A study among Swedish school children found evidence that visual and auditory white noise can help children with reading difficulties perform reading tasks. Performance benefits were most evident for visual white noise, which improved children’s performance during both reading and word recall. The findings were published in the journal Brain and Behavior.
Children with reading disability (RD) or dyslexia face difficulties reading and understanding words despite normal intelligence. Children with poor reading skills tend to struggle in school and often face further psychological issues. These somber facts have spurred a body of research concerning tools that might improve reading skills among children with RD. Study authors Göran B. W. Söderlund and his team opted to test the potential benefits of a simple tool — sensory white noise.
The researchers were inspired by evidence that white noise improves cognitive performance among children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a disorder that shares common features with reading disability. They were also motivated by the viewpoint that the cognitive aspect of reading disability lies in a low signal-to-noise ratio and that moderate noise levels can improve this signal-to-noise ratio. According to a phenomenon called stochastic resonance, adding white noise to a weak signal will amplify it, allowing the signal to be more easily detected while the white noise gets canceled out.
“I have a general interest in attention and memory, under what conditions children with different kind of difficulties perform best. My contribution to research is that external sensory noise seems to help people that have nervous systems that doesn’t work optimally like in ADHD and in reading disability. Both these groups of children seems to benefit from getting exposed to external sensory noise while they performing memory and reading tasks,” Söderlund told PsyPost.
The researchers conducted an experiment among Swedish school children between the ages of 10 and 13. The students were screened for reading ability and classified into one of three different groups — 30 children with RD and phonological decoding difficulties, 30 children with mild orthographic reading difficulties but no phonological decoding difficulties, and 22 children deemed skilled readers.
The children completed various reading tests while being exposed to either auditory white noise, one of four different levels of visual white pixel noise, or no noise. Each child experienced all noise levels.
First, the researchers found that the group of children with RD and phonological decoding difficulties performed better when exposed to auditory noise. Specifically, their performances improved on a nonword reading task that asked them to read aloud as many nonwords as possible within a time limit. Notably, auditory noise did not improve the reading performances of children with mild reading difficulties nor the children who were skilled readers.
Children with phonological difficulties also improved with visual noise, as evidenced by improvements on both a word reading task that asked them to read a series of words aloud and a memory recall task that asked them to later recall the words they had read. These associations followed a U-shaped curve, indicating that the children showed the highest performance with a moderate level of visual noise and the lowest performance with low and high levels of visual noise.
Interestingly, the benefits associated with both the visual and auditory noise were uniquely observed among the children with phonological difficulties. Children who were skilled readers did not perform better when exposed to auditory white noise and actually seemed to perform worse with visual white noise.
Based on these findings, Söderlund and colleagues infer that identifying the optimal level of sensory noise is key to reaping the benefits of white noise. According to past research, it also seems important that the noise be random and “noninformation-carrying.”
The findings indicate that “people with attention and reading difficulties should be aware of their environment while performing cognitively demanding tasks. Many from these target groups perform better in noisy environments, either auditory or visual sensory noise stimulation,” Söderlund explained.
The authors say their findings shed light on a potential new tool to support children in the classroom, suggesting that sensory noise may offer immediate aid for children with reading difficulties. However, they add that it will be important for future research to explore the long-term effects of exposure to white noise to determine whether these benefits are long-lasting or whether they may end in habituation.
“This study needs to be replicated and also tested on a target group with attention deficits (ADHD). Moreover, to explore if these kinds of interventions have any long term effects,” Söderlund said. “I need money to pay at least 2-3 PhD students to make follow-up studies and in particular to make a randomized control trial in a school setting to investigate if our noise application (see Smartnoise in the app store) could improve school achievement for these target groups who suffer a lot in school.”
The study, “Sensory white noise improves reading skills and memory recall in children with reading disability”, was authored by Göran B. W. Söderlund, Jakob Åsberg Johnels, Bodil Rothén, Ellen Torstensson-Hultberg, Andreas Magnusson, and Linda Fälth.