Behind the masks, teachers and students struggle to communicate

Why We Wrote This

When learning includes lip reading, what happens when everyone is wearing face masks? Teachers in France talk about adapting for deaf students, young children going to school for the first time, and foreign language learners.

Jean-Francois Badias/AP
Students in Bischheim, northeastern France, returned to school with millions of others in the country on Sept. 1, 2020. Face masks are required for adults, but children 11 and under are exempt.

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To start school, Valérie Jarrosson brought new tools to her Paris classroom for children who are deaf or hard of hearing – including different face masks and large see-through barriers to place between her and a child for lessons up close.  

Universal mask-wearing for adults in France due to the pandemic has meant challenges for teachers like Ms. Jarrosson, as well as those teaching very young children or French as a foreign language – their students depend on lip reading, facial expression, and imitation.

Some worry what wearing masks will mean for children’s ability to detect nuances of emotion. But “generally children have an incredible ability to adapt,” says Cécile Viénot, a psychologist. “For very young children and babies, they live in the immediate. So if something is wrong, they’re going to alert adults right away to meet their needs.”

Claire Marchandeau teaches beginner’s French. She says that one advantage to these times is that students are forced to articulate every word. Shy students must speak up to be heard over their masks, and oral participation is more important than ever. With students of many backgrounds and nationalities, the common denominator is a desire to understand and be understood.

The clear plastic face mask that Valérie Jarrosson wears cuts into her chin a little, but at least it doesn’t fog up her glasses like the cotton masks. The elementary school teacher considers herself fortunate – she has the space to stand at a distance from her students, while ensuring that they can still read her lips.

“It’s not ‘le voiture,’ it’s ‘la voiture,’” says Ms. Jarrosson, gesticulating animatedly and exaggerating pronunciations to the fourth grader in a hot pink T-shirt and tightly pulled bun standing at the blackboard. 

Ms. Jarrosson teaches at CELEM, a public school in Paris for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some of the students wear hearing aids, others have cochlear implants, but all of them rely on reading lips to communicate. Around 385,000 students with disabilities headed back to school in France this month. No one is learning remotely, unless a COVID-19 outbreak forces a change.

Children 11 and under are not required to wear masks. But universal mask-wearing for adults in France due to the pandemic has meant major challenges for teachers like Ms. Jarrosson, as well as those teaching the very young or French as a foreign language – their students all learn through lip reading, facial expression, and imitation.

There have been calls in France to make transparent masks free for teachers and 100,000 are on their way thanks to a government order. But that still won’t supply every teacher who has students with disabilities. And where the expectation is for the government to provide all the materials necessary for teachers to do their jobs, bearing the cost of a constant supply can feel burdensome.

The pandemic is forcing teachers of all types of students to rethink how they transmit language and the emotion necessary to make meaningful connections, and to create tactics for optimal learning in less-than-ideal conditions. 

When children are “learning to speak and read, they imitate letters by the sound the mouth makes,” says Cécile Viénot, a Paris-based child psychologist. Being able to see the motions of the mouth is “a learning tool, not just a vector of emotion.”  

Plexiglass for close quarters

Stacked at the back of Ms. Jarrosson’s classroom are the plexiglass barriers she places between herself and a student if she has to be in close proximity for a lesson. The seven-odd speech therapists on-site at CELEM also use them during individual sessions to help students process verbal language and improve pronunciation, volume, and pitch.

This tool, along with a stronger reliance on visual supplements to lip reading, like printed pictures, have become critical in the age of wearing masks, especially for the school’s youngest students who, at age 3, may not understand sign language yet.  

And when nothing else works, says Ms. Jarrosson, teachers are obliged to fudge the rules for a moment. “Sometimes I just have to pull my mask down and mouth it to them.”

That’s been the case for Elodie Riou – when her little students aren’t pulling her mask down for her. Ms. Riou works at La Villa des Enfants day care in the east of the city, with infants and children under 3. Ms. Riou says she often has to pull down her mask for a moment to smile at the youngest children and reassure them – many are starting day care for the first time. These first weeks of day care may be some children’s first extended exposure to adults wearing masks. 

Ms. Riou has been talking to the school’s director about starting a kind of informal sign language with the toddlers as a way to increase communication. The mask has made it harder to express emotion but also communicate with youngsters at the dawn of language learning.

“We’ve also thought about putting pictures up on the wall of people with different emotions,” says Ms. Riou, “to show them that emotions don’t stop at our nose.” 

But while Ms. Riou says she’s worried about the long-term consequences of wearing masks on young children and their ability to detect nuances of emotion, some experts say there is so far no need for concern.

“It’s still too early to say, but generally children have an incredible ability to adapt,” says Ms. Viénot, the psychologist. “For very young children and babies, they live in the immediate, so if something is wrong, they’re going to alert adults right away to meet their needs.”

But some say those with learning disorders or other disabilities can still suffer from wearing masks, in everyday life as well as in school settings. 

“We need to move forward with making clear masks free and available on a Europe-wide scale,” says Matthieu Annereau, president of the APHPP, a national disability-rights organization. “Because right now, people with disabilities are being penalized twice, having a handicap as well as not being able to understand when someone is speaking.”

Students behind masks, too

Even for those without a disability, the ability to understand speech from behind an opaque mask is a challenge. Claire Marchandeau has had to completely rethink her lessons at the Alliance Française, where she teaches beginner-level French to adults.

She’s taken to over-exaggerating her expressions, and has drawn out pictures of the mouth and its varying positions for different sounds, especially vowels, which she says are particularly hard to articulate non-visually. But the system only works one way.

“I can’t verify the position of my students’ mouths, to know if their tongue or lips are in the right place,” says Ms. Marchandeau, who wears a surgical mask to teach her group lessons. “Luckily, you can usually hear if something isn’t being pronounced correctly. I just make them repeat, repeat, repeat.”

The advantage, she says, is that students are forced to articulate every word. Shy students must speak up to be heard over their masks and oral participation is more important than ever. With students of many backgrounds and nationalities, the common denominator is a desire to understand and be understood. 

“It comes down to the different personalities of each student in how they interact in this new setting,” says Ms. Marchandeau. “But there’s no question on my end as the teacher – I can’t take my mask off.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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