Analysis on the Function of the Classroom

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'Speech produced in one place in a room should be clear and intelligible everywhere in the room', (Nabelek & Nabelek, 1985; cited from Nelson, 2002). This statement describes the major function of classroom which is to provide an environment that enables easy and effective transfer of information from teacher to pupil. In a classroom, various acoustic, linguistic and cognitive variables can effect children's speech perception. Acoustic variable consist of reverberation time (RT) of the classroom, teachers sound relative to the level of ambient background noise in the space and distance from the teacher to the student. While linguistic and cognitive factors comprise of the listener's knowledge of language, vocabulary, memory progression, ability to listen and attend and articulation abilities and dialect of the speaker or the listener (Roeser & Downs, 2004, p. 269).

Understanding the way how environment affects children health and growth is also vital for improving thermal, visual and aural comfort in schools. Noise, a ubiquitous environment pollutant has proved to be a public health issue as it reduces environment quality, leads to annoyance and might affect health and cognition (Kryter, 1985). Children are very susceptible to the effects of noise because of its potential to hinder with learning at a critical development stage and as they have less capacity than adults to understand, anticipate and cope with stressors (Shlomo & Kuh, 2002). In recent years, it has been formally recognised that acoustics in schools has direct relation to the quality of that environment for learning and teaching (Parkin, 2007). Therefore it is essential that architectural design provide good acoustical characteristics for classrooms and other learning spaces in which speech communication is a central part of the learning process. Excessive background noise or reverberation in such spaces hampers speech communication and thus presents an acoustical hurdle to learning. With a classroom having good acoustical characteristics, learning is easier, deeper, more sustained, and less fatiguing.

Scope and Relevance of the present study

In today's world where the audible vibrations of new technologies, mechanised warfare and mass culture has brought a dramatic change in the soundscape, making it more noisier than what it was, study of sound and its effects has taken centre stage in the field of education, health and building design. Schools need quiet learning spaces for both their students and the teachers because students under the age of 15 are still developing mature language and require appropriate listening environment and the teachers should be able to use a natural teaching voice free from vocal stress (Nelson, op.cit.). In February 2004, Building Schools for the Future (BSF), an ambitious school buildings investment programme was launched to transform education for some 3.3 million students aged 11 to 19 and rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in England (Teachernet, 2010). Furthermore, the US based population reference bureau census projections indicate that the UK population will increase to 77 million in just 40 years' time from 62.2 million today (Johnson, 2010). This growth means there would be greater need of new classrooms each year. It is much less expensive to design new schools with good acoustics than it is to rectify the problems afterwards.

The Building Bulletin 93 has made high levels of acoustic performance a statuary requirement in all new school buildings recognising teaching and learning as acoustically demanding activities. However these measures are designed when used for speech communication between native speakers and listeners (Stephen, 2008). This could be an interesting issue as United Kingdom is host to 4.6 million people (2001 census) from variety of non white backgrounds and any given school would have a number of non native English speakers (Office for National statistics, 2004). On the other hand research has found that a number of building regulations for new and refurbished schools are potentially conflicting, and resolution of these inconsistencies usually happens late in the design stage for an informed decision to be made (for example, the derogation of acoustic standard due to the use of opening windows for purpose of natural ventilation) (Scottish school estate publication, 2007).


The focus of this dissertation is to understand the importance of sound in learning environment for both students and teachers because many learning spaces serve students with disabilities: language learning problems, learning disabilities, hearing loss, reduced cognitive skills, auditory processing disorders and chronic illness. It also attempts to understand the relationship between the design strategies and the pedagogy adopted in schools in UK. This study also seeks to identify the problems of designers who simply comply with the building bulletins as the common approach to environmental briefing for schools, leading to conflicts in specifications of natural ventilation and suitable internal acoustic conditions and subsequent derogations. The final objective is to comprehend the works done in understanding the problems of non native speaking EU/Overseas students in higher education and to employ it in the refinement of primary and secondary learning environment.

Research Structure and Methodology

This dissertation is formed by researching into the basic principles of sound and the factors determining the speech transfer capability. Also the effects of aircraft, traffic and rain noises in cognitive performance of children are looked into to understand how noise affects children. The research is carried into investigating the history of different typologies in school and the changes that come about in the pedagogy and the conflicts in the new theory in education with the acoustics. This dissertation outlines some current acoustic standards for classrooms and conflict between natural ventilation and suitable internal acoustic conditions in schools. Consistencies and discrepancies between the various studies of factors affecting speech intelligibility in the classroom; the effects of environmental and classroom noise on children's academic performance; children's annoyance due to noise; and surveys of classroom noise levels are highlighted. The acoustics in higher education is investigated through surveys, interviews and student discussion groups of international students in the University of Nottingham, as well as investigating researches already carried on the institution.

Organisation of the dissertation

This dissertation is organised in 5 main chapters following this introduction; first three chapters are the theoretical background and literature review followed by studies involving non native EU/Overseas students in higher education and how it could be adapted in the design of classroom in primary and secondary education. Finally discussion and further works to be done in this topic is highlighted and a conclusion for these investigations is provided in the last chapter.


Hearing and hearing loss in children

2.1 Introduction

This chapter explores why sound is important and how it affects children, who are the most vulnerable group in our society. One of the reasons is that our natural soundscape has been replaced by an increase of mechanical noises and how children by birth is being subjected to high level of sound in day care centres or by new technologies like television, ipods, mobiles, computers etc (Blesser & Salter, 2006). The unwanted sound in our modern culture is termed as noise and can produce stress or annoyance in children as well as adults and there are lot researches that show evidence of the effects of noise which this chapter looks into.

2.2 Hearing in children

The human baby is born with 'pre-existent knowledge' of language which is specialised neural wiring that is triggered into performing by auditory experience with a symbol based communication system (Chomsky, 1966,1995). Language studies have proven that babies distinguish the smallest units of sound; the phonemes better than adults in their formative years (Chamberlain, 1995). Werner (2001) tested 73 toddlers' aged 7 to 9 months and 40 adults 18 to 30 years old, all with normal hearing to further understand how babies hear. They were individually exposed to four half-second bursts of a computer-generated 1000-hertz tone and a 1000-hertz broadband noise that sounded like telephone dial tone or static which was either played alone or masked by background noise. The results showed that on an average babies responded to noises than to tones and in quiet conditions the babies fared well than the adults. It was also pointed out that today's western culture (especially noise from television or radio) is a disadvantage for the baby as background noise is problematic for them to concentrate when they are talked to or read to (ibid).

Therefore the appearance of language and the development of hearing are time locked functions which begins very early in a child. Audibility or ability to hear is important in the process of normal speech and aural language development. The magnitude of hearing loss in children and the importance of providing quiet learning spaces in schools can be reinforced by the following facts (Roeser & Downs, op.cit, p3):

Ninety percent of toddlers' knowledge is estimated to be attributed to 'incidental reception' of sound surrounding them. Therefore learning is hampered by slightest hearing loss.

Babies (new born to 9 months) who spend time in the day-care centres or nurseries are at a higher risk for hearing loss, with at least 1 in 50 showing considerable hearing loss.

The common cause of hearing loss is ear infection and an estimated 5 million school days are missed every year due to otttis media.

All children at some point of time (from birth through 10 years of age) develop some period of hearing loss due to ear infections.

The number of children with severe to profound hearing loss has decreased to less than one half today than it was two decades ago. However, there are 10 times more the number of children who are affected with mild to moderate hearing impairments.

2.3 Hearing Process

'Sound is usually generated by the vibrations of a surface, which give rise to pressure fluctuations in air or some other elastic medium, (Building Bulletin, 1993). Sound is perceived by human in 2 basic physiologic pathways; air conduction route (the way others hear your voice) and bone conduction pathway (how you hear your own voice). Hearing involves a complex procedure in which the aural system changes sound vibration from the surrounding into neutral signals that the brain perceives as sound, (Northern & Downs, 2001) As shown in figure 1 the ear consists of three major parts which is the outer, middle and inner ear.

Figure 1 The mechanism of how we hear is explained through the figure, (source)

Sound vibrations are collected by the pinna and funnelled into the ear canal, causing the tympanic membrane (ear drum) to vibrate. The middle ear consists largely of empty spaces and has a chain of 3 bones called the ossicular chain which links the ear drum to the inner ear. As the footplate of stapes bone vibrates, it moves the fluids within the inner ear. The vibration in the inner ear fluid creates changes in the sensory cells stimulating neural impulses that travel to the brain creating hearing sensation, (ibid, p6).

There are 2 measurable numerical quantities of sound waves that are

Frequency of the sound wave - Unit of measure is hertz (Hz)

A young child's hearing encompasses the frequency from 20 - 20,000 Hz while adults rarely hear sounds above 8000 or 10,000 because the ability to hear higher frequencies decreases with age. A tuning fork produces single pure tone frequency which is characterised by a specific vibratory pattern. Pure tones seldom exist in nature and most of the sounds are complex consisting of a spectrum of frequencies. The human speech has a broad range of frequencies from 500 to 3500 Hz, which is similar to the optimal frequency sensitivity of our hearing mechanism. Therefore, hearing is designed to receive the most important constituent of communication, speech.

Figure 2, 80% of normal speech levels falls between the area of curve A and curve B. Most of the time conversational speech exceeds curve A, and 50% of the time it exceeds curve B and curve C measly 10% of the time, (Northern & Downs, 2001,p8)

Magnitude / Intensity

Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB) and is logarithmic as it ascribes equal values to proportional changes in sound pressure, which reflects the response of the human ear to sound. A reference value of 0.00002 newtons/square meter (0 Threshold) is chosen as the threshold of hearing for a healthy young person. Figure 2 shows the frequency and intensity of conversational speech for which the average pressure level of voice from 5 feet away is approximately 60 dB SPL (sound pressure level), (ibid,pp6-8).

2.4 Hearing loss in children

The realistic definition of hearing loss in children according to Northern and Downs (2001) is

'A handicapped hearing loss in a child is any degree of hearing that reduces the intelligibility of a speech message to a degree inadequate for accurate interpretation of speech or as to interfere with learning.'

There are many variables that are present in the learning process of children which are:

Amount & quality of parental stimulus

Personality factors

Innate intelligence

Health conditions

Socioeconomic status

There is a wide range of causes for hearing loss in children and can include diseases, infections, congenital problems or traumatic situations that might affect different parts of the ear and hearing process. Hearing loss can be categorized into three basic types by where and what part of auditory system is damaged and they are conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss and mixed hearing loss. (American speech-language-hearing association, ASHA).

The most common cause of hearing loss in children is Otitis Media (ear Infections).

'Otitis media is an inflammation in the middle ear and is usually associated with the build up of fluid which may or may not be infected'. (Northern and Downs, op.cit.)

According to the National Centre for Health Statistics, the children diagnosed for otitis media has increased from 10 million to 25 million in the years 1975 to 1990. The reason that otitis media is very common in young children (mostly the age of 1 to 3 years old) is that the Eustachian tube (passage between the middle ear and the back of throat) is smaller, more horizontal and compose of relatively placid cartilage than the adults (refer to figure 3). Therefore the Eustachian tube gets easily blocked by common cold and infections. Otitis media without infection presents a problem because there is no presence of symptoms of pain and fever. Therefore, it would be a while that the problem gets detected and treated and during this time, the child may not be able to hear and perceive information that would have a negative influence in the child's speech and language development, (ASHA).

Figure 3, A comparison of anatomical orientation of Eustachian tube in a child and adult, (Northern & Downs, 2001,p66)

2.5 Typology of children in a classroom in United Kingdom

In a typical classroom, there are children who have variety of problems and data from studies have indicated that several population of children with normal hearing sensitivity experience greater difficulties understanding reverberated speech than adults. One of the most important things to recognize about teaching English language learners is that they are not a monolithic group. They differ in a number of important ways, including the following:

Linguistic - As United Kingdom is home to many diverse and multicultural people, in a given school district students might speak more than dozen different languages. These languages differ in their orthographic representations, pronunciation patterns, and histories and thus in the ease with which students can shift their prior information about language to English.

Proficiency in the home language - Students who speak the same language may have very different levels of academic language proficiency in their home language depending on such factors as age and prior education. The development of a formal first language facilitates learning in additional languages.

Generation - There are recognized differences in language proficiency for students of different generations living in the United Kingdom. First and second generations of English language learners differ in significant ways, including the ability to use English at home. Because protracted English language learners born outside the United Kingdom attempt to straddle their old world and the new world in which they live, they experience greater difficulty in developing English proficiency.

Number of languages spoken - Some students enrol in schools having mastered more than one language already and thus have gained a linguistic flexibility that can aid in learning additional languages. Others have spoken one language at home for years, and their exposure to English is a new learning experience.

Motivation - Students differ in their motivation to learn English depending on their migration, immigration, or birthplace. Immigrant families leave their homelands for a variety of reasons-political and economic are perhaps the most common. These students may not feel a great need to become proficient in a language they don't intend to use for very long.

Poverty - Living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity have a profound impact on learning in general and language learning in particular. Simply said, when students' basic needs are met, they are more likely to excel in school.

Personality - Some students are naturally outgoing and verbal; others are shy or prefer more independent activities. Some are risk takers who are not afraid to make mistakes; others want their utterances to be perfect. These differences in personality can lead to differences in the rate at which students gain proficiency in listening and speaking or reading and writing.