Teaching in a Mask
Teachers and school communities in the ACT have been given a timeline for the return to face-to-face learning for the final weeks of 2021. When face-to-face learning resumes, all adults on campus will be required to wear face masks (including teachers and visitors).
School communities in many regions have already experienced wearing masks on campus, this is new for the ACT, and many people will have questions about how wearing masks will impact communication and learning.
Face masks significantly reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 during speech. Wearing a mask is a valuable component of the ACT’s public health measures aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, but it does come with unique challenges for teachers and school communities.
Communication difficulties associated with wearing a mask
As many of us have experienced, wearing face masks comes with particular challenges. Speech, voice, and hearing scientists have been able to study these challenges across the pandemic.
1. Masks cover the mouth and lips, which reduces our ability to read facial expressions.
We understand communication through many components, including the words a person says, as well as their facial expression and body language. Seeing a person’s face helps us to interpret what they are communicating to us.
This may be a particular challenge for students with learning difficulties (such as language disorder), some students who are Deaf/hard of hearing, students who are learning English, and some autistic students, who may have difficulties accessing or interpreting verbal information, and rely on facial expression more so than others.
2. We move our mouths less (mumble) while wearing masks.
As we try to keep our masks in place (and avoid touching them!), we open our jaws less, move our lips less, and have less space within our mouths to move our tongues. This means that we are pronouncing words and speaking less clearly than usual, which can make our speech harder to understand. Opening our mouths less also means that our speech isn’t as loud while wearing a mask.
3. Masks attenuate (muffle) sound.
When someone wears a mask, their speech seems less loud and is harder to hear and interpret. Masks reduce the strength of the sound signal, making it seem less loud to the listener.
However, masks affect sound frequencies to different extents, with higher frequencies most affected. The different frequencies that make up a sound signal are what allow us to hear and distinguish different sounds. The high frequencies of speech are what allow us to perceive the difference between the sounds /s/, ‘sh’, and ‘th’. When these frequencies are attenuated (such as when wearing a mask), it is much harder to tell the difference between the words ‘sigh’, ‘shy’, and ‘thigh’.
This may be a particular challenge for students who are Deaf/hard of hearing (who often already have difficulty hearing specific frequencies), young students with speech sound disorders (who haven’t yet mastered the speech sound system and the differences between sounds), and students with language disorders (who may not have the language skills to guess the correct word from context, when they have not heard it clearly).
4. We exert more effort in our voices (trying to speak more loudly) to compensate for these difficulties, but this leads to fatigue and voice problems.
We recognise that we are not as easily understood while wearing masks, and (especially when standing at a safe 1.5m distance) we put more effort into our voice, speaking more loudly, to try to compensate. When we speak loudly often, for too long, or try to speak too loudly, we contribute to vocal fatigue. Just like over-training particular muscle group at the gym, over-exerting the voice can lead to a fatigue that makes it harder to use the voice when we need it.
Some indications of vocal fatigue are:
- A feeling of tiredness after talking (at the end of the day)
- Hoarseness, or a weak voice, often at the end of the day
- Pain or discomfort around the throat
- Breathlessness, or running out of air, when talking
- Feeling like it will take a lot of effort to keep talking
Vocal fatigue usually improves with vocal rest (not talking), but can get worse over time when the factors contributing to it are not addressed. Teachers are already at substantially increased risk of developing voice problems, and the factors contributing to vocal fatigue can lead to longer-term and more serious problems.
Strategies to maximise students learning while teachers are wearing masks
Speech pathologists work to help prevent certain voice problems by educating members of the public on simple strategies to maximise their vocal health. These strategies are often known as ‘vocal hygiene’ and are safe for regular use.
We have previously written about vocal hygiene strategies for teachers, and the strategies in that article will be even more important while teaching in a mask.
And some additional strategies specific to teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Consider using a personal microphone where possible: this will minimise the need for increased vocal effort, while also conveying your speech more clearly to your students.
- A variety of microphone systems have been tested for use with masks. Lapel microphones have been found to be most effective at minimising the sound distortion experienced with mask use.
- There are many options on the market – shop around for one that meets your needs. A Google search for “voice amplifiers for teachers” yielded multiple comparison articles, and most models cost under $100.
- This will help to counteract the sound attenuation effect of wearing a mask, and will help students to hear your speech more clearly.
- Choose a mask that allows you to open and close your mouth easily and comfortably, without coming off or needing to be adjusted.
- Pleated and folded masks (including ‘surgical’ masks and pleated cloth masks) generally do this well.
- Some longer masks also allow for more jaw opening. Narrower and more minimalist masks restrict jaw opening or need to be constantly adjusted (which is an infection risk).
- You will need to find an appropriate solution within your workplace guidelines. Different types of masks do have different levels of seal, and thus different levels of effectiveness in infection prevention and control.
- Over-articulate and exaggerate your speech to maximise the clarity of your speech and minimise the need for increased vocal effort.
- Open your mouth more widely than you normally would.
- Try to articulate each sound as clearly as you can.
- This will help counteract the ‘mumbling’ effect of wearing a mask.
- Avoid calling out over large distances:
- The typical advice we give to reduce vocal load is to move as close as possible to your listener, and to gather your students in a close group to speak to them. In the current situation, close proximity creates a more significant health risk, and teachers need to follow physical distancing requirements.
- While maintaining a safe 1.5m distance where possible and appropriate, do move close to the person/group you are talking to. Don’t call out across the room.
- Use a megaphone or loudspeaker to call out across the playground, hall, or oval.
- Use visual supports (e.g. videos and physical demonstrations) and your body language to augment your speech and help communicate your message.
- When students can’t see your facial expression, exaggerate your hand gestures and body language to help make up for this.
- You may wish to have discussions with your students about what your gestures and body language mean. This will be very valuable for some students, and won’t harm any students.
- Give written instructions, as well as spoken instructions.
- Students with communication support needs (students with language disorders, English language learners, Deaf/hard of hearing, etc) already benefit most from physical demonstrations and opportunities to watch how to do a task. If more students have difficulty understanding speech while teachers are wearing masks, then more students will benefit from seeing how to do something.
When to seek further advice
For more information on the effects of mask-wearing on communication, the Voice & Swallow Mechanics Lab at the University of Cincinnati has developed an excellent series of videos and resources.
If you are concerned about the specific communication needs of students in your classroom, discuss this with their speech pathologist and/or audiologist. If you are concerned about a student who is not currently working with a speech pathologist, you can find one through Speech Pathology Australia.
Some teachers develop more significant voice problems that require medical attention and/or personalised clinical care. Some indicators of a more significant problem include:
- Hoarseness or reduced voice lasting longer than 2 weeks
- Pain in the throat, or pain when speaking
- Voice problems are getting in the way of doing your job or your daily activities outside of work
If you have any of these signs, you should discuss them with your GP. If your GP agrees that there is a problem, they will likely refer you to an ENT (specialist). Depending on the type of voice problem, you may then be referred to a speech pathologist for voice therapy.
Voice therapy involves specific exercises and strategies to address voice problems and maximise an individual’s vocal health.