147th ASA Meeting, New York, NY

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Impact of Classroom Noise on Reading and Vocabulary Skills in Elementary School-Aged Children

Prudence Allen -
Chris Allan, Nashlea Brogan, and Michelle Baker
National Centre for Audiology, University of Western Ontario, London ON, Canada

Popular version of paper 1aAA8
Presented Monday morning, May 24, 2004
147th ASA Meeting, New York, NY

Noise in classrooms often exceeds recommended levels potentially making it difficult for children to understand what is being said (ANSI, 2002). Children who are very young, learning in a second language, or suffering from a hearing impairment may find the noise particularly interfering. High noise levels may also reduce satisfaction with the learning environment, both on the part of the teachers and the students, inducing fatigue, reduced motivation and inattention. Thus, effects of high classroom noise levels on day-to-day school activities may be significant and fairly broad in scope (e.g., Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Crandall and Smaldino, 2000; Evans and Maxwell, 1975; Picard and Bradley, 2000).

High classroom noise levels may also have long term effects on children's academic progress. Numerous reports have suggested that children attending schools with noisier classrooms may have lower reading and achievement scores than those who attend quieter schools (Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Evans and Maxwell, 1975; Maxwell and Evans, 2000). The effects are more pronounced for older children.

There are several potential explanations for the effects of noise on academic skills. High noise during classroom time, because of the way it interferes with speech understanding, could reduce a child's potential for learning new material. This could result in reduced academic achievement in a way that would be cumulative over the years a child is in a noisy classroom. It is also possible that noise may simply interfere with the child's ability to perform academic tasks. That is, performance could be reduced when noise occurs during testing but be relatively good when the child works in quiet.

Because most studies of the effect of noise on academic skills in children are retrospective, it is difficult to evaluate these two hypotheses. Unlike studies of speech understanding in noise which are generally highly controlled, studies examining academic skills often report only overall noise levels in and around the child's school throughout the academic year. These levels are then correlated with children's scores on school wide achievement tests. The noise level at the time of testing is not controlled, there are no data on children's performance in quiet, and the performance of individual children is not evaluated.

This Study

The current study was therefore designed to evaluate the immediate impact of noise on reading and related skills in a well controlled laboratory study. Tests of oral reading, silent reading, general academics and vocabulary were administered to 85 children from Senior Kindergarten to Grade 8. All testing was conducted at the child's school over several days in a quiet classroom. Each child completed one of 5 tests, both in quiet and in noise, using parallel forms of the test.

Older children, those in Grades 3-4 and 7-8 were tested with one of 3 tests including: the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test which measured listening comprehension for spoken words (Dunn and Dunn, 1997), the Gray Oral Reading Test which measured oral reading fluency and comprehension (Wiederhold and Bryant, 2001) and the Gray Silent Reading Test which evaluated silent reading comprehension (Widerhold and Blalock, 2000). Children in Senior Kindergarten completed the Test of Early Reading Abilities which evaluated pre-reading skills including knowledge of the alphabet, print conventions, and meaning (Reid, Hresko, and Hammill, 2001) and Grade 1-2 children completed the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test or the Wide Range Achievement Test word reading subtest (Wilkinson, 1993).

The noise was typical classroom noise selected from the BBC Sound Effects Library (BBC, 1990). Its level was adjusted to be relatively uniform throughout its duration and brief segments were randomized in time to minimize the recognition of meaningful content. The noise was presented over headphones at approximately 40 dB Hearing Level and speech information, when required, was presented 10 dB higher than the noise.


Overall, the noise had a very small effect on performance. Early Reading and Word reading showed no differences in quiet and in noise with scores falling generally within age expectations. Vocabulary scores in quiet were generally at or above age expectations for all children in both quiet and in noise with no significant differences between the two conditions. Oral reading scores in quiet decreased with increasing age but there were no effects of noise. Silent reading scores showed more variability with significantly reduced performance in noise but only for the older children. The decrease was greatest for the children who had performed best in quiet.

Figure 1 shows individual data standard scores achieved in noise, plotted as a function of scores obtained in quiet. Separate panels show data from children at different grade levels.

These results suggest that the effect of noise on children's academic task performance may be limited, with large differences between children. Only the effect on silent reading in older children showed fairly consistent trends. When required to read information quietly to themselves and answer comprehension questions based upon that reading, older children performed more poorly when noise was present. This is likely an important observation as silent reading is a critical skill for learning, particularly in the higher grades.

It should also be noted that in real classrooms the noise may actually be much louder than in this study and, because of meaningful content, could be more distracting. Therefore this could have a greater impact on performance for more children, reducing not only speech understanding, but motivation and attention as well. This could interfere significantly with the learning process.


American National Standards Institute (2002). Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, New York: ANSI.

BBC (1990). The Sound Effects Library: CD #39, Schools and Crowds, track #8, General Atmosphere in a Second Year Classroom.

Bronzaft, A.L. and McCarthy, D. P. (1975). The effect of elevated train noise on reading ability. Environment and Behavior, 7, 517-524.

Dunn, L. M. and Dunn, L. M. (1997). The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test - 3rd Edition. Minnesota: American Guidance Service.

Evans, G. W. and Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading deficits: The mediating effects of language acquisition., Environment and Behavior, 29, 638-656.

Picard, M. and Bradley, J. (2001). Revisiting speech interference in classrooms. Audiology 40, 221-244.

Reid, D. K.,, Hresko, W. P., and Hammill, D. D. (2001). Test of Early Reading Ability. Austin: Pro-ed.

Shield, B., Dockrell, J., Jeffrey, R., & Tachmatzidis, I. (2002). The effects of noise on the attainments and cognitive performance of primary school children. Unpublished: South Bank University, United Kingdom.

Wiederhold, J. L. and Bryant, B. R. (2001). The Gray Oral Reading Tests. Austin: Pro-Ed.

Widerhold, J. L. and Blalock, G. (2000). The Gray Silent Reading Test. Austin: Pro-Ed.

Wilkinson, G. S. (1993). The Wide Range Achievement Test. Wilmington: Wide Range, Inc.

Acknowledgements. The authors thank the children, parents, and school staff for their participation, Kevin Forbes and Kevin Hendry for technical support, and the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network for financial support.

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