Helping all children become happy learners

Auditory Processing


Between the input of sounds arriving at our ears and our conscious mind making sense of them lies auditory processing. It is our ability to sort what we hear so we attend to the important bits and try to make sense of it. For the purpose of learning, auditory processing is our ability to recognise and understand spoken language. This can be broken down into four parts:

Auditory Input

Perception of sound by ear

It's an obvious statement but hearing speech requires working ears! Young children are prone to infections of the ear, nose and throat and at some time in the first six or seven years will experience temporary and partial deafness as a result of otitis media, more commonly known as glue ear. Some children can have repeated episodes and this can lead to problems with their phonological awareness. Teachers of younger school children should alway be alert to their students hearing needs particularly during the 'coughs and colds' season. Parents who are concerned about their child's hearing should consider requesting an audiology appointment.

Assuming the ear is working appropriately the second stage is for the sound to be recognised by the auditory perception system. There is a minimum volume of sound that is required in order for attentional processes to be aware of the speech or sound. If the sound level is below this threshold then attention is not triggered. This perceptive threshold is not fixed and varies between individuals and within the individual depending on a number of factors. These include, for example, how much the individual is attentionally absorbed in an activity already; levels of background noise and tiredness. Another factor is that some children can be more or less sensitive to sounds as a consequence of sensory needs.

Sound is recognised as speech

Filtering out recognisable speech sounds from background noise is the next stage in processing auditory input. This involves having an awareness of the difference between sounds generated by people when they talk and other sounds. It is earliest stage in the processes involved in phonological awareness. It is often assumed that all children have the ability to discriminate between speech and non-speech sounds. However, there is evidence that some children do not naturally tune in to the human voice and prioritise its importance. This may be particularly so for some ASD children.

Whether we hear speech and begin processing it also depends on us attending to the sound. Gaining attention through speech usually requires us to prefix what we want to say with an 'attend to me' stimulus such as saying the child's name. For teachers, the use of a whole class 'attend to me' word or phrase such as "OK class, eyes and ears on me" may not work for all children. Both ADHD and ASD children who are absorbed in an activity may not necessarily respond to whole class cues. Some young ASD children may also struggle with the concept of being part of a collective group of children and fail to recognise that they should be doing the same as their classmates.

Phonological decoding

At this stage individual units of sound, called phonemes, are recognised by being matched to long term memory 'files'. This requires what is known as phonemic awareness: an understanding of the sounds that are part of the language being heard. 

The sound that makes up each phoneme and also the total number of phonemes used, varies across different languages. The language or languages that we are exposed to in early childhood determine the phonemes that we learn. For most children they are usually acquired simply and naturally through daily exposure to these languages. However, when formally learning a new language as an older child or adult we sometimes struggle to 'hear' phonemes that are not used in our first language(s). We may not recognise them at all or mistake them for a phoneme in our own language. These difficulties make learning a new language a challenge for most people. For some children this failure to discern a sound or recognise it correctly occurs whilst trying to naturally acquire their own language. This leads to difficulties with both receptive and expressive language development. There are a number of potential causes for this including hearing difficulties; changes in the primary language exposed to and auditory processing difficulties.

As the phonemes are assembled, in the order received, patterns emerge which are the basis of morphemes. These are the smallest units of meaning and may be words or parts of words. 

The basis of understanding lies in correctly identifying the phonemes spoken and compiling them to derive meaning.

Bullet Point
Bullet Point

Phonological Discrimination

The ability of the individual to recognise subtle differences and patterns in speech sounds. This includes recognising accents and dialect variations of the same phoneme. It also helps identify lexical stress in sounds and syllables so as to be able to distinguish differences in similar sounding words and homographs such as conTRACT and CONtract or ENtrance and enTRANCE.

Back to list of Development Articles