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Auditory Memory in Children

Auditory memory is a skill that often requires direct instruction and extra effort to develop.  This is particularly true for children with hearing loss, auditory processing deficits, attention deficits and language delays.  

Did you ever think of how much we rely on auditory memory as adults in our daily life routines? 

Auditory memory is used in obvious forms such as remembering a few items when you run into the supermarket on the way home from work.  Perhaps taking a phone message at home for a family member (for those of us that still use a family/house phone).  Remembering the ingredients you just read from a recipe when you go to the pantry to retrieve them. Even having a casual conversation with a friend.

How about reading?

We use our auditory memory when we read.  If we didn’t, then each sentence would not seem to be related to the one before.  When we read we multi-task in order to understand what we are reading.  We accumulate new information with each sentence.

As fluent readers, we simultaneously draw conclusions, make predictions and opinions.  We do this for every type of reading passage such as a news article, a Facebook post or a novel.  

When children are just learning to read they work so hard on decoding each new word.  Often a new reader gets to the end of the sentence and doesn’t even remember what he/she just finished reading.  It could seem like a bunch of single words rather than an entire thought if you don’t read “cumulatively” or rely on auditory memory skills.  Reading comprehension requires auditory memory. Even more so when there is less picture or other contextual support within a text as kids reach the middle of elementary school.

You might say auditory memory is actually a pre-requisite for understanding what you read.

It’s not just about remembering as in retaining what you read.  It’s about processing what you read in order to understand at all. 

Think about writing.

As literate adults we read and write fluently.  Probably so fluently that we don’t even realize all the brain power that’s behind it.  Think about an early elementary aged student just learning to spell and sound out words.  Each time a child sounds out a word to spell they rely on auditory memory to “hold their place” while they physically draw out each letter.  

Often young children are challenged when asked to create a sentence and try to write it.  Imagine the process for a young student.  First, starting to sound out each sound of the first word and then having to refer to the sentence in memory to recall the next word.  Actually sequencing each sound to each word and writing it on the paper takes a lot of focus (because after all it’s a newly emerging skill for a young student).  Then as each word is completed there is the need to reflect back to the original sentence which is stored mentally (using auditory memory) to recall the next word.  For a young one this multi-tasking mental process can be truly exhausting.

How does auditory memory grow?

As infants we are exposed to many natural situations that help nourish our early auditory language and auditory memory development.  Singing songs multiple times, nursery rhymes and “This Little Piggy” type finger plays within the daily routine all reinforce auditory memory.  Reading the same books over and over to a baby helps strengthen language structure and also auditory memory.  

It’s always fun when a child picks up a familiar book and says “I’m going to read this to you” and then proceeds to recite it from memory.  Often children are thinking the words to familiar stories as the adult reads long before we notice they have the ability to actually memorize it.

As toddlers begin to understand spoken language the adults around them typically increase the length of their messages.  The daily talk around the child includes playful verbal exchanges as well as simple explanations of things in the environment.  Eventually the child is able to listen to more “wordy” books with less pictures.  By kindergarten most typically developing children can listen to simple chapter books without visual supports. 

Continue to expand the length and complexity of conversation and explanations about the world as your child can handle it.

How do I know if my child’s skills are age appropriate?

First you need to make sure expectations are appropriate for the age of the child. Generally the rule is 1 listed item per year of age. Seven items by the age of 6-8 is considered peak performance (equal to that of an adult). So, this means a 2 year old should be able to remember 2 items at a time. For example, “go find the teddy bear and the ball”. By 2.5 years of age we look for the ability to transition to 3 items and so on.  

For a child with hearing impairment we need to pay special attention to the hearing age. This is the length of time the child has had FULL access to sound across the entire speech frequency range. This is the minimal expectation for performance level. From there we work to stretch those skills further with the goal of closing the gap between performance and the child’s actual age expectations.

What can we do to help Auditory memory develop?

  • If you have a little child just beginning to talk monitor if the child can understand a familiar word when it is embedded within a phrase or sentence or if the key word needs to be at the end or in isolation. Once the child shows recognition of a familiar word from the middle of an utterance it’s likely he/she can begin to attend to 2 items. You might say “Let’s get the bunny AND the bear”.
  • Once the child has more language to play with you can give clues to guess an object. Try to get the child to repeat the clues before making a guess. 
  • Play games such as “Going on a picnic” where each person tells an item they will bring. Each player needs to repeat all of the previously named items in the same order they were created.
  • Practice TELLING stories without a book. This tends to be of high interest for a child if you make the story about real events and “characters” from your own family. Over time try to extend the length of the story to stretch your child’s overall auditory attention span.
  • For a real challenge play memory (aka “concentration”) with picture or word pairs. Turn cards face down in equal rows. Each player turns over 2 cards to look for the match. HOWEVER, in this version of the game the player picks up the card, looks at it and names it but DOES NOT show the other players. The other players have to listen and remember the words instead of seeing the picture.
  • Look for natural opportunities to expand auditory memory. Before going into the food store name 4 items for the child to remember. This type of task is more of a challenge because there are many distractions between the time the child hears the list of items and when he/she will see them in the store.
  • Use the language of “memory” and show your child the strategies that you use to help your own memory. For example, you might say a number over and over. You can show how you count items out on your fingers to help cue memory. Sometimes people close their eyes and mouth the words slightly as they subvocalize the words to themselves.
  • Play games where you time a child to go collect a short list of items you name from around the house. For example, “Go get a spoon, a napkin, a coat hanger and the toothpaste”. (You might want to use a pen/paper so YOU remember the items you listed). How about a clean up game. “Put away the red shirt, the sneakers, the soda can and the laundry basket.”
  • Be creative and have some fun with it. Most of all, be patient! For some children this is an area of deficit and it may be slow to develop despite your best effort.

Got any other favorite games or advice? Please feel free to drop them into the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Pamela Talbot

Pamela Talbot

Pamela is an ASHA certified Speech-Langauge Pathologist dually certified as a teacher of the hearing impaired. She is a Listening and Spoken Language LSLS-AVT. Pamela has extensive experience training parents and professionals at the international level.

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