I hear you – but can you hear me?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Allowing students to speak out loud during exams would be more equitable for aural learners

Much has been written about students who have auditory processing difficulties. Such students find it hard to process aural information and can be distractible. Many teachers believe these students are simply ‘not listening’. After repeated instructions they report such children to be off task and easily distracted.
Whilst this is an issue for parents and educators, there is also an issue with students who DO listen and DO hear – but whose needs are not catered for. This can been seen when observing how students attempt to solve multi-step written problems.
Aural Learners.Indian Link
A curious phenomenon has been observed when watching students perform written mathematical problems that require more than one step. For some students, when trying to complete such written problems, they fail to be able to read all of the data provided. This means that they cannot grasp exactly what needs to be done. Their visual acuity is compromised. This can be the case even if they read the question two or three times. They tend to focus only on parts of what is written.
However, when the same students are asked to read the problem out loud, they stress particular words that they had not noticed prior. This makes an immediate difference to their capacity to understand what is being sought in the answer to the question.
This exact scenario has been observed amongst students of all abilities, on numerous occasions where problems are written. Such problems require a translation of the words into the algorithm required to solve the problem.
Educators need to be alert to this phenomenon.
There is a direct relationship between being able to hear what is being read and actually seeing what is on the page. By being able to hear what they are reading, these students tend to bring greater focus. The auditory loop helps them to check for accuracy in what they are reading. This is affirmed when a student says, “Oh, I didn’t notice that word when I read it,” or “Oh, that’s what the question is asking.”

Auditory Working Memory

Educators and parents should be aware of the aspect of thinking or cognition called auditory working memory. Auditory working memory includes the capacity to retain aural information and remember information that is heard. This memory function is related to the capacity to process information and to derive meaning from sound. It is therefore extremely important to problem solving. These students who read out loud are activating their auditory working memory and it is necessary for them to manage the multi-step problems.
Aural Learners.Indian Link
In an era when so much attention is being focused on the diversity of learners, understanding that vocalising when reading may be central to understanding is very significant.
It should be clear that these students are very disadvantaged by the expectation that they are not to speak or read out loud in regular classrooms. Indeed, to do so may be seen as a sign of academic immaturity.
Educators should ask, however, whether the restriction on reading out loud is appropriate. They should ponder whether students should be encouraged to read out loud more often, and further, whether examinations should be structured so as to allow students, for whom this is an issue, to speak.

Should we allow students to speak out loud during exams?

Educators and parents have an obligation to notice whether students fall within this category of learners, and then to ask important educational questions about access and equity. If a proportion of students of all abilities have this issue then should we modify assessment – including notoriously silent exams – to allow students to read out loud?

The use of ‘reader-writers’

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Speaking during exams is not without precedent. In all Australian jurisdictions there is a system of ‘reader writers’. These people are allowable because of the Disability Standards for Education (2005) that were issued under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth). These standards detail the obligations that are placed on education and training providers to ensure that students with disabilities can get the level of access to education that all other students have. Further, the Government makes it clear that catering for children with a disability is a national priority for education and, further, that
Aural Learners.Indian Link
Education is to be made accessible to students with disability to enable them to participate in education on the same basis as students without disability, including the provision of ‘reasonable adjustment’ where necessary to enable this” (Dept of Education and Training, 2015).

Making things fair

The problem that arises for such students is that this issue, whilst clearly observable, has not been specifically yet classified as a ‘disability’ issue. Furthermore, the focus has been on auditory processing deficit rather than preference.
In regards to equity and access it should be noted that educational authorities take the view that, “…Adjustments made to an examination will be designed to facilitate access rather than remove the requirement to demonstrate a skill being tested by the examination” (NSW Government).
It seems to me, we need to better hear those that need to hear.

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Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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