Teaching from behind a mask

How do masks affect communication and learning in the classroom?
Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash
Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash

Children around the world are returning to school, after spending months at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, it will be the first time they’ve walked into a classroom since March. Teachers are understandably apprehensive, and in many cases reluctant to return for fear of contracting the virus.

To complicate matters, the rules about wearing masks vary widely from place to place. In some countries, such as as Switzerland and Canada, mask mandates in schools differ between regions and depending on a person’s age. In others, such as the UK, the government has provided no clear guidance, instead shifting responsibility to headteachers to decide whether and when masks are required. Amidst this uncertainty, there is concern over how children will adapt to this new environment. How will teaching from behind a mask affect children’s learning?

When we think of communication, we think first of talking – using our mouths to create sounds and speech. In fact, however, communication involves a variety of visual and audio cues, such as facial expressions, eye gaze and gestures, as well as speech. Research has shown that caregivers naturally use multiple types of cues, such as pointing, hand actions and speech, to support vocabulary learning in very young children.

“Communication involves a variety of visual and audio cues, such as facial expressions, eye gaze and gestures, as well as speech.”

At school, children learn to navigate a multisensory environment in the classroom, which is full of sounds, movement and visual input that must be constantly processed or filtered out as they focus on the teacher. Given that children are used to learning in an environment which requires them to handle multiple demands on their attention while seeking to understand the teacher, might they already be equipped to adapt to teachers wearing masks?

Research into how gestures are used has found that children retain knowledge and understand new concepts better, particularly in mathematics, when teachers use gestures along with speech than when teachers use speech alone. This suggests that speech is not the only important factor when teachers are communicating with children.

How might face masks change the learning environment?

Children communicate and learn with the help of both visual and audio sensory inputs. While gestures could prove helpful as teachers communicate from behind a mask, learning will surely be affected if visual speech cues are completely hidden. But how, and to what degree?

Studies of how children respond to the interaction between hearing and vision, which can produce a perceptual phenomenon known as the McGurk effect, could provide clues as to how they might respond to teachers wearing face masks. In one study, which investigated how individuals integrate audio and visual information to understand speech, researchers found that children were less reliant than adults on visual mouth cues. This might suggest that as long as children are able to hear clearly what is being said, their comprehension may not be seriously impaired when teachers wear masks. However, the study did not look specifically at the effects of face masks.

“Both children and teachers will have to adapt to the new normal, and we must pay especially close attention to the children who are most at risk of falling behind.”

It is also important to note that some children may have more difficulty than others in adapting to communicating with masks. In statements of concern for deaf or hard-of-hearing children and adults, some universities have called for the use of transparent materials in face masks to aid those who rely on lip reading.

Researchers are also concerned that children who are learning in their second language and younger children whose language abilities are still developing could fall behind. Teachers may have to adapt their strategies to the needs of these children, perhaps by recording videos of themselves giving instructions without a mask, or using microphones to help ensure speech can be clearly heard.

As this school year begins, there is widespread apprehension. While it remains to be seen just how children will respond to teachers wearing masks, we know that children integrate a multitude of cues as they comprehend speech and learn. Both children and teachers will have to adapt to the new normal, and we must pay especially close attention to the children who are most at risk of falling behind.

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