K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Take a moment to use your sense of hearing to observe your present environment. (You may want to close your eyes.) What sounds did you hear that a moment ago you had previously “tuned out?” We live in a world that is rich with sound. But we do not always give it our attention. This article and its accompanying suggestions, lessons, and tools can facilitate a more conscientious use of audio in the classroom, and a focus on teaching appropriate audio interpretation skills. Use this information to more deeply explore audio and its power to convey meaning and enhance learning.

Using sound in the classroom

Humans rely more on their sight and hearing than on any of the other senses. This is especially true in the classroom, where most lesson plans support what Howard Gardner calls “linguistic learners,” those who learn best from seeing or hearing or saying words. As you may know from your own classroom behavior, we often rely on visual materials to aid in learning, but we do not often augment our voices with other audio materials. In other words, we rely on the linguistic side through our speech and visual materials (usually written words). Classroom behavior reinforces the general human tendency to rely on sight and sound, but we tend to privilege the video over audio.

The activities and lesson plans in this article work well in the classroom environment, in that they reinforce the listening and visual skills students are using. Moreover, they will enhance classroom learning by challenging your students to use those skills in unfamiliar ways. As in the beginning of the article, when you took a moment to listen to the sounds in your present environment, these exercises also ask your students to practice attentiveness. This adds variety to your teaching approach, and may capture the attention of your students, inspiring them to retain information longer.

This article is divided into two sections that can be used to build listening skills for you and your students. The first section is on listening: exercises to train a more “observant” ear. The second focus is on creativity: activities encouraging the link between the ear and the imagination. Try them and see how using audio in the classroom enriches student learning.

Listening skills

As the opening exercise illustrated, the human mind relegates most of the sound around us to “background noise.” The activities recommended in this section can be used to increase students’ ability to focus on sound and discern its origin and meaning.

Sound notes

Take your students outside with a piece of paper and pencil and something to write on. Ask them to sit in different places — away from each other so they are unlikely to talk. Have them spend 10-15 minutes taking sound notes, observing only what they hear and writing it down. The objective is to discover that audio input is layered and constant, usually coming from at least two or more sources at any one time.

Initially, students can note the sounds they hear with one word, in sequential order, with repetition as necessary. Before their time is up, they can perhaps switch to more specific details, combining sight and sound observations in greater detail. For instance:

Initial notes
“Bird song. Car engine. Car tires. Wind. Bird song.”
Later notes
“A robin is singing and flying in the air. An old Ford truck drives by, the engine is loud, and the tires splash in a puddle. The wind makes the oak leaves move against one another; it sounds like potato chips in a bag.”


This activity is used to encourage accurate listening skills using the traditional game where a message is whispered from one person to the other down a line. Observe whether the statement changes by the end of the sequence. Play the game again, changing the rules so that there is a time limit for the students to completely transmit the message to the end of the line. Does less time change the successful transmission of the message? Pass a non-verbal message (a sequence of movements — a hand clap, eye blink, nose pinch, right foot stomp). Did a verbal or visual message change more radically? What are the advantages to sending a verbal message? What about a visual one?

Musical literacy

This exercise is about listening closely to music. Our tendency is to focus on the lyrics and the tune. However, many songs use varied rhythms, harmonies, unique instruments, or “samples” (snippets of pre-recorded material) that you can discover by listening even more closely. Bring a song into the classroom and listen to it several times. The song and genre you choose is up to you and your students. Lead the class in a discussion and identify the different elements: rhythm, vocals, instrumentation, and samples (if applicable). Talk also about the mood or tone of the song, and how that is created. Are students able to identify the parts that make up the whole (and name specific instruments, for instance)? Are they able to “read into” the choices that the producers and musicians made? Did they discover some elements of a song that they had never heard before? If so, then the exercise was a success.

Creativity skills

Creativity involves imagination. One of the more powerful aspects of audio is that people often create a visual picture in their minds from the sounds they hear. The use creativity to imagine a scene that makes sense of the audio information. A similar phenomenon happens when we read a book and convert the written word into a “visual” scene in our mind’s eye. These activities encourage students to fuel their creativity using sound.

Imagine the visual

This activity will encourage students to create a scene in their “mind’s eye” or imagination. Isolate a scene from any movie, ideally one in which there is some sound and possibly some dialogue. You may look for a scene that includes a variety of recognizable sounds such as: doors opening or closing, things being set down, combat, nature sounds, horses galloping or other sounds that retreat and approach, etc. You also may want to use a scene with different kinds of voices; an older or younger person, or a person with an accent. Play the movie clip for the students with the video/picture turned off. Ask them to describe the action and the people in the scene based on what they heard. Students should be very specific in describing the environment, the cause of the sound, and the actors. (For example, “I know that person is older, because older people’s voices sometimes sound hoarse, and they use different words than young people do.”) Once you play the audio scene a few times, play the audio with the visual. How close were the students in guessing what happened? How did they use their minds/imaginations to help them “see” the scene they were hearing?

No Words: Wall-E

This activity investigates how sound can convey meaning, even without words. Many movies use sound effects to enhance the visual impact or meaning. Among those movies, Wall-E stands out because it uses sound rather than words to create “dialogue” between two non-verbal characters. Show your class a completely non-verbal scene (like one between Wall-E and Eva) from the DVD. (Note: If you don’t have access to the DVD, you may be able to find a scene on the internet — for example, this scene of Wall-E encountering a vacuum cleaner on YouTube or this scene of Wall-E playing cups from the Daily Motion website.) You may want to play the scene the first time without the screen on, so the class is listening only to the audio. Play the clip a second time with the audio and video. Then discuss what sounds are used to convey what emotions. How is fear conveyed? Or wonder? How do we know a sound is supposed to signify a certain emotion? Ask your students to write a dialogue (using words) that is consistent with the scene. A few volunteers can read their scripts aloud along with the video clip.

Sound effects

Have students use their own creativity by combining sound effects with a skit or short story. To fire up their imaginations, you can play a skit from an early radio show you find on the internet. For example, you can play an episode of the Bob Hope Radio Show found on the RadioLovers website, or a “Guy Noir” excerpt from A Prairie Home Companion (click the “listen” link to listen as you read along). Or you might have your own recording of a stand-up comedian who uses sound effects in his/her routine.

After playing one or some of these options for the class, lead a discussion with your students about what sound effects are and what impact they have in storytelling. If you wish, you can turn this activity into a group assignment where students work together to create their own variety show skit with sound effects that they perform for the rest of the class. In this extended assignment, students will learn how to write “for the ear.” This is a special way of writing that uses audio and words to describe a scene so that the listener can easily imagine the environment and the action. At the very least, students will think about what kinds of activities lend themselves to sound effects, and demonstrate creativity in discovering and creating the sound effects they want. With advanced students, you may consider literary terms — such as irony, reality, fantasy, expository, and persuasive — and challenge them to create a radio skit that illustrates at least one of these concepts.