Listening and Literacy

Why is it important for kids with hearing loss to learn to use audition? One of the things we know is that phonics are a basis of literacy. Children learn to read by making sound-symbol associations and then sounding out words. Children learn that the sound /b/ is in the sound at the beginning of the word ball. If they learn what an /a/ sounds like and what an /l/ sounds like they can put the word /b-a-l/ together.

We know that the younger the child, the more cortical real estate. Younger brains are more plastic then older brains. Early language skills are the foundation for reading abilities. The more words a family uses in speaking to a child, the larger the child’s vocabulary. We know that reading difficulties contribute to academic difficulties. A child’s reading proficiency at 3rd grade is a significant indicator of academic success.

A typical hearing child learns about 10 new words each day. What does it take to learn 10 words a day? For a child to learn 10 words/day they need to hear lots of words in a day – they need to have good auditory access. A child’s listening vocabulary will lead to a child’s speaking vocabulary, which leads to a reading vocabulary, which leads to a writing vocabulary. To quote Dan Ling “The better they hear, the better they learn.”  What can we do to help the hearing impaired children we work with learn the language they need to develop literacy?

So what has to happen?

First you have to hear, then you can learn to use hearing to listen. Once a child is listening, then they can start to use listening to understand. And when they begin to understand then they are ready to use language, to build phonics skills and to develop literacy skills.

What can we do to help our children learn to develop these skills?

  1. Those of us working with children need to be vigilant in helping to focus them to listen. Point out sounds around you and help children to focus on sounds around us. Listening first.
  2. Talk, talk, talk about everything that is happening – what they are doing, what they are eating, what is happening as they go for a walk. When I walk down the street and see parents or nanny’s walking down the street with children but not talking to them, it takes everything I have not to scream at the adults. Talk talk talk.
  3. Kids need practice to learn to talk and respond. Give them a turn – a chance to respond. It is easy to fill in words when we ask kids questions. Don’t answer for them. Just pause, give them a chance to respond. If they do not, answer, but next time, give them a chance again to fill in. It helps if there are two adults, or an older child, who can be good models for language. Just keep providing demonstrations and kids will get it.
  4. Try to control the listening environment. Turn off TV, radio, dishwasher so that it is quiet and the child has the opportunity to learn to listen and learn. Several things affect perception. It is easier to hear when close, so start close and build skills when close. As children develop skills you can increase the distance. And when working on more difficult skills come close again.
  5. The auditory sandwich. Remember we are building listening first so we should be asking kids to listen. If the child cannot understand using listening, provide some visual input, and then repeat using listening to help the child build listening skills. Listen, look, listen. Sometimes I do listen, listen, look, listen, just to give a little extra change to listening.
  6. Work to expand language skills. If a child says “more milk” we need to expand the sentence. “Do you want more milk? I like milk. I want more milk. Should we get milk from the refrigerator?
  7. When a child does not respond, let’s not assume that they really did not hear. They may not feel confident in what they heard but let’s give them a chance. Ask them what they heard. What did you hear? What do you think I said?
  8. And Read Read Read. It is a wonderful way to provide language, to discuss things present in the books, including story lines, feelings etc.


We can provide children with hearing loss with lots of language stimulation. We can provide exposure to all kinds of experiences that provide lots of language, Let’s just remember that the more auditory language we expose children to, the more opportunity they have to learn auditory language, and the more auditory language they learn them better the chance of developing good literacy skills.

About Jane Madell

Jane Madell has a consulting practice in pediatric audiology. She is an audiologist, speech-language pathologist, and LSLS auditory verbal therapist, with a BA from Emerson College and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Her 45+ years experience ranges from Deaf Nursery programs to positions at the League for the Hard of Hearing (Director), Long Island College Hospital, Downstate Medical Center, Beth Israel Medical Center/New York Eye and Ear Infirmary as director of the Hearing and Learning Center and Cochlear Implant Center. Jane has taught at the University of Tennessee, Columbia University, Downstate Medical School, and Albert Einstein Medical School, published 7 books, and written numerous books chapters and journal articles, and is a well known international lecturer.

1 Comment

  1. Every day I thank St. Patrick’s School in Kent, Ohio and my wonderful teacher Sister Mary Carmel for teaching me by the true Phonic method how to read. The whole course took half the year, it was the greatest game in town, and afterward I could read anything. I was told in the fifth grade I read at the eighth grade level or higher. I actually read “around the World in Eighty Days” during Christmas vacation that year, and loved it and saw the movie a few years later, fully understanding the whole show. Get those kids reading by Phonics and they will bless you.

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