Teaching Reading in a Noisy Environment

  • effective teachers
  • 28 May, 2017

Teacher question:

Our district is exploring and embracing Personalized Learning. We have a committee that has been going to professional development all year and a small group that is trying this out in their classrooms. Next year another group of teachers will be brought on to implement personalized learning and mentor under those trying it this year.

  Coinciding with this, our elementary building will be undergoing renovation and a committee has been working on plans. Construction is to begin next school year. We have not seen the final plans. They will not show them to the staff yet. The guidelines for their renovation were to make classrooms and spaces more conducive to personalized learning. Currently, we are fortunate to have our own individual rooms where we can provide the necessary intervention without noise from other groups beside us.

  I have discovered that we are going to be grouped in a large room!  It sounds as if there will be 3 of us in one room and the others in another room in the other part of the building. When they asked why this was, they were told things were going to look different under personalized learning. When they questioned further what that looked like for intervention support, they got no direct answer. My colleagues seem resigned to this development as construction is already planned, but I am concerned. 

  What are your thoughts on how an intervention will look under personalized learning? 

While I understand that a classroom teacher has to hold small groups in a classroom with many other students working independently, do you recommend that intense reading support should also operate where there are multiple groups going on around them? 


Shanahan response:

Okay, imagine this scenario. I go to the doctor and he finds a problem. But he tells me not to worry. He and some of his colleagues have a new scheme that they really like and they are starting to institute it with their patients.

  I ask, “What research has been done on this scheme?”

  You know where this is going.

  He says, “Research? We don’t need research. We really like this innovation.”

  If something that crazy were to happen, I’d be looking for a new doctor. And so would you. Because…well, it would be crazy.

  People’s lives matter and when it comes to caring for their lives, it makes no sense to subscribe to unproven schemes no matter how innovative or cool they may seem.

  And, kids’ educational lives matter, too.

My physician friends tell me their colleagues are foolish investors, my engineering pals bemoan their colleagues who have trouble speaking with other human beings, and why do professors lecture, not only their classes, but their wives? The members of every profession seem to have their odd quirks.

I don’t know what it is about schoolteachers, but too many are intrigued by fads and a gaping dearth of evidence supporting such whims doesn’t seem even to slow them down.

  Back in the day when I was becoming a teacher, the cool thing was to build schools without walls—the so-called open classrooms. Open classrooms were going to create open minds, and they fit right in with long hair, love beads, and peace signs. They were groovy, man. People—who hadn’t taught school—even wrote books promoting that great idea.

  Of course, it didn’t take long before the districts that had spent huge pots of money building open classrooms (the roof beams required to keep ceilings from falling were costly), and then had to retrofit their buildings to install artificial walls.

So much for history.

In fairness, there is not especially strong evidence available on this issue. I know of no experimental studies in which noise (visual and aural) has been manipulated, to evaluate its impact on learning.

But there has been a great deal of theoretical work on the issue; along with correlational and clinical findings suggesting that the kinds of environment that you describe can be especially problematic for learning-disabled readers and struggling math students

I’ve listed a few studies from that literature below that might be informative.

  I don’t know if you have run the new construction plans past whoever deals with the American Disabilities Act for your district, but that might be a good idea since this plan this plan seems to run the risk of doing some harm.  

  Why would it matter so much? Because it is difficult to sustain attention in a noisy environment. Disabled readers usually have specific problems learning to decode and studies show that decoding is best taught in a quiet environment.

  Additionally, second-language learners often remark about how hard it is to understand English when there is much background noise (something my own experience supports).

  I don’t get what this building plan has to do with Personalized Learning—or frankly what Personalized Learning has to do with academic success, but schools need to preserve some spaces for the instruction of such children that allows for reduced aural and visual stimulation. Placing learning interventions into those kinds of complicated spaces won’t support literacy learning.


 Courage, M.L., Bakhtiar, A., Fitzpatrick, C., Kenny, S., & Brandeau, K. (2015). Growing up multitasking: The costs and benefits for cognitive development. Developmental Review, 35, 5-41.

Glod, C.A., Teicher, M. H., Butler, M., Savino, M., Harper, D., et al., (1994). Modifying quiet room design enhances calming of children and adolescents. Journal of American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 33, 558-566.

Muyskens, P., & Ysseldyke, J.E. (1998). Student academic responding time as a function of classroom ecology and time of day. The Journal of Special Education, 14, 411-424.

Preston, A.S.; Heaton, S.C., McCann, S.J., Watson, W.D., & Selke, G. (2009). The role of multidimensional attentional abilities in academic skills of children with ADHD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42, 240-249.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Rebecca Pennington May 29, 2017 04:40 PM

I still have no idea why principals, administrators at the district level, and policymakers are so insistent on spending huge sums of money on things that don't have strong evidence and at least some research support. Being old enough to have been young at the time of open classrooms, Dr. Shanahan is right...."So much for history." WHY oh WHY do we do this?

Lisa May 29, 2017 05:02 PM

Not sure that it is primarily TEACHERS who are subject to fads; most likely it is ADMIN who oversee big picture decisions who impose these kinds of radical restructuring, usually in hope that they will be the magic bullet that will address a host of problems.

When we let go of the idea that "learning" means everyone being at the same level of "proficiency" (whatever that means) at the same time and embrace a truer-to-human definition of knowing, we'll no longer be enamored with "solutions" such as these.

Timothy Shanahan May 30, 2017 01:30 AM

I don't disagree, Lisa.


Lisa Butler May 30, 2017 02:41 PM

My building was built in the 70s with an "open" floor plan. Now, of course, there are movable walls (but no doors) on the classrooms. It is the worst possible environment for kids with attention issues, ADHD, sensory issues etc. Let one class do a lesson that requires noise, show a movie, play music or even just have a loud teacher and BOOM, everyone gets to hear it. I believe that districts like to think they have a "plan" such as the vague idea of "personalized learning" and think that will solve all their academic problems. Although, one would have thought that the idea of open floor plans was debunked long ago. Tell them to contact our district and ask how that worked for us!

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Teaching Reading in a Noisy Environment


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.