Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Hearing from Thirty-seven to Sixty Months - An Overviewclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Lori Leibold, University of North Carolina

Hearing continues to improve in the three- to five-year period as children are learning about the important features of speech. One way that children learn about speech and language is by gaining experience listening to different speakers in a variety of contexts. Young children find it difficult to attend to speech and other sounds when competing background sounds are present.

Sound Separation - Listening in the Preschool and School Classroom

In a typical classroom, children must be able to "hear out" important sounds from a background of many sounds. For example, Audrey is expected to follow the verbal instructions of her teacher even though other children might be speaking, or the air conditioner might be turned on, or both. Audrey's teacher has noticed that she seems to understand her instructions much better when the room is quiet and she talks to her in a clear voice.

Separating important sounds like speech from other background sounds is more difficult for younger children than for older children and adults. For example, Nico's preschool teacher found that the children in her classroom did not seem to pay attention to what she was saying very well when traffic noise on the road outside the school was loud.

Unfortunately, most classrooms are noisy and contain distracting sounds. These distracting sounds make it challenging for three- to five-year-old children to hear and learn about sound. These challenges are even greater for children with hearing loss, children with speech and language problems and children with a native language different than that spoken in the classroom. Professional organizations are encouraging school districts to adopt strict architectural standards that limit how much noise and reverberation allowed in the classroom. Currently, most classrooms do not meet these standards.

Discovering the Important Cues for Speech: Lack of Perceptual Flexibility

Researchers know that speech cues are "redundant". This means that there are multiple cues that help children identify which speech sounds they are listening to. It is difficult to hear some of these redundant cues when excessive noise or reverberation is present. Adults can "fill in" these missing cues based on their past experience with sound. However, young children have a harder time understanding speech when only one or a few cues are available to them.

Adults are also flexible listeners. This means that they can rely on different cues to identify speech depending on what they are listening to. Children do not seem to listen in a flexible way. Instead, they have trouble categorizing speech when the listening situation is abruptly changed.

Leibold, L. (2007). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Auditory Development 37 - 60 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 8. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development