How to Improve Children's Auditory Discrimination

Help your preschoolers identify and interpret speech sounds with these auditory discrimination activities.

How to Improve Children's Auditory Discrimination

How to Improve Children's Auditory Discrimination

Before children can learn to read, they need to learn how to identify speech sounds, break words into their speech sounds, and combine speech sounds to form words. These skills are components of a sensory process known as auditory discrimination.

You can help children develop their auditory discrimination skills using engaging sensory activities.

A young child in a red shirt wearing a pair of black headphones and holding one of the earphones against her ear.


What is auditory discrimination?

Auditory discrimination is the ability to differentiate between similar sounds. Auditory discrimination helps children identify phonemes, the individual sounds that combine to form words.

Auditory discrimination is an important pre-literacy skill that improves as children age. Young children need to learn basic auditory discrimination and other sensory development skills, such as visual discrimination, before learning to read.

Why is auditory discrimination important?

Auditory discrimination allows children to distinguish between the sounds of similar words. For example, auditory discrimination can help children tell the difference between the sounds of the words cow and now or cat and can.

Auditory discrimination also helps children identify phonemes. For example, children who have learned auditory discrimination skills can break up the word dog into its phonemes: /d/, /o/, and /g/. This skill is essential as children learn letter sounds and learn to sound out unfamiliar words.

Children who struggle with auditory discrimination or have an auditory processing disorder may have trouble identifying and distinguishing between similar phonemes, making it difficult to understand speech, learn to read, and follow verbal instructions.

Auditory discrimination skills

Before children can master auditory discrimination, they must strengthen other pre-literacy skills, including phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, and speech-in-noise perception.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is a broader term for sound recognition and refers to the ability to hear and manipulate sound units in spoken language. It includes identifying and using different sounds such as syllables, onset, rhyme, and phonemes. Phonological awareness skills include recognizing words in a sentence, responsiveness to rhyme, as well as blending, adding, subtracting, and substituting syllables and sounds in a word (e.g. adding /s/ to the end of the word cat to make cats or substituting the sound /c/ with /m/ to read the word mat).

Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to manipulate phonemes, or sound units, and distinguish between sounds within words (e.g., identifying the individual sounds /b/, /a/, /t/ in the word bat). Phonemic awareness can help children recognize new words based on their phonemes.

Speech-in-noise perception

Speech-in-noise perception is the ability to distinguish spoken words from other sounds. Speech-in-noise perception helps children identify speech in noisy environments and focus on speech in an environment with a lot of background noise, such as a classroom or playground. 

Auditory discrimination activities

Activities are a great way to strengthen children's auditory discrimination skills. With brightwheel's lesson plan feature, you can create a custom curriculum of lessons and activities and track children’s progress toward your learning goals.

Try these activities with your preschoolers to strengthen their auditory discrimination skills.

Hearing hike

This outdoor activity helps children learn to listen carefully and identify sounds in nature.

Go outside with your preschoolers, have them close their eyes, and listen to the sounds around them. After a minute, have them name the sounds they hear, such as passing cars, wind rustling in trees, or birds chirping.

Identifying instruments

This activity helps children learn to identify and distinguish between the sources of sounds.

For this activity, you'll need different musical instruments. Play a few notes on the instruments to show your preschoolers that each instrument makes a different sound. Then, have them close their eyes as you play one of the instruments. Ask your preschoolers to identify the instrument you played based on its sound.

A little girl sitting on the floor and holding a pair of mallets above a xylophone.


Animal names

This activity helps children learn to identify the phonemes within words.

For this activity, you'll need pictures of different animals your preschoolers are familiar with. You can use animal flashcards, cut pictures from magazines, or print pictures you find online.

Show your preschoolers a picture of an animal and ask them to say the name of the animal. Then, ask them to say the sound they hear at the beginning of the animal's name. If your preschoolers know how to identify final phonemes, you can also ask them to say the sound they hear at the end of the animal's name.

Rhyming flashcards

This group activity improves children's phonemic awareness by teaching them to create rhyming pairs.

For this activity, you'll need a set of rhyming flashcards. Cut out the flashcards before teaching this activity.

Split your preschoolers into two groups. Give each child in the first group a flashcard. Give each child in the second group a flashcard that rhymes with a card from the first group. Help your preschoolers work together to find the corresponding cards and create rhyming pairs.

Guess who

This activity helps children identify initial phonemes and teaches them that the same phonemes can appear in different words.

Have your preschoolers sit together in a circle. Ask them to guess the name you're going to say, then enunciate and elongate the initial phoneme of the name of one of the children. If the child's name begins with a stop consonant (e.g., /b/, /d/, /p/, /t/, /k/, or /g/), repeat the sound multiple times instead of elongating it (e.g., “/d-d-d-d/ Dylan”). If more than one child's name has the same initial sound, encourage the children to guess multiple names.

Picky puppets

This activity encourages children to think of words that begin with the same initial sound.

For this activity, you'll need an animal puppet.

Introduce the children to the puppet and tell them that the puppet only eats foods that start with the same sound as the type of animal it is. Give the children a few examples of foods that begin with the same initial phoneme as the animal, then encourage the children to think of other foods that the puppet would eat. ("This is Cathy Cat. Cathy only likes to eat foods that start with the /k/ sound. Cathy likes to eat carrots, cake, and corn. Can you think of any other foods that start with /k/ that Cathy would like?")

Connect the sounds

This activity teaches children to blend phonemes to form words.

Choose a short, one-syllable word. Ask the child to put the word's phonemes together to form the word. ("If I put /b/ and /ook/ together, what word do you hear?") If they’re having trouble connecting the phonemes, have them repeat after you as you say the phonemes slowly and gradually speed up the repetition to blend the phonemes together.

Build children's pre-literacy skills with auditory discrimination activities

Teaching children auditory discrimination concepts with fun activities gives them a foundation they'll build upon as they learn to read in kindergarten. These simple, educational activities support their auditory discrimination skills as they learn to identify speech sounds, manipulate sounds, and combine phonemes to form words.

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