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Auditory Awareness: Are Students Hearing the Lesson?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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How many choir performances, or especially school plays have you attended where you could not hear the performers clearly? No matter how well they performed, I benefitted little from the experience if the sound system was poor. Nothing is more frustrating than attending your own child's performance and not being able to hear them. A while back, I went to International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) here in San Antonio. It was cool to see all the new trends in technology for education, but of the things that I saw planted a seed in my brain. It was simply this: Use technology to make sure every student can hear you in the classroom.

My daughter, Mercedes, attends a school of the arts here in San Antonio so we go to a lot of performances. Luckily we are able to enjoy her performances because, even though the school has a very old theater, it invested in a good sound system with wireless mikes for the main performers. How much do we invest in the classrooms to make sure that all students can hear well?

Tremendous effort is expended to make sure the students have everything they need to do well on standardized tests, but I fear we are ignoring the most critical element of teaching. The most wonderful presentations, discussions, and participation could be occurring in our classroom, but if the student cannot clearly hear what is being said, how do we expect them to learn well?

Classroom Design and Noisy Distractions

First of all, classrooms are not designed to handle sound like a choir room or band room. Even new classrooms do not usually meet acoustic standards. Most classrooms have flat, hard walls to post things on with little sound insulation between rooms (frequently I had teachers interrupt my learning activity to tell me that we were being too loud), linoleum floors for easy cleaning, the ceiling tiles are rarely "acoustic," and square configurations to maximize space. But if you ask any sound engineer, these are the worst configurations for sound management. Being a Spanish teacher, I wanted my students to talk, but the noise from the chatter became unbearable until I convinced my principal to get carpet in the room.

Classrooms are very noisy places and not just because of the rowdy students (check out these management tips for noise levels) and little attention is paid to competing sounds that most classrooms have. For example, most classrooms have computers. Each computer has a whirring, noise-making fan and each one adds to the noise level of the classroom before the students make any noise at all.

When LCD projectors are purchased we look at LUX levels, size, and price, but do we ever consider how much noise (decibels) the projector makes trying to cool that very hot lamp? What about the thumping of the air conditioning, whistling ceiling fans, the hum of the fluorescent ballasts, and gurgling plumbing? What about the sounds coming from outside: students talking in the hallways, gym class loudly playing outside, noise from the freeways, railroad noises, the landscaping crew cutting the grass and weed eating outside your window, and my personal favorite are the Lockheed C5 Galaxy airplanes (huge tank carrying monsters) and F15 fighters that thundered and screamed overhead from the airbase nearby. When those went overhead, teaching and learning stopped.

Minimizing Noise Distractions

School administrators can fix some of these noises by designing better classrooms, installing carpet or sound dampening materials in classrooms, better scheduling of passing times, and requesting that grounds maintenance happen during lunch or weekends. Teachers can fix some of the problems by establishing noise level standards (or a cool website to monitor classroom noise levels), taking loud activities outside in consideration of other classes, putting up sound-dampening wall-hangings or flags, or turning off noise-making computers and LCD projectors. Most of the worst sound offenders, however, are completely out of our control. What is left to do? We can work on increasing the volume to make sure all students can hear.

As a teacher, I learned that my voice is a powerful tool in classroom management and instruction. I realized early on that I did not have to always be louder than the students. I preferred to not talk "over" the students but I could employ my "teacher voice" when I needed too. I never considered that if I was speaking to the students from the front of the room, how well the students in the back of the room could hear me with noise of the air-conditioning humming in their ears. It never occurred to me that if I was wandering around the classroom, talking as I walked, that the students behind me could probably not hear me well. I unconsciously assumed that if students couldn't hear me clearly, they would let me know, right?

Well, now that I am sensitive to this, to solve this, I could have just spoken louder. This raises other concerns. How I could increase my teacher voice without becoming strident in my tone (I hated hearing teachers that shouted and screamed at the students)? How do I help students farther away hear better without the students nearby going deaf?

At the ISTE conference I found an answer. When you go to the movies, plays, or even concerts, the rooms are equipped with a sound system so everyone can hear. Why don't we do that in classrooms? Isn't it critical that everyone be able to hear? It turns out, this is not really new (it was new to me) but schools have been doing what is called "sound reinforcement" for a while (for research about this read this article). This means that you place speakers in the classrooms so every student can hear, and the teacher, or whoever is talking carries a microphone.

At ISTE I saw systems where the teacher wears a wireless microphone around his or her neck and if it is the students that are talking to the whole class, they pass around a handheld version to use. Certainly using microphones is not as natural as simply talking, but the benefits of assuring that all the students can hear all instruction, in my opinion outweigh the inconvenience. Even without implementing a full-blown sound reinforcement program, teachers who are acoustically aware can do a lot to help students hear more clearly.

What works for you in classroom sound reinforcement and noise reduction? Please share in the comments section below.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I'm helping Helena out with the track meets and yesterday afternoon was the junior varsity regional championship. Elbows and knees...going as fast and as high as they can. Helena teaches language arts across the hall from me. She's the school track coach.

At the track meets I use the school's track and field team official megaphone so everybody can know real well how high and how fast their child went. You put that thing up to your lips and squeeze that trigger and blast out words that crackle like lightening.

I thought to bring it to class today. I thought to use it in class. By talking into it. The megaphone.

And now I'd like to offer up to my friends in the teaching business that the greatest tool for teaching eighth graders Georgia history is available at Radio Shack. It's the AmpliVox S602M 25W Piezo megaphone with a detachable mic.

The model number is S602M and the catalog number is 55025884. There's also a switch you may accidentally push (three or four good times) that makes the megaphone produce an extremely loud siren sound. Let's make that: siren brain-melting blast. I cannot tell you how loud this siren brain-melting blast is, but if you wanted to get the attention of some kids in China while you were teaching Georgia history in the United States then this is the switch you'd push on the AmpliVox S602M 25W Piezo megaphone with a detachable mic.

Georgia history spoken through a megaphone. The genius of it boggles the mind.

By the way, the greatest teaching tool on Earth for inattentive school kids costs only $109.99. It's worth every single nickel. Their extremely attentive expressions today were worth priceless Confederate bills.


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.

Miss Gomez's picture
Miss Gomez
Bilingual Special Education-Life Skills Teacher. Austin, TX

This is a very interesting article. I have never thought about it, but you bring up an excellent point that is blind-passed by many of us as teachers. I was remembering my classroom design and it is actually very open. The only thing is I do not put too many pictures or billeting boards on the wall, my students cant handle it. The good thing is that having enough furniture can decrease the sound level. Thank you very much for your information on the matter and I will keep an eye on this information and bringing up this issue in my campus.
Take care,
Miss Gomez

Ashley Cronin's picture
Ashley Cronin
Digital Resource Curator

I think Miss Gomez is right that classroom acoustics are often overlooked. But they can be pretty important, and especially so if you are working with any children who have hearing challenges or difficulties with attention. One year, one of my student's IEPs mandated that I wear a microphone while teaching. We had another separate microphone that the students used while speaking to amplify their voices. It took a little getting used to, but I was surprised to discover how much it helped all the students in my class. Thanks for bringing up this important issue!

David Solomon's picture
David Solomon
Executive Vice President, Lightspeed Technologies

Temporary or mild hearing loss is one of the most serious, undetected problems affecting a surprisingly large percentage of students in K-6. The extensive MAARS (Mainstream Amplification Resource Room Study) Project, conducted between 1979-1993, was one of the earliest and most complete sources of of data on just how pressing an issue mild hearing loss is at any given time for the majority of young children. The study found, for instance, that: 30% of children grades 3-6 did not pass a baseline 15db hearing test, 43% had minimal hearing loss on any given day (including for such common elementary school student maladies as otitis media infections and middle ear fluid build up), and that 70% with mild hearing loss (MHL) will suffer academic deficiency by 6th grade. A classroom audio solution similar to the one you describe, a teacher wearing a small microphone, is one of the most effective tools used to provide equal access for every student to the intelligible content of their teacher's voice. Check out the Institute for Enhanced Classroom Hearing for an independent summary of the available research There are numerous references to the MARRS Project study online and more recent although less comprehensive supporting studies. Here is one for your consideration.

KCrowe's picture

To be perfectly honest I haven't really thought about the acoustics in the classroom. I plan on trying the doorway tomorrow. I have seen classrooms that use a karaoke machine in it. I teach kindergarten ad it can defiantly get loud in there. I have a small classroom and some students really struggle with the sound. I plan on speaking in a few different areas in the room tomorrow to see who can hear me. I try very hard to keep my voice and not strain it. I'm wondering if there is any way to fun a sound system through the computer or smart board.

Jeanne's picture

My dissertation is on this topic. Have been digging up tons of research in support of this technology, referred to as "Classroom Audio Distribution" system. It increases the effectiveness of teacher instruction and student learning... often leading to a drop in the number of students being referred for special education services. And ditto the recommendation made for the website. Very useful and unbiased

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