Lesley Hendy examines how you can look after your voice when teaching outside and also gives some tips on reading aloud
Working outside always puts greater stress on the voice. PE teachers are very susceptible to vocal problems, caused by using the voice in the open air. Primary school teachers are also vulnerable, particularly as they only work outdoors from time to time. It is important to remember that the voice loses strength the further it has to travel.
As Martin and Darnley(1) indicate:
‘Teachers and lecturers working in large spaces, such as lecture rooms and large classrooms, encounter problems related to the natural loss of sound over distance, eg at a distance of 6m, sounds are only a quarter as strong as they were at a distance of 3m. At 12m they are only a little over a twentieth as strong as they were at 3m.’
Tthis problem is further exaggerated by working outside – where distances are even greater, children are excitable and weather conditions are not always helpful to the voice. To be heard under these conditions, you may feel the need to shout or scream, which can have a very detrimental effect on the vocal folds.
Although not technically ‘outside,’ teaching swimming at either the school or local pool takes its toll as well. Chlorine tends to irritate the vocal folds. This, combined with the severe vocal demands of making yourself heard in such conditions, creates a potent mix.
What can you do about it?
The most obvious answer is to have proper vocal training. You could ask your school to put on some INSET classes in voice training (there is more information about this at the end of this article). You and your colleagues must bear in mind that training your voice takes time. You are in effect learning to play a musical instrument and, as with other instruments, you cannot learn to play in one or two lessons. If you who learnt to play an instrument as a child will remember the hours of practice you had to put in.
In the meantime, you must think carefully about what you do vocally when you are outside, as well as in differently-sized classrooms and halls.
Taking care to save the voice
- If you are teaching games outside and are near school buildings, make sure you face the building when you speak to the students. The building acts as a sounding board and your voice will not be blown away by the wind.
- As far as possible, gather the students around you so that they can hear you. Don’t scream at them across a huge distance. They will not hear you and you will only damage your voice – to little effect.
- Use signals such as raising something in your hand (eg a bat or coloured ball) or have a whistle that you blow to gain attention. This is especially important if you want to get attention once your students are skills training or playing the game. Avoid shouting if you can.
- During the winter, make sure that your throat is well wrapped up when you are on playground duty or taking outdoor games. Keeping your throat warm helps your vocal muscles to stay warm.
- If you are allowed a hot drink when you are outside on playground duty, breathe its steam before you drink it, to help relax your vocal folds.
- Avoid trying to gain attention when the noise level is rising (eg at the beginning of lessons/sessions). Listen for where the sound peaks and start speaking on the falling sound. It is far more effective to stand silently and wait for your class to quieten down, than to be continually asking your class to be quiet.
- Appoint silence monitors, who help you to create quiet in the classroom.
- Look at your pupils and make eye contact with them when you speak, to gain their attention.
- Don’t ‘nag’, as this is very wearing on the voice. It is also more likely to bring you into confrontational situations with your students.
- Use hard tonal attack sparingly. It is not good for the vocal folds. Use very hard vocal tones only when you need to reprimand.
- Work for precision and clarity in your speech and teaching, so that you do not have to keep repeating what you have just said.
- Cut down the number of times you use unnecessary phrases such as ‘OK?’, ‘Now then…’ etc.
In order to save your voice try to cut down on the amount of ‘teacher talk’ you use.
As Geoff Petty(2) reminds us:
‘Most people talk at about 100 to 200 words per minute. At that rate, a one-hour lecture could contain up to 12,000 words – a short book! ‘
He goes on to say:
‘Even at a moderate rate, a teacher could read aloud to a class the whole of a typical GCSE textbook in about ten hours…is it any wonder that inexperienced teachers often ‘lose’ their classes when they use teacher talk? Teaching with teacher talk is rather like herding cows in a Ferrari.’
At secondary level, asking students to take notes from ‘teacher talk’ may not be very productive. It has been estimated that students’ average concentration span, when listening to a teacher talking, is about five minutes. The longer we have to listen, the more likely we are to ‘day-dream’.
If ‘teacher talk’ is combined with a poor vocal delivery, then our listening skills are further compromised. Jemma Rogerson(3) published a paper in 2004 in which she studied the effect of the dysphopnic teaching voice (a voice that shows symptoms of dryness, vocal fatigue, scratchy sensations or hoarseness, with a disturbed sound in quality, pitch and loudness). Jemma quotes a former study by Morton and Watson (2001), which concluded: ‘reduced voice quality results in poorer listener performance because of the increased demands on perceptual processing.’
From her evidence, Jemma also decided that if pupils had to listen to an impaired voice, then it was hard for them to effectively process what the teacher had said.
Reading aloud is a particular skill. Primary school teachers often choose to read to their classes at the end of the day, when their voices are at their most fatigued. Should vocal tiredness be a problem, try to fit your reading of stories in at a time when you feel that your voice can cope. If possible, prepare what you are going to read to the class beforehand. Unrehearsed – or ‘sight’ – reading is a very specialised technique and requires experience. There are few professionals who would undertake reading aloud to a group without some preparation.
When you are reading aloud from a text, don’t be afraid to look up from time to time, to make eye contact with the group. By running a finger down the page as you read, you can look up at a suitable pause. Your finger should point at the line you are reading so that you do not lose your place when you look back.
Whether reading aloud or speaking to pupils, if you have vocal control you can spare yoursefl strain and stress. Work for pitch and volume changes, as well as for appropriate pausing and pacing. Inexperienced speakers sometimes produce a very flat delivery, which is difficult to listen to for a long period of time. If your class becomes restless or starts to switch off when you read aloud to them, it may well be that your voice is lifeless and uninteresting.
If you think you have a weak, monotonous or impaired voice, think about having some proper vocal training. Your pupils will thank you for it. TEX
1. Martin, S and Darnley, L, The Teaching Voice, second edition, London: Whurr Publishers, 2004
2. Petty, G, Teaching Today, third edition, London: Nelson Thornes, 2004
3. Rogerson, J and Dodd, B, Is There an Effect of Dysphonic Teachers’ Voices on Children’s Processing of Spoken Language? Jounral of Voice, Vol 19, No. 1 pp47-60, 2005