Difficulty with auditory discrimination—the ability to differentiate between words with small differences when you hear them—can affect the communication skills of children and adults. Because of this, people might misinterpret words during conversations and in educational settings. For example, “cat” may sound like “cot” or “fourteen” like “forty.” Children who experience this sometimes struggle to develop strong reading, writing and listening skills.
Often, weak auditory discrimination is a part of a larger auditory processing disorder, which means the brain and ears don’t effectively work together to recognize and interpret sounds like speech. It can also be from undetected hearing loss.
Auditory processing disorders are relatively uncommon, affecting only 3% to 5% of American school-age children. For adults age 55 or older, auditory processing disorders are more common due to age-related hearing loss and cognitive decline. What causes this disorder is frequently unknown, but it can be tied to:
Auditory discrimination skills provide the groundwork for language development, reading and writing. For effective auditory discrimination, people need three things: Phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and speech-in-noise perception.
Children pick up phonological awareness long before they begin to read and sound out words. Phonological awareness is recognizing that speech and words consist of multiple individual sounds together. With this skill, children can understand how and which words rhyme and notice when a letter’s sound is repeated.
Many songs and nursery rhymes involve similar sounds or rhymes that could potentially build this cognitive understanding, such as “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Sing these with your child so they can start to pick up on the sounds, or listen to a song to see if you can pick them out yourself.
Think of phonemic awareness as a step up the phonological awareness ladder. This skill is the development of understanding that certain letters are associated with specific sounds.
Decoding is a natural early part of the reading process. Break down each word by syllable and determine which sound each part makes. Every child must start from the bottom and work their way up to build this skill in order to learn how to read. Reading out loud could help with the development of this awareness.
Speech-in-noise perception is the ability to recognize speech and spoken words in a noisy environment. This is often difficult for people with hearing loss, and having poor speech-in-noise perception can negatively affect your listening skills and recall.
You may often find yourself exposed to environmental noise while talking to someone in public, like at a restaurant or concert. Try sitting in that noise and picking out sounds or speech among it. If you’re unable to push past environmental noise, you might need hearing assistance like hearing aids or speech and language therapy.
To find the root of the problem and receive a diagnosis, a physician needs to evaluate you. If you’re struggling to understand things you’re hearing, talk to an audiologist, speech and language pathologist, or hearing care professional.
Young children should also try an auditory discrimination test, in which a person reads off words and asks the child if they’re the same or different. Other potential auditory processing tests include:
For adults and seniors having trouble, a hearing test with a professional can help determine if hearing loss is a factor.
Treatment of preexisting causes, such as ear infections and central nervous system disorders, can also support your auditory discrimination abilities.
Early intervention is key in preventing long-term side effects, including learning disabilities, delayed speech and difficulty spelling. Working with a speech-language pathologist can minimize these issues for children and provide them with the skills they need to succeed in life and learning. Counseling, art or music therapy and occupational therapy can also benefit auditory discrimination, depending on the cause of the difficulty.
Aside from the skill-building exercises, you can try other auditory discrimination activities. Some of these may include:
These activities can help build the skills necessary to improve auditory discrimination, but talk to your audiologist or speech-language pathologist to ensure you’re taking the right approach to these hearing and listening difficulties.