Auditory Discrimination in Children

Child with fingers stuck in his ears

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Auditory discrimination is the ability to recognize similarities and differences between sounds. Particularly, auditory discrimination allows people to distinguish between phonemes in words. Phonemes are the smallest units of sound in any given language. Auditory discrimination allows a person to tell the difference between words and sounds that are similar as well as words and sounds that are different.

What Is Auditory Discrimination?

A child who has trouble with auditory discrimination may have difficulty telling the difference between words such as "sister" and "sitter" or "cat" and "cot." Overall, the children can't distinguish between the slight differences in the sounds of words.

This problem can sometimes make it hard for children to understand what people are saying. This goes double for children in noisy environments, as classrooms often are or even a child's home can be if they belong to a large family or loud music and televisions routinely blare.

Auditory discrimination plays an important role in both language and reading skill development. In order to achieve literacy, children must have phonemic awareness, so trouble with auditory discrimination can pose challenges to young readers.

If a child was reading a book about flowers that included a section about bees, for example, they would need to be able to notice that the word "bees" is made up of three sounds "b," "ee" and "zz."

Children with auditory discrimination challenges may have trouble remembering the sequences of words and may write words incorrectly as well.


Some children may have difficulties with auditory discrimination. If so, it is important to have the child evaluated. The evaluation and examinations from physicians may be able to pinpoint why the child is having problems in this area, which is widely known as an auditory processing disorder (APD).

Most people don't even have to think about the differences between sounds. It's something the brain automatically does. But in people with APD, there's a malfunction of sorts that occurs that prevents them from discriminating between phonemes.

Children with these disorders are usually not hearing impaired. They just have differences detecting the subtleties in the sounds of words.


APD is a relatively uncommon disorder, with around 5% of American school-age children (2.5 million) diagnosed. The disorder has been linked to low birth weight, lead poisoning, ongoing ear infections, and other health problems. Though some research indicates that more boys may have this disorder than girls, it has not been definitively proven.


An auditory discrimination problem may be found if the child has lasting problems with language and reading. Early intervention is key to getting these children back on track, so don't delay getting treatment. A diagnosis while the child is still young can prevent an auditory discrimination problem from derailing the youth's progress in and outside of school, given that auditory discrimination is necessary for all aspects of one's life.

11 Sources
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By Ann Logsdon
Ann Logsdon is a school psychologist specializing in helping parents and teachers support students with a range of educational and developmental disabilities.