Do Masks Affect Children’s Speech? What Teachers Need to Know

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child wearing a mask and a backpack on her way into school
Jeanne Sager

Written by Jeanne Sager

If you’re a teacher in a classroom with students under 12, you know the CDC has recommended your students wear masks — after all, kids under 12 are as yet unable to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But are masks hindering speech development and foundational language skills? And if they are, what can you as a teacher do to mitigate the problem?

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Do Masks Cause Delays in Speech and Language Development?

Experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the World Health Organization have stated that face masks can be safely worn by kids ages 2 and up and are the best way to prevent spread of COVID-19. Still, there have been questions. If kids can’t see the faces of their parents or teachers, will it cause delays in speech and language development? What about teachers and caregivers not being able to see a child’s mouth shaping words?

In short, the answer is … complicated.

First off, some good news from Dr. Sarabeth Kirkland, a doctor of speech-language pathology who works in the Putnam school district in Florida. “Speech development occurs naturally in most children,” Kirkland says, “and the use of a mask covering their faces would not immediately impede their ability to hear the correct sound production or identify the auditory discrimination of sounds.”

Yup, even if a teacher is wearing a mask, the kids can still hear them — and hear correct sound production — especially if teachers enunciate their words. Experts at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association tell Teach Starter that adding a microphone or other voice amplifier can also help with any muffling of sound caused by a mask.

And while kids may be in a classroom all day long with a mask-wearing teacher, the ability to see mouths moving and forming words has not gone away completely.

In reality, students have numerous hours when they are not wearing masks and when adults with whom they interact are not wearing masks,” says Diane Paul, the director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for ASHA. ” Students typically do not wear masks at home, and therefore will have exposure to communication with their families at home without the use of masks.”

What’s more, students do not learn merely from watching a teacher’s mouth move.

The majority of communication occurs from nonverbals, which include facial expressions, gestures, body posture, eye contact,” says Tiffany White, director of school services for the ASHA. Those non-verbals pair with the auditory input students are receiving, and together they make up a significant part of how students are receiving and interpreting information. 

In other words? 

“Seeing a teacher’s mouth may not be as important as the delivery of the spoken messages delivered during instruction,” White says. “As long as a student can receive the message that is being shared orally or through sign language, the student should be able to comprehend the information provided.”

How Can Masks Affect Speech and Language Development?

But wait, we said the answer was complicated. So what’s the deal?

While masking does not have an effect for most students, a teacher’s mask could affect a child’s ability to see sound placement for some students, Kirkland says, although she notes this is an issue that’s largely limited to preK through first-grade students and those with specific speech disorders, not the elementary population as a whole. What’s more, there’ve been no studies that show that this has become a problem.

“One important aspect for speech development is the use of correct phonetic placement, our ability to use our articulators (lips, cheeks, teeth, tongue) to produce sounds,” Kirkland explains.
“Modeling correct production of the sound is a technique that most PK-1st grade teachers use when teaching sounds and blends, which requires them to show their mouths. By wearing a mask, that direct model and visual model is decreased.”

These early years of education are crucial when it comes to sound production and identification, Kirkland says. Incorrect production of sounds can affect:

  • overall intelligibility (communication)
  • reading
  • phonemic awareness
  • orthographic knowledge

But rather than kicking aside masks, Kirkland says this simply means finding “new, creative, and motivating ways” to encourage younger children to practice sounds and provide models for sounds.

How to Model Sounds for Young Kids — Safely

Use Video: Teachers can safely record videos of themselves “teaching” with no mask in a safe setting then play them back in the classroom, using the recording as a supplement to their lessons.

Set up Tech Stations for Students: Whether it’s using an iPad or class computer, students can watch videos and/or use apps that model speech sound production. If the stations are set far apart enough for social distancing, Kirkland said there may be the ability for students to remove the masks and record video of themselves with the iPad for teachers to review mouth movement and sound production — but this is dependent on the setting and safety.

Provide Guidance to Parents: Because parents are not typically wearing masks at home with their children, Kirkland suggests encouraging the parent to model speech sounds “not only with a direct model (showing the child with their mouth) but by reading or repeating those sounds (auditory cues/feedback).”

Wear Masks With Clear Centers: Although these masks can muffle sound more than the fabric type, they do allow students to see teacher’s mouths. This can be especially helpful for students who are deaf and rely fully or in part on lip-reading. 

Can Masks Prevent Kids From Understanding Emotions?

Emotions are part and parcel of communication, and there’s plenty of worrying on social media that children are struggling without seeing their teachers’ and friends’ smiling faces all day long.

But the pandemic has even gone on long enough now for researchers to begin studying the effects that being around masked people all day long is having on school-aged children. University of Wisconsin researchers, for example, looked at kids ages 7 to 13 in after-school programs to determine whether masks were presenting a challenge in the children’s ability to pick up on other people’s emotions, and they found no evidence of an issue.

How to Communicate With Kids When You’re Wearing a Mask

Overall, the ASHA experts stress, safety is the primary concern, and there’s “unequivocal research the masks wearing reduces the spread of infection,” according to Paul. With that in mind, the ASHA recommends mask-wearing by both teachers and students. They do, however, offer up the following tips for teachers when they’re wearing masks and speaking to their students: 

  • Make sure you have the attention of the child or student before you start talking.
  • Face them directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view.
  • Speak slowly and slightly louder, but don’t shout or exaggerate your speech.
  • Optimize hearing—confirm that those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants are wearing their devices or use a portable amplifier. 
  • Use your eyes, hands, and body language to add information to your speech.
  • Provide visual references (e.g., printouts, notes, images) to accompany communication.
  • Ask if the child or student understood you—if they didn’t, rephrase it or write it down.
  • Ask the child or student to repeat important information to see whether they understood what you said.
  • Reduce competing noise in the environment, if possible.
  • If you’re talking with someone new, ask the person what you can do to make communication easier for both of you.

Are you a mask-wearing teacher? Find out how to protect your voice while mask-wearing! And check out these resources for teaching students about sounds:

 

Banner image via shutterstock/rido

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