Hearing better: Teacher is wired
for sound, and results are spectacular
by Twila Van Leer, Deseret News, April 15, 2003
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All that stands between the teacher at the front of the room and
that disinterested little boy on the back row is a lot of
ambient noise: electricity humming, foot-shuffling, air
whistling through ducts, paper rustling, classmates breathing
and wiggling, traffic passing outside and the dozen other sounds
that don't necessarily register, but affect hearing.
Now, was that spelling word the teacher just said "pond,"
"pawned" or even "upon"?
For the teacher, the alternative is to raise the volume,
sometimes at the risk of stressing the vocal cords.
"I was ready to quit," said Shauna Starr, a fourth-grade teacher
at Pioneer Elementary in Granite District. "When I started
losing my voice, it frightened me. I was going down fast. I
teach with enthusiasm and by the end of the day, I was wiped.
This way, I'm not."
"This way" is an acoustical enhancement project Pioneer has
fostered. Teachers are wired for sound, speakers distribute the
sound equally in the room and the results, Starr said, are
On this particular day, her students are working on a math
concept, creating charts and graphs by sorting little piles of
colored candies and comparing the colors they have drawn with
the proportions the candy company says are put into each bag.
In Steven's bag, for instance, 27 percent of the candies are
brown and 17 percent yellow, while the M & M's people say the
usual proportion is 30 percent brown and 20 percent yellow.
Obviously, Steven's tan, red and green candies will also be out
"Think about yours and write about the differences," Starr tells
her students. In the middle of the room with children on all
sides, she speaks in a normal tone of voice. A small wireless
microphone picks up the sound and an infrared signal sends it to
multiple speakers mounted in the acoustical tiles of the
Her directions about counting and charting obviously are getting
through not only to those at her sides but to those in the front
and back of the room. They are all participating and following
"This is miles above what happened in my old classroom," said
Starr. "It just makes sense. It's a no-brainer. I haven't
changed what I am doing as a teacher, but my students are more
engaged. It has enhanced what I am trying to do. It should be
happening in all our schools."
Next door, fellow fourth-grade teacher Laura Pickering is
equally enthused. "My students' attention is a lot better," she
said. "I had lots of parents requesting that their child be
closer to the front, now it isn't an issue. I don't repeat as
Acoustical enhancement is a simple concept that has made a big
difference in his school, said principal Paul J. McCarty. As
students hear better, they are performing better as well. "Never
have I seen reading and math growth in such a short period of
time," he wrote in an article for an education publication. His
school has many Title I students who come from low-income homes,
including many whose primary language is not English. Meeting
new federal No Child Left Behind standards had loomed as a
McCarty believes the classroom audio improvements have
contributed to better grades and better behavior in his
students. The school had used a number of approaches to improve
student achievement, including new reading and math curriculums
and texts, use of specialists, staff training and purchase of
educational software, he said, but with minimal effects.
"We faced the reality that we were not going to show the
necessary yearly accountability gains required by (the federal
guidelines)." In 2001, the first year audio enhancement used in
Pioneer, students showed 10 to 15 percent gains in reading and
math, based on annual test scores. In the second year, the same
gains were manifest. The greatest progress has come with the
English as a second language students, he said.
"Our greatest student test score improvement came from our ESL
students, with an average gain of 16 percent as measured by our
state's Criterion Reference Test," said McCarty.
And Pioneer students are liking school better.
"The sound is more louder. I can hear my teacher better," said
Destiny Simpson, who was working with a group to analyze their
candy numbers and write about them.
"I could hear at the back but not as well as this," agreed
Heather Lavender, as she and Cristina Luangaphay prepared to
knuckle down to the work.
"Parents have reported how much their students love coming to
school," said McCarty. Failure to hear well in the classroom has
been identified as a factor in students losing interest and for
some, ultimately dropping out, McCarty said..
He was led to try acoustical tinkering on one of those "days
that strike fear in every principal." One of his teachers came
to his office weeping and announced she was resigning on advice
of her doctor, who had diagnosed severe vocal cord deterioration
that threatened permanent loss of her voice.
"I did not want to lose her. I searched for alternatives," said
McCarty. His research turned up the increasing use of audio
enhancement in classrooms across the country. That growing body
of research suggests that children may be at more risk in an
acoustically challenged setting than adults, because they listen
differently. Their auditory neurological networks are not fully
developed until they reach the mid-teens.
Enhancing the auditory effectiveness of the classroom is a
relatively simple and inexpensive remedy, McCarty said. He is
convinced that it is an approach that could help more schools
meet the challenging new standards set by the government. He
also is contributing his own experience to the body of research
growing up around audio enhancement.
Pioneer has met the $1,600-per-classroom cost of audio equipment
and installation by using the school's Trust Lands money. Each
school in the state receives a small amount of no-strings money
from the trust each year, and a school committee determines how
it will be used.