Using Sound Experiences to Help Children Learn

By Tracey Madden-Hennessey

“Sound is invisible, but it’s a tremendously powerful force…for better or worse, it shapes your brain and how you learn.”  These are the words of biologist and researcher Nina Kraus, Northwest University, who specializes in the impact of sound on brain development.  In a recent newsletter published by The National Center for Families Learning, “NCFL Literacy Now,” the story written by journalist Linda Flanagan (KQED News, Mind/Shift How We All Learn), highlighted the work of Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab. 

Kraus, through research, has studied the impact of sound on the developing brain and has concluded that the way a brain responds and processes sounds is predictive of a young child’s ability to lead.  Kraus indicates that it is one of the most complex functions of the brain and concludes that it is the reason so many language disorders are aligned with difficulties processing sound, specifically analyzing pitch, timing and timbre.

Kraus indicates both teachers and parents can support children’s learning by creating better “sound environments.”  She states, “Parents and teachers should ‘encourage activities that promote sound-to-meaning development.”  The article highlights ways that adults can do this:

  • Reduce chronic background noise. This reduces the brains sensitivity to sound and slows auditory growth.  At home or at school, the creation of quiet spaces for children to go is important to their development.  Kraus indicates, in school, it is most important to children coming from overly loud or chaotic environments.
  • Read aloud as it builds vocabulary and working memory and helps children understand story development. Children growing up in poverty hear and enter kindergarten with a vocabulary substantially below that of wealthier peers, making reading aloud important to their preschool development.  Kraus also suggests that reading aloud shouldn’t stop when a child learns to read, it continues to build bonds, enhances use of the imagination, and supports development.

Image result for reading out loud

  • Encourage the play of a musical instrument. Kraus indicates that learning to play music in addition to listening to it, triggers brain development that positively impacts language development.
  • Listen to audio books and podcasts. Kraus supports the use of these tools to build listening skills and working memory.  She particularly advocates teachers incorporate them into their classroom curriculum.
  • Support learning and speaking a second language. Learning to process information in multiple languages, Kraus indicates, helps the brain to better focus.
  • Avoid white noise machines at bedtime. Even when sleeping, Kraus asserts, they emit sounds which “interfere with how a brain develops sound-processing circuitry.”
  • Use technology to your advantage. Smart use of technology to expose children to music and sounds out of their general experience expands their horizons.  Assistive devices for those with disabilities and headphones to cancel out distracted noise are available to enhance the experience.

As you can see, there's a lot more parents can do to use sound to their child advantage. That goes for teachers too! Every child is different, try out each suggestion one at a time to see which one will be most helpful.