Comments on “Listening Aids May Help Boost Dyslexic Kids’ Reading Skills”

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November 2012

By Joan Mele-McCarthy, D.A., CCC-SLP

Listening IconIn a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (September 4, 2012,, and reported in a condensed version by HealthDay News (, September 6, 2012, Dr. Nina Kraus, and her colleagues, Drs. Hugh Knowles and Dena Klein, reported very interesting and promising research pertaining to technology and students with dyslexia. The researchers designed and executed a study to explore the benefits of using FM listening devices for students throughout the school day at an independent school for students who have reading problems. The study included an experimental group of students with dyslexia and a control group consisting of students with dyslexia from the same school. The students in the experimental group wore blue tooth microphones that responded to FM transmitters worn by teachers. Students in the control group did not wear the device.  Instruction was not changed during the course of the study – the techniques traditionally used by teachers in this school for students with dyslexia were used for both groups of students. Both groups of students were assessed on a measure of phonological awareness, the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, and reading subtests of the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement, Third Edition pre- and post-study.  After one year of study, the researchers reported very interesting and promising results. Many of the children in the experimental group demonstrated marked gains in phonological awareness and reading achievement, while children in the control group did not demonstrate comparable gains.

What are the specific findings revealed through this research and what are the implications for continued work in this area?

Dr. Kraus reported that when the brain’s responses to speech sounds were measured in all children prior to the implementation of the study, the students who improved in phonological awareness and reading also demonstrated improvements in consistent response to the rapidly changing elements of speech sounds (i.e., transitions from one sound to another) and also demonstrated consistent response to speech sounds in general.  Statistical analysis revealed that the gains were specific to consistent responses to speech sounds, and not to amplification of the overall signal/noise ratio in general.  Dr. Kraus and her colleagues concluded that the improved stability of speech sound processing was linked to reading improvement.

A review of the work of Dr. Kraus and her colleagues demonstrated that students who improved their consistency of response to speech sound stimuli the most  post-research  were the students whose response to speech sounds pre-study were the most discrepant (i.e., very inconsistent) from typical learners and listeners. The students in the experimental group whose pre-study response to speech sounds mirrored typical learners (i.e., consistent responses) did not demonstrate change in their response to speech sounds post-study; their response to speech sounds was measured to be consistent before and after implementation of the study. The results of this study revealed that the students who improved from highly inconsistent response to speech sounds to very consistent response to speech sounds demonstrated marked improvements in phonological awareness and reading skills. The question not addressed by this study concerns instructional strategies and use of FM listening devices. Would students with dyslexia in a mainstream environment who are exposed to instructional strategies used for the typical learner benefit from use of an FM listening device? The results of this study, although exciting and promising, are specific to a subset of students with dyslexia in an independent school designed to meet the needs of this population of learners.  Further study is warranted with respect to understanding subsets of students who present with dyslexia and have inconsistency in speech sound processing, replicating results of this research with greater numbers of subjects, and manipulating instructional strategies.

Is research on the use of FM listening devices new scientific inquiry?

The use of FM listening devices has been included in research literature for several decades, but mostly as they relate to the education of students who are deaf or hard of hearing.  FM listening devices provide amplification of the acoustic signal (speech loudness) of the speaker (e.g., teacher in a classroom) to enhance the speech perception and discrimination of the listener (e.g., student).   In the 1960s and 1970s, FM listening devices were called auditory trainersand were used to help students who were deaf or hard of hearing learn oral speech and language and to receive academic instruction orally.  In the 1970s and 1980s, there was research interest in using auditory trainers, or FM listening devices, for students with attention deficits and for students with auditory processing disorders.  Amplification of the speech signal was minimal since this population of learners was not deaf or hard of hearing.  These studies were based on the premise that slight amplification of the speech signal would improve the student’s ability to attend to and benefit from verbal instruction.   Results were promising for this population of students, but there were many limitations to the practice of using FM listening devices.  The FM listening device technology of yester-year either used sound-field technology (i.e., speakers in the classroom that picked up ambient noise) or individual units that tethered student to teacher (the devices were not wireless, blue tooth devices).  Students and teachers alike did not feel that the benefits of this device outweighed the challenges.  In addition, the cost and acoustic design complexities for equipping classrooms were great. Measurement of skill/academic improvements were not neuro-biologically driven (e.g., neuroimaging technology did not exist as it does today), so that actual neurobiological changes were not able to be demonstrated in response to instruction in an acoustically enhanced instructional environment.  Furthermore, the research base for phonological awareness and phonemic processing was not established and therefore not used as a measure of foundational reading skill. Thus, measurements of specific skills related to speech sound discrimination, sequencing, and manipulation as precursors to reading development were not obtained.  Consequently, widespread use of FM listening devices in classrooms was not embraced by the general education, special education, and speech-language community for students who struggled in school but had normal peripheral hearing.

What contributions can this research make to the field of dyslexia?

Naturally, this line of research is very exciting and provides a great deal of hope for parents, teachers, and students who have dyslexia.  We know that for individuals with adequate hearing acuity, listening skills are essential for the development of oral communication skills and academic progress. Children acquire oral language through listening, beginning with attending to and recognizing discreet speech sound differences, moving to sequencing speech sounds to form words, to linking meaning to individual words and words in sentences. This early and very discreet interaction with and knowledge of speech sounds forms the foundation for later reading development. The ability to process oral language quickly and accurately allows for the development of conversation and the ability to comprehend and respond to verbal instruction in school. This line of research has the potential to provide us with a rich foundation of knowledge related to the discreet components of listening at the level of the speech sound and how these components not only affect the development of oral language and communication, but also how these components relate to facile and efficient ability to learn the alphabetic code (phonology + phonics + orthography) as a precursor to strong reading achievement.

Scientific inquiry that uses neuroimaging to measure speech sound processing in individuals who have dyslexia has provided the field of reading with a wealth of knowledge for understanding the nature of dyslexia and application of instructional methods appropriate for teaching individuals with dyslexia. The use of FM listening technology evaluated through the use of neuroimaging techniques will undoubtedly open up new opportunities for research that expands our knowledge of listening skills at the most discreet level of language, and for understanding if, how, and when to use assistive listening devices for students who struggle with reading and perhaps, other academic skills. Future research may demonstrate the benefits of using FM listening devices in inclusive classrooms to help students with dyslexia, as well as students with attention difficulties, central auditory processing, and oral language processing deficits.

How can practitioners blend this new information with what has currently been established by sound scientific inquiry?

In the meantime, however, what should we do, as educators of individuals with dyslexia?   Let’s look at the strong evidence we have to date. The research community has established that dyslexia is a neurobiological disorder affecting the language areas of the brain, especially speech sound/phonological processing, that is manifested by difficulty in acquiring foundational skills for reading decoding and spelling. There is a wealth of well-respected and accepted research that shows instruction in phonological awareness, phonemic processing, and multi-sensory, structured language teaching improves the reading outcomes of children with dyslexia. It is important to note that the use of FM listening devices in the study designed by Dr. Kraus and her colleagues was conducted in an independent school for students with reading difficulties, and that instructional practices for the students were most likely tailored to improve reading achievement in this population of learners. Therefore, at this point in time, we can be encouraged that the use of FM listening devices in classrooms serving students with dyslexia is a promising practice and may show that this is an important ancillary therapy to be used in conjunction with the scientifically-based instructional practices we, as educators of students with dyslexia, know and use with our students. However, further research needs to be conducted to provide a body of evidence that supports this practice as effective with students with dyslexia.

Joan Mele-McCarthy, D.A., CCC-SLP, Head of School at The Summit School, Edgewater, MD. Dr. McCarthy is a previous IDA Board Vice President; former Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, US Department of Education; Chair, Academic Centers for Excellence, The Dyslexia Foundation.

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