Auditory Learning in Preschoolers: Tips for Professionals

Article excerpt

When it comes to auditory development, hearing and listening are not the same. Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound. Listening is what the brain does with that sound. Listening requires attention and effortful processing, a much more demanding task than perception (Cole & Flexer, 2011). Advances in hearing technology have led to improved access to sound for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Although this access to sound is the foundation for auditory development, the goal is to achieve auditory learning, the ability to gain new information through listening alone. Children, especially preschoolers, learn much of what they need to know about their world through listening. They learn to negotiate play, make requests, gain new information, and have their needs and desires met by listening to the adults and peers around them. While much of what preschoolers learn is spoken directly to them, they also learn from what they overhear.

Typically, we learn to listen and talk if our brains have access to sound and if they have thousands of hours of listening experience in the first 5 years of life (Dehaene, 2009). But how do we help children who are deaf or hard of hearing learn to listen as early as possible so that they can learn new information through listening? What does it take to help them learn to listen - not just hear? This article describes three factors that must be present in order for preschoolers who are deaf or hard of hearing to acquire these critical auditory learning skills: audiologic management, auditory training and naturally-occurring opportunities for listening.

Audiologic Management

A monumental achievement in the life of a child with hearing loss is to progress from being a new hearing aid or cochlear implant user to attaining the ability to learn by listening. Auditory perceptual development - the process of engaging the brain to listen to and think about sounds - requires guidance from professionals highly qualified in the development of listening and spoken language.

First, pediatrie audiologists must ensure appropriate individualized hearing technology for young children. Digital hearing aids and cochlear implants provide high quality acoustic access to children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Listening and spoken language professionals must work closely with audiologists to provide daily checks of these devices. Without appropriate and adequately maintained devices, auditory development cannot proceed. In addition, preschool teachers must maintain as acoustically appropriate a learning environment as possible for executing structured auditory development tasks. This includes providing classroom acoustic treatments (such as carpet, drapes and other soft wall treatments), limiting background noise by closing doors and eliminating fans, and monitoring students' hearing status through daily listening checks (Estes, 2010).

Auditory Training

Listening skills need to build on one another from the simplest skill (detecting the absence or presence of sound) to the most complex (gaining new information through listening). These skills are established through daily auditory training - highly structured teacher-directed listening activities that follow a prescribed curriculum. Auditory training tasks are based on a hierarchy of auditory skill development that begins with detection (Was there a sound?), proceeds to discrimination (Is this sound different from another sound ?), continues to recognition/identification (What made this sound?), and culminates in comprehension (Is there meaning to this sound?) (Hirsch, 1970; Pollack et al., 1997; Sindrey, 2002). Daily auditory training tasks must be practiced in an environment with minimal background noise.

An auditory training curriculum, such as the Speech Perception Instructional Curriculum and Evaluation (SPICE), provides professionals with an assessment tool for determining present listening levels as well as a hierarchical, step-by-step curriculum useful for setting auditory goals, planning lesson objectives, tracking students' progress and reporting to parents (Biedenstein et al. …