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Teaching Your Tot to Listen

What and how a child speaks depends on what he hears from the language environment around him. Here is how to hone the listening skills of your toddler.

By Denise Lai-Chua BA, B.SocSc (Hons), M.Ed.
This article was first published in Motherhood magazine in June 1995. The Wee Care Baby Institute and Early Education and Preschool Centre provides programmes that encourage listening skills in young children aged 0-24mo and 2-6yo respectively. For more information, please visit website at



I know of a four-year-old Singaporean girl, who speaks with an American accent because her mother says, "she has a keen ear and listens to all these laser discs from the States." At the same time, I teach a boy whose speech was once mottled by the noises of adventure cartoons - "Hee-ah! Ke-poosh! Pow! Destroy!"

These examples point to an important fact - what and how a child speaks depend on what he hears from the language environment around him. I have thrown my hands up in despair many a time at my limitations in getting students to speak Standard English rather than Singlish. I mean, after all, that is what they hear from their family and friends around-the-clock.

Now, while I am not advocating that parents strive to make their children sound like little Margaret Thatchers, I am insisting that they seek to provide the right kinds of verbal input for their children. This is especially important during the formative infant and toddler years when language development is at a "critical period".

Additionally, parents should work towards helping their child to listen well. How often, for example, have you found yourself repeating something over and over again to your toddler who subsequently ignores you or does the exact opposite of what you asked? Behavioural issues aside, there are times when the problem simply lies in the child not having heard what was said accurately enough.

A number of factors form the basis of good listening. These include auditory attention, auditory discrimination, auditory comprehension and auditory memory


Auditory attention refers to the ability to heed the most relevant sounds in the environment and a significant number of children have difficulty with this. They are more concerned with the roar of a bus, a bird's chirping or other extraneous sounds than the on-going conversation.

While the world can be an exciting place for a young child, the inability to attend to important auditory signals can be disruptive and highly frustrating to the parent who is trying to teach the child something. These phrases - "Listen to me. I am talking to you", "Are you listening to me or not?" - may be too familiar for comfort.

When auditory attention is very much impaired, children may be diagnosed as having an attention deficit disorder. This can manifest itself in hyperactivity and sometimes be misinterpreted as flagrant disobedience. Unfortunately, the disorder can also stall language development.

Parents can use a number of game techniques to enhance auditory attention in their child. The two which I describe here should be taken as general guidelines for other creative games.

1. Clever Jack

Clever Jack (a jack-in-the-box) is played by the child who listens as a adult reads off a list of words. This list includes keywords; say, animals, toys or words beginning with the letter "b". Whenever a keyword is uttered, the child must execute a jumping-jack for a point to be earned. A prize is awarded for reaching the pre-agreed criterion of pints (say, seven out of 10 keywords noticed). This criterion itself can be increased as the child becomes more attentive.

2. What did I say?

This game requires more preparation on the part of the parent who must make a recording of clearly-worded instructions against some background noise (for example, when soft music is playing, along a slightly busy road, at the playground). When the tape is played for the child, points are awarded on the basis of how many instructions are needed. Or for more coherence and fun, these instructions can lead to the discovery of a hidden object, or they can teach the child to build or draw something.


Auditory discrimination is necessary to differentiate between words which sound alike. I am sure that all of us have had problems spelling a word or name over the telephone before; how "b" sounds like "d" and "s" like "f"! Children who do not discriminate well when they listen may suddenly find themselves with strange information. For instance, a girl once heard me say, "The door fell from the chair" when I had said, "The doll fell from the chair." Another time, I told a student to "get the (toy) tree" and she cam back with a magnetic number three!

Frequently, problems like these arise because parents themselves do not pronounce their words clearly and so children grow up not making the mental distinction because they have never heard any in the first place! But apart from modifying their own speech, parents can also send their child for formal speech lessons or, as a much cheaper alternative, "practice" auditory discrimination.

1. Gorilla Army
The gorillas of a particular jungle want to drive out the humans who have invaded their territory but they cannot do this without the humans' language and plans. They go to Mr Owl who teaches them.

Mr Owl begins with single words. He places pairs of objects at one end of the field. These objects are common to human life and they sound alike; for example, bun-gun, ball-doll, rope-soap, etc.

The gorillas take turns. They must run and pick out the object which Mr Owl calls out to them one by one. Only those gorillas who make the grade (four out of five words correctly picked) can be trusted enough to be in the invading army.

2. Did I say it right?
There can be some variation to this game but the main principle is for the adult to say something wrong once in a while for the child to correct. The adult can, for example, say a wrong word while telling a story. Alternatively, he could rattle a string of un-associated sentences which may be silly or right; for example, "I am going to red (bed)."


Auditory comprehension relates to understanding the meaning of what has been spoken. Obviously, this is contingent on the child's age and stage of language growth. Two-year-olds are usually documented to have a vocabulary of at least 25 words, four-year-olds have a significantly larger vocabulary which allows them to enjoy simple stories.

Increasing a child's vocabulary often lies in providing a rich source of good linguistic information. I know a mother who refused to baby-talk to her daughter, and by the time this girl was four, she was speaking better than the many six-year-olds I knew!

Personally, I have also discovered that story-telling helps in expanding a child's vocabulary. Stories have the benefit of showing in picture-form what can be an abstract idea. One boy I taught, for instance, had trouble understanding what a dream was until I showed him about a girl who had a dream about a dragon. The dragon was always put within a bubble and thereafter, Peter could report his dreams to his mother every morning!

Another activity a parent can engage in with his child is "Pictures". This is similar to story-telling in a way. The object of "Pictures" is to get the child to identify the right picture for a given word, phrase, action or concept. Even difficult verb-time meanings can be expressed and taught using a sequence of pictures; such as "will drink" - "drinking" - "has drunk".


Auditory memory is a term that is given for the ability to hold, in memory, what has been heard. This skill is involved in, for instance, remembering a friend's telephone number or address before scribbling it down.

Children who have problems with auditory memory appear to be disobedient but the sad fact is that they have simply forgotten what has been told to them. Deficits in auditory memory can also hinder normal language development. After all, if a child quickly forgets the words and phrases he hears others use, how could he possibly use them himself the next time round?

To train up auditory memory, a parent must help his child learn strategies to keep increasing mounts of information in mental store for increasing periods of time. This can be accomplished through mnemonic devices. Two that are suitable for children are repetition ("repeat what you want to remember many times") and music-action cues ("I am a teapot, short and stout…").

Parents can also play games with their children which require the use of auditory memory on a consistent basis.

1. Finder's keeper

The adult hides an appealing object somewhere in the house. He gives the child verbal directions to uncover the object. For increasing difficulty, the adult can give two-part or three-part directions at one go, "up the stairs and down the hall". Older children may even be blindfolded. And as the name has it, the child who finds the object gets to keep it.

2. Finder's keeper

The child is a parrot who must say, in exact imitation, all that his master says. Obviously, the challenge of this game is for the child to repeat increasing lengths of utterances. For even greater difficulty, the parrot may be asked to repeat the sentence only after a break of three to five minutes.

Reproduced with permission. Article from

The Wee Care Baby Institute and Early Education and Preschool Centre provides programmes that encourage listening skills in young children aged 0-24mo and 2-6yo respectively. For more information, please visit website at

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