Difficulties in learning to read caused by teachers’ masks

lecture covid19

20 July 2021

The masks worn by teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic has caused difficulty in learning to read for pupils who find it hard to discriminate language sounds. This has been proved by researchers from the Loria (Lorraine Research Laboratory in Computer Science and its Applications; Université de Lorraine-Inria-CNRS), the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology (Aix-Marseille University-CNRS) and the University of Geneva. They carried out a study on pupils aged 5 to 7 years which was published on May 12th in electronic format and June 9th in the print journal L’année psychologique/Topics in Cognitive Psychology.

Facial expressions and lip reading for better oral comprehension

In a communication situation, facial expressions and especially lip reading are particularly helpful in facilitating oral comprehension. Among other things, these help people recognise phonemes which are pronounced in a single articulatory movement in a syllable with variations of lip movement with different levels of visibility. The Covid-19 pandemic has meant teachers have had to wear masks. This situation led researchers to ask questions about the possible impact on learning to read for pupils aged between 5 and 7. They particularly focused on the importance of linking graphemes – letters or groups of letters – and phonemes which are the elementary sounds of oral language during this learning process.

A study of two groups of children in the context of Covid-19

The researchers therefore conducted a study with two groups of pupils who were monitored between the ages of 5 and 7. They defined and observed a group considered to be “at risk” of becoming poor readers with poor phonemic discrimination skills and a control group considered to be “not at risk” who had good phonemic discrimination skills. A syllabic counting task was given to these children at 5 and 7 years of age to evaluate the effects not being able to lip-read in a test requiring the discrimination and memorisation of speech sounds. The children were observed in two situations – with and without the possibility of lip reading.
This study showed that using lip-reading was only of benefit to the ‘at risk’ group. The pupils in this group were found to be able to count the number of syllables in words better when they could see the speaker’s face. Conversely, pupils in the ‘non-at-risk’ group were found to be not very sensitive to the use of lip-reading, regardless of their age. No difference was found in their performance whether they could see the speaker’s face or not.
These results show that in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fact that teachers wear masks may hinder pupils learning to read who are ‘at risk’ because of a phonemic discrimination deficit. “These results show that young pupils with phoneme discrimination difficulties need to be identified at a very early stage – if possible as early as nursery school,” points out Agnès Piquard-Kipffer, senior lecturer at the Université de Lorraine and researcher at the Loria. “We also need to give them support in learning to read so that they can appropriate the sounds of language in different ways whether iconic, gestural and/or digital. Finally, care also needs to be taken regarding the noise level in classrooms.”
The research team is made up of Agnès Piquard-Kipffer, senior lecturer at the Université de Lorraine and researcher at the Loria, Liliane Sprenger-Charolles, CNRS senior researcher at the Laboratory of Cognitive Psychology, Edouard-Gentaz, professor, and Thalia Cavadini, PhD student who are both at the University of Geneva.

Reference: Agnès PIQUARD-KIPFFER, Thalia CAVADINI, Liliane SPRENGER-CHAROLLES & Edouard GENTAZ (In press). Impact of lip-reading on speech perception in French-speaking children at-risk for reading failure assessed from age 5 to 7. L’année psychologique/Topics in Cognitive Psychology

Click here to read the electronic version of the article