A New Take on Learning to Listen Sounds

By Hearing First Team January 19, 2016

LSL Day by Day | LSL strategies, early brain development, listening and spoken language, parent advice

"Learning to Listen Sounds" are one of the hallmarks of teaching spoken language through listening. Learn why they’re so important, how to help families implement them in daily routine, and what common pitfalls to avoid.

“Learning to Listen Sounds are founded on early developmental milestones for understanding language, expressive development, and speech sound development.”

“Learning to Listen Sounds” are one of the hallmarks of teaching spoken language through listening. For those new to Listening and Spoken Language (LSL), the sounds checklist is used in auditory teaching activities where objects commonly used in early infant and child routines are accompanied with sounds that are associated with them. Some examples are “Moo” for cow or “Choo-choo” for train.

Not all Learning to Listen Sounds are farm animals or modes of transport. They can include the beginning sounds, phrases, and commands that are commonly spoken in early infant and child routines: sounds like “Mmmm,” when something smells good or “Uh-oh,” when something spills.

Learning to Listen Sounds are a normal part of spoken language acquisition in early learning. Children begin to match people and things with labels as they build understanding through play. These are the first baby steps (so to speak!) in very early vocabulary development.

Why “Meow” Matters so Much!

For those well versed in LSL, the use of Learning to Listen Sounds will be old hat, but it can be helpful to reflect on why we use them in early childhood development.

It’s particularly important to engage children who are deaf or hard of hearing in these sound-object association activities for many reasons.*

  • They encourage children to attend to sounds.
  • They help children learn to recognize that sounds are different (auditory discrimination).
  • They help children learn that different sounds have different meaning.
  • They allow children to experiment producing different sounds.
  • They facilitate the development of communication attention.

(Source: Ellen Rhoades, Ed.S, Certified AVT therapist)

Learning to Listen Sounds are founded on early developmental milestones for understanding language, expressive development, and speech sound development. Used in combination with LSL strategies, they help grow a child’s brain for listening and spoken language.

Use It

We’ve put together a Learning to Listen handout we recommend for children with hearing loss. These sounds and words have been selected because of their acoustic makeup — they have lots of information in the low frequencies, which makes them easier to hear for beginning listeners.

Implementing Early Sounds in Normal Routines

Everyday routines are teaching moments. Children thrive with predictability and look to their parents as their first and best teachers. Learning in the comfort and safety of their normal routine — when they can predict what will happen next — helps them cope with transition, learn social skills, and build vocabulary. Daily patterns provide the perfect opportunity to practicing new sounds and words. For example…

  • At Home. Think about short familiar phrases you can use with daily practices. An example might be saying, "Oh! You must be hungry! Mmmm, these sweet potatoes are yummy!” at meal time.
  • Out and About. Likewise, use errands as an opportunity to explore the wider world. Next time you’re at the post-office, talk about the pretty stamps or count the boxes.

How to Use the Checklist

This checklist can be used as a tool for planning or implementing intervention activities with infants and young children. The Learning to Listen Sounds on the list were chosen because… 

  • They are easy to hear for most babies wearing hearing devices 
  • They follow normal language development 
  • They are fun for babies and parents to play with together 

Families and LSL interventionists can work together to select items from the list to engage the child in home and intervention activities. When selecting Learning to Listen Sounds we encourage LSL professionals to… 


Draw From the Everyday 

Many sounds on the checklist relate to things you’d find in most homes — even things found in common children’s toys or in common children's books. In early childhood language development, children first learn words they hear in daily routines because the adults in their home are more likely to reference those things often. Some of the earliest things children learn to group are animals (cow, duck), transportation (train, plane), toys (ball, jump rope), and actions (dance, sing). 

Consider Family Culture and Context 

When choosing which sounds to work on, consider the family's culture and environment. Did they receive a beloved toy from an abuela that they rarely part with? That toy would be easily accessible, giving them a chance to practice repeating that sound or word throughout the day. Is there a bus route that runs right through their neighborhood? Consider the sounds of the bus for starters. 

Include Parents in the Decision Making Process 

In addition to being a child’s first and best teacher, parents will be the ones working most closely with that child outside the hours of their weekly intervention session. See if they have any ideas of objects that would be easily accessible, and help them find opportunities in their daily routine. 

Things to Watch Out For

Just as Learning to Listen Sounds are a common tool, there are common pitfalls to consider.

  1. Forgetting to contextualize the sounds for a child’s culture. The Learning to Listen Sounds listed are in English. The word “ball” is often chosen because it’s easy for an English-speaking child to learn to say and hear “ba” and “aw” — but the Spanish version of that word, “pelota,” may not be your first choice in terms of sounds to learn for developing language. You might choose different words if working with a Spanish-speaking family — words that are better in terms of acoustics and vowel production.
  2. Failure to progress past those first sounds. While it’s great to build a repertoire of Learning to Listen sounds you build in with your play and routines — it’s easy to fall into a pattern when you camp out on those early sounds and don’t progress beyond them at a pace which matches what a child may be capable of or ready to be challenged by.

    Most Learning to Listen sounds are only needed for a very short time before the child learns the actual word and the sounds become a cue for comprehension. Reinforcing these beginning sounds is good — but they are designed to move the child from beginning sounds into true vocabulary words. The child’s understanding will move forward — so make sure to move with them!

Be watching for a future post, where we’ll go beyond those first Learning to Listen words and share ideas about moving beyond Learning to Listen sounds. How about you? What are your favorite play routines to implement Learning to Listen sounds into your daily life?

Citation: Rhoades, E.A. (2007). Sound-object associations. In S. Easterbrooks, & E. Estes (Eds.), Helping children who are deaf and hard of hearing learn spoken language (pp. 181-188). Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

LSL Day by Day | LSL strategies, early brain development, listening and spoken language, parent advice

About the Author

Hearing First Team At Hearing First, we want all children to benefit from the availability of newborn hearing screening, the advances in technology, and the early learning services in their communities. We want all children to have the opportunity to take advantage of access to sound – a critical building block for future success.