RNID, to change attitudes towards hearing loss and hearing aids.

RNID has compiled some tips for teachers on ways to communicate more clearly in the classroom. These are available on request.

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