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Louder than Words

  • Teaching And Learning
Mike Hodgkiss
Mike Hodgkiss 14 December, 2017

Imagine a student who is inattentive, poorly behaved in class and getting bad grades. Your first thought might be that the child has a learning disability. But you also might want to consider the possibility that the child has hearing loss; it is more common than you think. Quite often hearing loss, whether mild or severe, has a profoundly negative effect on academic performance.


Most children who have reading difficulties are not deaf or hard of hearing – but there is a significant overlap. This is because learning to read builds on a child’s existing knowledge of language. So children who can’t always hear speech well can find it harder to work out how spoken words “map” onto printed words.

In this way, learning to read can be difficult for children who are deaf. Even mild deafness can have a big impact on hearing. And children with mild or moderate deafness can also have trouble understanding conversation in busy environments – like the classroom.

Is your school doing enough to support these children?

Studies here in the UK and in the USA have revealed that children who have mild to moderate hearing loss but do not get intervention services are very likely to be behind their hearing peers by anywhere from one to four grade levels. And for those with more severe hearing loss, intervention services are even more crucial; those who do not receive intervention usually do not progress beyond the third grade level.

What are the reasons behind this education gap? It’s certainly not a question of intelligence; just because a child has hearing loss doesn’t mean he is any less capable of doing well in school than his hearing peers.

Sometimes the classroom environment itself doesn’t support a child with hearing loss; A busy teacher who has many students to tend to, or a teacher with a poor understanding of hearing loss, often is unable to alter his teaching style or keep a student’s hearing loss in mind while teaching a lesson or assigning homework.

For example, if a teacher turns his back to the students while teaching, his voice will be directed toward the blackboard, causing a student with hearing loss to miss part of the lesson. Oral changes to homework assignments, an unfamiliar accent or a teacher who talks too rapidly can all hinder the learning progress of a student with hearing loss.

It should be remembered that the link between hearing and reading difficulties isn’t inevitable – not all deaf children struggle to read. This is because learning to read involves the combination of many different skills – such as understanding the link between letters and speech sounds, knowledge of grammar, memory for spelling patterns and the use of context. And all of those skills can help children to learn to read and write effectively, even if they do initially have difficulty.

All newborn babies have their hearing screened in the UK, and the government’s “healthy child” policy also recommends hearing screens when children start school. These policies have dramatically increased early identification for deaf children. But school entry hearing screens are not offered in all areas of the UK. And because of funding cuts, services are even being withdrawn in some places.

It is clear then that children who have difficulty learning to read should have current and past hearing test results taken into account. These children should also be reassessed where appropriate, so that both doctors and teachers – as well as parents – can work together to help that child.

This is important, because children who have had a lot of ear infections have been found to have very specific difficulties with perception of speech sounds. And in most cases, other reading and spelling related skills are not impaired. What this means, is that parents and teachers could not only provide extra support to help these children understand the links between letters and sounds, but they can also use those other skills to support their reading – enabling them to reach their full potential.

It is well recognized that hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication, and learning. Children with listening difficulties due to hearing loss or auditory processing problems continue to be an under-identified and underserved population. The earlier hearing loss occurs in a child’s life, the more serious the effects on the child’s development. Similarly, the earlier the problem is identified and intervention begun, the less serious the ultimate impact.

There are four major ways in which hearing loss affects children:

  1. It causes delay in the development of receptive and expressive communication skills (speech and language).
  2. The language deficit causes learning problems that result in reduced academic achievement.
  3. Communication difficulties often lead to social isolation and poor self-concept.
  4. It may have an impact on vocational choices.

Teachers are in a unique position to help students by arming themselves with the knowledge as to how a student with a hearing loss receives and understands information, as well as comprehensive knowledge of an individual student’s capabilities and level of comprehension. Since early intervention is key, signs teachers can watch for in the classroom include:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Inappropriate responses to questions
  • Daydreaming
  • Trouble with following directions
  • Speech problems

Young people who are deaf or have hearing loss often experience communication barriers in the classroom. This can have far-reaching consequences, leading to isolation and under-achievement.  Hearing loss affects millions of UK employees. Working without proper support can lead to work-related stress and lower productivity. Under the Equality Act 2010, education providers are required to address the barriers that prevent equality for disabled people, including those who are deaf or have hearing loss. The Louder than Words™ accreditation can enable your students and staff to reach their full potential. Louder than Words™ is a nationally recognised accreditation for organisations striving to offer excellent levels of service and accessibility for people who are deaf or have a hearing loss.

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