Most likely, early childhood educators are familiar with classroom environment rating instruments—instruments that rate the quality of classroom environments, including arrangements, materials, health and safety factors. One example is The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale—Revised (ECERS-R; Harms, Clifford, & Cryer, 1998).
Among several other areas, the ECERS-R addresses the noise level in classrooms by asking observers to rate the extent to which classrooms incorporate features that reduce classroom noise. Examples include carpet and sound-absorbing ceiling tiles.
With recent initiatives to promote children’s development in early language and literacy, early childhood educators might have less time than before to devote to such seemingly irrelevant considerations as carpet and noise absorbing materials. However, what early childhood educators might not realize is that sound absorbing materials in classrooms might influence children’s speech perception, a critical foundation for reading abilities.
During the early years, when children are solidifying their speech perception and production abilities, it is important that they hear the target sounds. Classrooms exposed to chronic levels of noise from traffic, airports, or sounds of children in other classrooms may make it difficult for some children to effectively perceive the speech of their teachers and others.
Theoretically, chronically high noise levels may contribute to poorer speech perception abilities, which may in turn contribute to poorer reading outcomes. Research by Evans and Maxwell (1997) has confirmed this relationship for first and second grade students who have hearing levels within the normal range. The children in their study who were exposed to chronically noisy classrooms were found to have poorer reading abilities than children not exposed to chronically noisy classrooms, even when the children’s socioeconomic status was taken into account. Although we cannot be certain that chronic noise is a cause of reading deficits in children, the association between the two warrants the attention of early childhood educators.
Even though many early childhood teachers do not have a say in the types of sound absorbing materials with which their classrooms are outfitted, they can do things to minimize the noise levels in their rooms. For example, they could close windows and doors to minimize the noise from the outside and from other classrooms. They could establish rules and reminders for children to use their “inside voices.” They could use hand signals or could whisper to alert children to speak or play more quietly. These strategies, especially in classrooms with carpeting and other sound absorbent materials, might well facilitate children’s speech perception directly and their later reading achievement indirectly.
Evans, G.W., & Maxwell, L. (1997). Chronic noise exposure and reading deficits. Environment and Behavior, 29, 638-656.
Harms, T., Clifford, R. M., & Cryer, D. (1998). Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale—Revised. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Khara Pence Turnbull, Ph.D. is editor of Assessment in Emergent Literacy (Plural Publishing) and author of Language Development from Theory to Practice (Merrill/Prentice Hall).