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March 13, 2012

Access to Peer Communication: Understanding the Experience of Students with Hearing Loss


March 13, 2012—This article was featured in the December/January 2012 issue of The Mainstream News. Clarke publishes The Mainstream News five times per school year as a resource for educators and families. Timely, practical articles help professionals and parents provide students with effective support and access in educational settings. Subscribe today.

(from The Mainstream News) As we observe students with hearing loss and work with them directly in their mainstream settings, we see examples of success everyday. At the same time, we also see how easily pieces of information are missed or misheard, even when students are using the best listening aids available and doing well overall. One challenge area that is common across grade levels is access to comments and questions from peers. Students often tell us that they feel more confident in their ability to hear and understand their teachers than they do their peers. This can be easy for teachers to miss because a student may seem, for the most part, to be following along just fine. In this issue, we take a closer look at peer discourse and the strategies that can improve access not only for the student with hearing loss, but for everyone in the classroom.

From kindergarten circle time, to a middle school literature discussion, to a debate in a high school history class, and everything in between, the exchange of ideas is ever flowing and at the heart of learning and connecting with peers. Rightly so, teachers encourage communication among peers and, as students mature, introduce activities that put more of the responsibility on students for leading classroom or small group discussions. A teacher may step into the background and provide facilitation as needed, but expect students to begin questioning each other and sharing and responding with deeper levels of thought.

Teachers know how to speak directly to the class, project their voice, and enunciate clearly. When a teacher adheres to the best communication practices and uses the FM system consistently and appropriately, it makes perfect sense that students find teachers easier to understand. This doesn’t mean that we can assume a student with hearing loss is hearing and understanding teachers one hundred percent of the time, but it does mean the conditions are such that they do not have to work as hard at understanding teachers as they do at understanding peers. Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows it can be a struggle to hear comments from students, whether one has a hearing loss or not. Students can have exceptionally soft voices; they may mumble, offer one-word answers, speak with their faces buried in a book or their mouths partially covered with their hands. There may be students in a class for whom English is a second language and an accent adds an additional obstacle to hearing them correctly. No child is immune to the tough listening conditions that can be encountered at school – background noise, poor acoustics, soft-spoken peers – or from simply “tuning out” from a conversation and missing a chunk of information.

However, these conditions have a greater effect on children with hearing loss because the listening technology they are using does not give them perfect hearing; they are still listening with compromised auditory systems. The physical set up of a classroom can present inherent difficulties in tracking comments from peers. The further away a speaker, the more difficult listening becomes. Most hearing aids and cochlear implants are designed to work best at a conversational distance of three to six feet. At greater distances, we cannot expect that the student will hear what a peer is saying. A child who is seated near the front of the classroom for optimal access to the teacher will find it challenging to understand a classmate several rows back. In addition, it is rare that a student will have an unobstructed view of all classmates, so visual cues from speechreading are not always accessible to help fill in gaps of what may be missed auditorily.

Repeating and rephrasing comments and questions from peers

When we talk to students with hearing loss about their school experiences, the majority confirm that having teachers who repeat or rephrase comments and questions from other students is vital to their ability to understand class discussions. By saying things like, “Susie is saying that…”, “Johnny has a question about…” a teacher identifies the speaker and provides students with a second opportunity to hear what a classmate shared. Students can either confirm that what they heard was correct, fill in pieces that were missed, or correct what was misheard. A good example of the impact on a student with hearing loss when comments are repeated – and when they are not – can be found in the following video clip, Hearing Loss in the Classroom by the Pediatric Audiology Project. (The beginning of the clip demonstrates the difference with and without FM, the second half addresses the importance of assisting with access to peers.)

Use of the FM system

Another important tool that can improve access to peers is the FM system. If a second, pass-around style microphone is compatible with a student’s system, it is worth investigating. Many students find this helps tremendously with class discussions, as the teacher can continue to use the primary transmitter and students can pass the second microphone from person to person during a discussion, oral reading and so on. A secondary benefit from passing the microphone is that it helps control the pace of discussion and makes it easier for the student with hearing loss to locate each speaker.

Even when a second microphone is not an option, the primary FM transmitter can be used in a number of ways. If students will be speaking individually in front of the class, they can wear the FM microphone when it is their turn. During a group discussion, the teacher might stand near each student who volunteers to speak and hold the microphone near the student. A lapel microphone can even be clipped to a ruler, making it easier to aim the microphone near the student who is speaking. In cooperative learning groups, students may find it helpful to place the FM system in the middle of the table or group of desks. When students are assigned to partner work, many benefit from asking their partner to use the FM. In all cases, work with your student to find what works best. Your student may prefer different strategies depending on the activity.

Rules for speaking

While the first two strategies discussed are essential, they are most effective when combined with high standards for communication across the board. We can repeat comments and encourage our students with hearing loss to make the most of their listening technology, but we fall short if we do not also teach all students specific ways to listen and respond to one another. Communication rules that assist the student with hearing loss and benefit everyone include:

  • Have a system in place for turn-taking to control the pace and ensure only one person speaks at a time.
  • Encourage students to make eye-contact with their audience, and to speak in a loud, clear voice. Model the volume that is appropriate for a class discussion versus a one-to-one conversation.
  • Ask students to stand so they can be seen more easily by students further away.
  • Teach older students to answer in a complete sentence and expect this as a communication rule for group discussions rather than accepting one-word answers.
  • Look for opportunities where older students can practice summarizing what the previous student said before adding a new comment.

Rules for listening

Speaking in front of a group can be intimidating for any student. If we are asking students to take risks in sharing ideas, we must also teach and expect students to be active listeners. Key rules include:

  • Maintain a quiet environment when a student is speaking; teachers and students should wait for quiet before speaking.
  • Make eye-contact with the speaker.
  • Establish what students should be listening for – and ready to respond to – in a given activity. This adds structure to an activity and encourages active listening. For example, sharing time for younger students might involve students choosing three specific things to tell related to an item brought from home. Then, the teacher calls on students randomly to check listening (“Sammy, who gave Lauren the music box?”, “Mary, how old was Lauren when she received the music box?”). An appropriate expectation for older students is that they need to be ready to summarize a speaker’s main point with two supporting details or to state whether they agree or disagree with the speaker and why.
  • Asking for repetition or clarification if needed. Students with hearing loss sometimes believe they are the only ones who miss information, when in fact we all miss things now and then. Model how to ask for clarification (“Your voice was a little soft, could you please say that again?” or “I heard what you said about ----, but missed the second part of your statement. Can you please repeat?”) and encourage students to do the same.

Group Activities

Group activities require careful consideration. Without structure in place, communication can become a free-for-all and an impossible situation for students with hearing loss to follow. Strategies that work particularly well include:

  • Assign each student a specific role in the group and rotating responsibilities.
  • When possible, limit the number of number of students in the group. Talk with the student with hearing loss about what number works best for them. Many find that working with one partner makes following conversation much easier, as more students mean overlapping conversations that are difficult to keep up with. Some students have been able to identify a core group of peers who are sensitive to their communication needs and have been successful working with this same group over multiple activities.
  • Set standards for group communication and evaluate the group’s success on following these rules.
  • Allow the student with hearing loss and his or her group to work in a quieter location if space allows. If multiple groups are working in close quarters, this makes it harder to hear in competing background noise. Encourage use of the FM system. Remember, hearing aids and cochlear implants amplify all sounds, not just speech. While not always available, a quiet hallway, empty classroom or other work area can make a difference.
  • Provide students with sentence starters and require that they use them as they communicate with one another (“I agree/disagree with you because…”, “I think that…”. “Do you think…”, “I feel that…”, “I wonder…”)
  • Require that one person speaks at a time. Students might pass a “talking object” so that only the person holding the object may speak.
  • Try non-verbal strategies for responding to one another. You might give each student color-coded paddles or cards (i.e. a red and blue card) where one color means “I agree” and the other “I disagree.” Students can hold up the card that shows their response to keep the noise level down in the room when multiple groups are working.
  • Provide each student with a set number of objects (such as three popsicle sticks or marbles). Each student is expected to share an idea at least this number of times. Each time a student speaks, they place one of their objects in a can in the center of the group. Encourage students to ask questions of peers who have more objects left before calling on someone who has already used up their objects. This encourages equal participation.
  • Rotate who will be the “reporter” for the group. For example, students are broken into teams to review for a science test. The teacher asks a question, groups huddle and discuss their answer, and the teacher calls on a different student each time to present their group’s answer. When students don’t know whom the teacher will call on, they must work together to make sure each person understands and is part of the group’s decision.

Consider physical arrangements

When classmates are arranged in a circle or semi-circle arrangement, the student with hearing loss has visual access to all classmates and it is easier to track speakers. In the younger grades, students spend more time in a group on the floor in front of the teacher. This formation will provide much better access to peers than allowing students to sit in an unorganized “bunch.” As students move through the grades and spend more time at their desks, horseshoe arrangements are preferred over rows. Some teachers may put desks in rows when a lecture or independent work will be the primary activity, but then arrange students in a circle on days when the emphasis will be on group discussion.

Evaluate, discuss, praise, model, encourage

Classrooms are primarily auditory environments. Students with hearing loss must work hard to keep up with fast-paced communication, and accessing information from peers is one area that tends to be a trouble spot across the grades. Making sure key strategies are in place and evaluating the success of these strategies is always going to be important. By maintaining high standards for communication, we can raise the bar for all students and better prepare them for real-life situations in which clear communication is essential for success. Becoming an effective communicator is a long process for students with and without hearing loss and requires much modeling, and praise and encouragement from teachers along the way.