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Does background noise impact reading performance?

Does background noise impact reading performance?

4 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory

How much does reading with background noise around you impact how much you learn and remember? Some research shows that music can negatively affect reading comprehension in students, whilst others have found that background music does not affect reading at all. There is also research that claims music actually improves reading performance. At first glance, this paints a murky picture.

With so many differing views on the impact of music or noise on reading, it can be very hard to figure out what to believe. It is not only researchers wondering about this – these findings would interest many teachers trying to help their students learn as efficiently as possible.

If you’re one of these teachers, you’re in luck! We have dug deep into the research and are here to help you understand whether background noise is a good or bad thing for your students’ learning.

How does noise affect reading?

Research shows that background noise, speech, and music all have a small but reliably detrimental effect on reading performance. This is mainly due to the negative effects background noise can have on concentration, making it difficult for students to fully pay attention to what they are reading.

Other research suggests that, although listening to background music can improve positive emotions and even sport performance, it can have disruptive consequences on reading. Children can be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental noise, possibly because their cognitive functions are less automatized and can be more prone to disruption. If students are completing a reading comprehension task and music is playing in the background, they are less likely to do as well as they would in a quiet environment.

This is because brain resources are being allocated to listening to the music and can weaken students’ concentration. Evidence suggests that music involving lyrics causes the biggest distraction. Again, this could be because the brain is trying to decipher the speech instead of giving enough focus to the task at hand.

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How can teachers help?

Let’s start with figuring out why this matters: research shows that students who read for pleasure have, on average, higher grades across all subjects than their non-reading counterparts. It is therefore important for teachers and parents alike to encourage their students and children to take up reading as a hobby. By introducing them to books you know they will enjoy, you can make it easier for them to develop a positive habit of reading for themselves, and not just for school.

Now, let’s see how educators and parents can help. Reading performance is best in silence, with no stimuli to distract the reader. However, such ideal conditions are hard to come by in an average day. If students are reading on the bus to school, or in the playground during break time, they are most likely going to be surrounded by noise. Any type of noise, from other people’s conversations to the sounds of the road-traffic, can be a distraction. Long-term exposure to traffic noise has been associated with lower reading ability in general and one study suggests that road-traffic noise impaired the reading speed of 12 to 13-year-olds.

As a teacher, there are many ways you can help your students improve their reading performance, whether as a hobby or as part of their studies. The simplest way to do this is to provide students with a quiet space that they can go to during break times. Having an hour a day to themselves, where they can sit and read a book they enjoy, can help develop their reading abilities. Even though background noise may not affect all students, it doesn’t hurt to consider the bulk of research that shows it can have a detrimental, albeit small, effect. Preventing any possible negative effects is often easier than trying to reverse them – especially if it requires only some small changes in your classroom to see an improvement in reading performance.

Final thoughts

There is a mountain of research on the effects of background noise whilst reading, but does it do more harm than good? The specifics of the most relevant research show that it does. Students exposed to lots of loud noise can experience a decrease in their reading abilities, and those who are in noisy environments whilst trying to study may find it hard to focus. Even if some research found no or very little impact, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Teachers should aim to provide their students with a quiet place to read, away from the noises of the playground and busyness of the school. Although many students revise to music, advise against listening to music in headphones when completing tasks in the classroom and see how your students benefit.

For more advice on limiting distractions and improving concentration check out these blogs:

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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