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Lessons of Note

Newport Beach couple creates songs out of basic math, grammar and geography facts. Experts are convinced of a connection between memory and song.

April 29, 1998|LIZ SEYMOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — How did you learn your multiplication tables, grammar rules and state capitals? Chances are it was through drill: rote memorization, repeated writing.

For the past 14 years, though, a Newport Beach couple has banked on a more entertaining method of learning basic facts--singing. Kathy and Larry Troxel are mainstays in the business of educational music tapes.

I'm running, jumping, singing--that's because I am a verb.

I'm hopping, dancing, ringing--that's because I am a verb.

I'm coming, going, hitting, throwing . . .

--From "The Verb Song"

Back in 1979, Kathy Troxel was a high school English teacher in the Long Beach Unified School District when it struck her that her 10th-graders couldn't explain the difference between adjectives and adverbs, nouns and verbs. She was appalled.

She also was convinced that they could learn more quickly--and retain more--with music. So she invented a rhyme using the Beach Boys song "California Girls."

By 1984, she had quit teaching and started Audio Memory. Last year, the company sold 24,366 cassettes.

The firm, which operates out of the Troxel home, sells eight cassettes of original songs that drill the fundamentals of math, grammar, vocabulary and geography. Cassettes cost $9.95 or $19.95. The jingles are reinforced with a workbook of written exercises and copies of the lyrics.

The songs, with music by Larry and words by Kathy, don't try to teach complicated subjects. It's just the basics, repeated and set to music.

Humming, rowing, sitting, blowing

Riding, hiding, gliding, sliding

Because I am a verb.

Who didn't learn the alphabet by singing the ABC song? And children in the 1970s watched "Schoolhouse Rock"--the televised cartoon set to rock music--to find out about the parts of speech and the three branches of government.

Elaine Weiner, a teacher at Allen Elementary School in Garden Grove, has used the Troxels' cassettes to teach her students grammar for more than a decade. When they master the basics, she begins lessons on diagraming sentences.

"I'll ask them questions and they'll stop and think and I'll hear them sing the songs," Weiner said.

Gordon Shaw, a UC Irvine physics professor who studies such issues, says the brain naturally looks for patterns of information, such as music or rhymes. And "certain patterns are more conducive to remembering," he said.

Educators too are convinced of a link between music and memory. "The repetition, the rhythm, the melody seem to engage the whole child," said Phyllis Berenbeim, the coordinator of visual and performing arts programs at the Orange County Department of Education.

That's why Fama Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Maranatha Christian Academy in Costa Mesa, has been using "Grammar Songs" for four or five years. "It's another way to learn," she said, "a fun way."

Education supply stores report that parents sometimes buy tapes--whether from the Troxels or from half a dozen competitors--to supplement what's being taught in schools, especially in subjects in which a child is struggling.

"We sell a lot of the math tapes," said Gregg Colbert, owner of the School Shop in Costa Mesa.

Because of occasional references to God or the Bible, however, the Audio Memory learning cassettes also draw a following in Christian schools and among home-school advocates.

Those same religious references make some of the tapes out of bounds for public schools, bound to steer clear by the constitutional separation of church and state. And the market is somewhat limited another way: The Troxels' tapes are geared for students only from second to eighth grades.

Younger children won't understand most of it, Kathy Troxel said.

And the older ones? They simply don't feel "cool" singing:

I'm a verb, verb, verb--I'm an action word.

So put me where the action is 'cause I'm an action word.

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