Twenty pairs of eyes eagerly converge on Jennifer Larcey as the afternoon science lesson gets under way at Bassett Elementary in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Sure, the transfixed first-graders are salivating at the prospect of examining--and tasting--the physical properties of peanuts, raisins and M&Ms. But something else is riveting the kids, even as Larcey stands to the side of the room issuing directions: the breathtaking clarity of her voice. "Feel the peanuts, and try to describe the texture," she instructs.
Larcey is one of seven teachers at Bassett who are, in effect, wired for sound. Nearly every word to her students is amplified through speakers wirelessly linked to a small blue transmitter dangling from her neck. Because she began using the technology three years ago, Larcey barely notices the device, except for the rare instances when she forgets to switch it on. "It's obvious. The kids just don't pay attention in the same way," she says. Bassett has joined the growing ranks of schools embracing a deceptively simple technology at a time when federal No Child Left Behind accountability standards are compelling districts to find new ways to boost academic performance. Although amplification systems have long been used to help hearing-impaired students, recent research has shown that enhanced audio benefits all students by helping a teacher's voice get through loud and clear, even at the back of the classroom.
A 2002 Brigham Young University study found that standardized test scores for fourth- and fifth-graders rose from 10% to 15% in every subject at a Utah public school the year after amplification began, though no other changes were made. Proponents like University of Akron audiologist Carol Flexer says the technology's greatest bang for the buck may come during early childhood when reading skills and phonics are introduced. "Without the even distribution of sound in the room from these systems, it can be hard for children to hear the difference between watch or wash or wasp," says Flexer. Her small but influential 2002 study published in the Hearing Journal found that 78% of preschoolers and kindergartners in sound-amplified classrooms scored above the mean on a key prereading skills test, compared with just 17% in a comparable group without the technology.
The benefits are grounded in biology, says Flexer. The brain's auditory networks are not fully developed until about age 15, so kids require a quieter environment and a louder signal than do adults when absorbing spoken information. Flexer has found that special-education referrals are fewer in classrooms that are wired for sound, compared with ordinary classrooms, where background noise and distractions compete with the teacher's voice. She believes a sound system is as vital to learning as adequate lighting.