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Summary  •  Poor Acoustics  •  Hearing Problems
Immature Auditory Capabilities  •  At-Risk Students

Problems: Immature Auditory Capabilities


In the acoustical section describing the signal to noise ratio, it is discussed that children hear differently than adults. This really should not be a surprise, when considering the neurological component of the hearing process. The human auditory brain structure is not fully mature until age 15; thus, a child does not bring a complete neurological system to a listening situation. (Bhatnagar, 2002, Boothroyd, 1997; Chermak & Musiek, 1997.) What this means is that children are slower at processing the sounds they hear, and cannot always “fill in the blanks” for missed, muffled, or inferred auditory information. They simply do not have the “historical” data or life experience that enables adults to fill in the gaps and help them make sense of what they hear. Such a process is referred to as auditory or cognitive closure, and adults have had years, even decades to develop it. The following examples demonstrate the difference between the way adults and children “hear” information:

Example 1: Actual 1st graders were asked to complete the following colloquial phrases that are well known by adults. Here are a few answers from the study:

  • “Better to be safe than……..punch a fifth grader.”
  • “Don’t bite the hand that……..looks dirty.”
  • “You can’t teach an old dog, new……..math.”
  • “A penny saved is……..not much.”
  • “Children should be seen and not……spanked or grounded”
  • “If at first you don’t succeed…….get new batteries.”

This illustrates how adult brains automatically fill in the end of the phrase based on our experiences. The humor lies in the answers given by first graders who base their answers on their own life experiences. Children receive very different messages and/or interpretations of what they “hear” than do adults.

Example 2: A visual demonstration of how jumbled sounds can be easily corrected by adults and understood; not so by children:

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Such a cdonition is arppoiately cllaed Typoglycemia.

Amzanig eh? Yaeh and yuo awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt.

Imagine a child trying to make sense of this letter. A five year old could not do it. A seven year old may get a few smaller words, but not enough to understand the passage. A ten year may be able to decipher the entire passage, but it would take significantly longer and require more energy to do so, than an adult. A fifteen year old should be able to do this in an acceptable amount of time.

If you find this concept difficult to understand, just ask yourself, do you know any child under the age of ten who understands the art of sarcasm? Chances are you do not because children that young haven’t been exposed to language used in that manner, at least not often enough to store-up a collection of historical uses and meanings. At that point in their life children are still very literal.

Children’s language skills and stored information simply are not as detailed or complete as an adults, which prevents them from “figuring out” what was said when the acoustical environment precludes the information being heard clearly. This is why children must have a quieter environment and a louder signal (Anderson, 2001) than an adult would require for intelligible comprehension; actually nine decibels louder than an adult.

To illustrate the difference in ability to listen accurately to speech, a study examined the loudness or intensity required for different ages to achieve 100% listening accuracy. This studyi varied decibel levels of speech materials and found that adult listeners required a signal of only 11 dB sound pressure level (SPL) to achieve essentially 100% correct performance using the NU-CHIPSii testing procedure. In contrast, children at age 10 required 18 dBSPL, at age 5 required 25 dBSPL and at age 3, children required 38 dBSPL. The speech materials were presented in a quiet setting.

It seems obvious that if a child cannot hear something clearly, he or she might miss out on information and suffer academically, but what about the personal and social implications of the failure to hear? A study at Cornell University in 2001 and one at London University in 2005, found that if students can’t focus on the spoken word of the teacher, they not only lose the desire but also the physical ability to learn. The process of hearing requires a considerable amount of physical and mental energy; particularly for children whose immature auditory capabilities slow down the process that occurs automatically for adults. As an adult, try to think what it is like at a wedding reception when the music is very loud, and you have difficulty conversing with the other guests. It is physically draining to have to concentrate that hard to understand what someone else is saying. You may even choose to end the conversation and walk away. Now imagine if those guests spoke a foreign language and you had limited foreign language skills. You most likely would experience extreme fatigue and frustration. These scenarios aren’t very different than what children experience when they have difficulty hearing, either from the environmental conditions, a physical impairment, or a combination of both.

Hearing requires a lot of energy and stamina. If that energy can be conserved by improving acoustic accessibility, it can be channeled toward higher academic purposes. Unfortunately, we don’t realize how much energy hearing requires, especially in an acoustically deprived environment. Unlike our eyes that show visible signs of strain when we have insufficient lighting, our ears are not as obvious when being deprived of sound. Yet the harmful results are the same. When someone reads excessively in a dark environment, their eyes become red and sore. They begin to blink, miss reading words, and have to needlessly read over what they have already read. When our hearing is strained, we also become fatigued. We tune out and unconsciously miss-hear information sometimes never even realizing it, and information needs to be needlessly repeated. This is more likely to happen to children than adults, because of those immature auditory capabilities. Poor classroom acoustics exacerbate the problem, often resulting in children becoming disengaged and losing focus.

An immature auditory capability in an acoustically deficient environment puts all children at risk for losing the attention and desire to learn. A significant number of investigators have demonstrated that inappropriate levels of classroom noise and reverberation can deleteriously affect not only speech-recognition ability, but also psychoeducational and psychosocial development (e.g. Bess & Tharpe, 1986; Blair, Peterson, & Viehweb, 1985; Crandell & Bess, 1986; Crandell & Karasik-Rush 1990, 1991; Davis, Elfenein, Schum, & Bentler 1986; Finitzo-Hieber, 1988; finitzo-Hieber & Tillman, 1978; Leavitt & Flexer, 1991; Ross, 1978; Ross & Giolas, 1971). iii This may help to explain the growing epidemic of ADD and ADHD, an apparent phenomenon unique to America, and it legitimately questions their diagnosis. The United Nations released a report in February of 1996 expressing concern over the discovery that 10 percent to 12 percent of all male school children in the United States take the drug methylphenidate (Ritalin), a rate far surpassing that of any other country in the world. This growing epidemic explains why the U.S. consumes 90% of 8.5 tons of Ritalin produced world-wide each year, iv and why use of this drug, which is a stimulant related to amphetamine, has increased by 700% since 1990. v

The notion of ADD being linked to a hearing problem is not unheard of. Kay Ness, a neurodevelopmentalist was quoted saying, “Many children that are labeled ADD or ADHD have very distorted hearing. I suspect that up to 70% of the children on Ritalin are on it for this specific reason.” vi This opinion was reached after studying the number of hearing problems and infections encountered by those children taking Ritalin. Do not make the mistake of trivializing hearing problems triggered by the environment as compared to those innately physical. The effects are the same. The inability to hear (clearly) causes ALL children, even those with the best intentions to pay attention, to disengage themselves from auditory learning.



  1. Elliot, L., "Effects of Noise and Perception of Speech by Children and Certain handicapped Individuals," Sound and Vibration, Dec. 1982, pp. 10-14.
  2. Elliot, L., Katiz, D., "The Northwestern University Children's Perception of Speech Test (NU-CHIPS)," Auditec of St. Louis, 1980.
  3. "Sound Field Amplification in the Classroom Setting" (1987) by Carl Crandell and Joseph Smaldino.
  4. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/medicating/readings/publicinterest.html; Page 2; 11/30/05
  5. http://www.enotalone.com/article/4583.html; "Ritalin Ascendant: A Doctor's Dilemma" excerpted from Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill by Lawrence H. Diller, M.D. (Publisher: Bantam)
  6. Kay Ness, MS, Neurodevelopmentalist, c1999 "Hearing Learning and Listening"