Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Communication Sciences and Disorders

First Advisor

Krystal L. Werfel


Students with reading impairments, including dyslexia, account for the largest proportion of students receiving special education services in the United States (NCES, 2016). Developmental dyslexia is characterized by slow and inaccurate word decoding (Lyon et al., 2003). This word decoding difficulty results from deficits in phonological awareness, a sound-based skill (Swan & Goswami, 1997). Classrooms are known to have high levels of background noise and are inconsistent with recommendations for optimal listening (Picard & Bradley, 2001) or accepted standards (ASHA, n.d.). Furthermore, degraded acoustic conditions have been related to poorer performance on speech-recognition tasks even for children with normal hearing (Finitzo-Hieber & Tillman, 1978; Nabelek & Pickett, 1974) and the impact of classroom noise on academic performance may be greater for children with special educational needs (Shield & Dockrell, 2008).

FM systems are devices that enhance the signal-to-noise ratio in noisy environments with high amounts of background noise, such as classrooms, and allow the listener clear access to the teacher’s voice without also amplifying background noise. A limited amount of existing research on the use of FM systems for children with normal hearing suggests that use of amplification technology is associated with academic and social advantages. Provision of FM systems to students with dyslexia results in increased teacher rating and objective measurement of reading skills in a classroom setting (Hornickel et al., 2012; Purdy et al., 2009), but the specific effects of FM system use on phonological awareness skills has not been evaluated.

This study investigated the benefit of an FM system during phonological awareness intervention in two studies. Study 1 evaluated the effects of utilizing an FM system during phonological awareness intervention for students at risk for dyslexia with phonological awareness weaknesses in a classroom setting. Study 2 investigated the acquisition of phonological awareness skills targeted during a virtual intervention with simulated classroom noise compared to a condition with a simulated benefit of a classroom-based FM system.

In Study 1, four participants received in-person phonological awareness intervention in small groups during the school day. They were assigned to wear an FM system during lessons targeting one skill; during lessons targeting the other skills they received the intervention alone. In Study 2, three participants completed one-on-one phonological awareness intervention through Zoom. They were assigned to learn one skill with simulated classroom noise and another with the simulated benefit of a classroom FM system. Both studies utilized adapted alternating treatment single-case designs and assessed performance using daily assessments on the phonological awareness skills targeted during intervention and one additional phonological awareness skill.

In Study 1, two participants demonstrated quicker and more pronounced improvement on the skill learned while wearing the FM system, suggesting FM systems show promise as a tool to use during phonological awareness training. In Study 2, two participants made gains on the phonological awareness skills assessed. However, a difference was not evident between skills learned in the simulated classroom FM and simulated classroom noise condition.

The results of Study 1 indicate that FM systems show promise during phonological awareness instruction. However, the finding from Study 2 that simulation of the signal-to-ratio of FM systems was not associated with improved performance compared to simulated classroom noise suggests that aspects of FM systems beyond the increased signal-to-noise ratio alone may be responsible for the benefit they provided. Additionally, findings from Study 2 indicate that virtual phonological awareness instruction holds promise as a method of delivery.