Pre-phonemic listening skills

Pre-phonemic listening skills

Before they begin to speak, and certainly before they develop literacy, children demonstrate the ability to distinguish among non-speech environmental sounds (e.g., a beanbag falling on a wooden floor versus a plastic ball falling on a wooden floor), and to identify objects by the sound they make (e.g., a horn, a bell, a helicopter, etc.).

Below are a few speech therapy activities for exercising these early listening skills. These are not just for kids who can't talk yet. Think of these as warm-up or introductory activities to do before practicing more advanced skills. I have used them with kids as old as fourth and fifth grade. The goal for most children is to become more conscious of differences in sounds, and in their ability to hear and process those sounds.

1. Sound screen

Gather 6-10 things that make noise (more if you are extra inspired). These may include:

Musical instruments, such as a kazoo, harmonica, whistle, tambourine, or castinets.

A pair of wooden sticks for tapping together.

A set of keys for rattling

A bottle, either for tapping or to blow across the top to produce a musical note; may be plastic or glass, or one of each.

Stand or sit across from your child with some sort of visual barrier between you so you can make noises without your child seeing what you're doing. One by one, make a noise with each object and ask your child to practice listening skills by identifing the object that made the noise. After your child guesses, show the object you used.

Give your child a turn to be the one who makes the noises for you, and you practice your listening skills.

When done, place the noisemakers in an open box or on an accessible shelf or table for a few days, and encourage your child to play with them independently.

2. Sound shake

For this activity, you'll need about an even number (a dozen or so) of small plastic containers that are not see-through. Old 35mm film canisters are ideal, but the digital age has made it less likely that you'll have a bunch of them lying around. Those colored plastic eggs that people put candy in at Easter also work well. The drawback is that they don't close as securely, so there is the possibility of them coming open and spilling their contents.

Put small objects like beads, paper clips, rubber bands, rice, dry beans, salt, etc., into pairs of containers.

Place all the containers on a table or on the floor between you and your child.

Pick up two of the containers; shake first one, then the other. Ask your child if they sound the same or different.

If they sound the same, open both to see what made the sound. If different, put one down and pick up another container and repeat the test. Continue until you find a match, then open them to verify that they really are the same.

When done, leave the containers in a place where they are available for your child to practice listening skills independently. Safety first, though--don't leave the containers where they can be reached by infants, toddlers, or others who are likely to put small objects in their mouths, since the items in the containers could present a choking hazard.

3. Sound scan

Stand outside in the yard, on a porch, in a park, or on a sidewalk with your child. Close your eyes together for about a minute (it does not have to be exact) and listen quietly. Then open your eyes and discuss what you heard while you were listening.

  • What did you hear that was far away?
  • What did you hear that was near by?
  • What did you hear that was loud?
  • What did you hear that was quiet?
  • What did you hear that made a high sound?
  • What did you hear that made a low sound?
  • What did you hear that sounded big?
  • What did you hear that sounded small?
4. Percussion in the kitchen

The name for this activity comes from Kitchen Band, a fun song by my friend Kent Dutchersmith, who has recorded several CDs under the name of Kentucky T. Dutchersmith and the Rubber Band. Gather up a bunch of non-breakable kitchen utensils like pots and pans, plastic or metal pitchers, whisks, wooden spoons, and so on. Glass or ceramic items are nice, too, as they have their own sound characteristics; you'll have to be the judge of what your are comforable including. In any case, I don't recommend using your fine crystal, your best china, or any irreplaceable treasures. accepts no responsibility for broken items!

Experiment with tapping different items together and talk about the different sounds you get. See if you can play a simple tune like Hot Crossed Buns, Three Blind Mice, or Mary Had a Little Lamb.

You'll probably also want to talk about how to make quieter sounds by tapping instead of banging, since loud sounds can hurt our ears.

5. Sound localization

Have your child stand in the middle of a room wearing a blindfold or with hands over eyes (no peeking!). Toss a beanbag onto the floor a meter or so from where your child is standing, and have your child turn toward where the beanbag landed. Remove the blindfold so your child can see how accurate s/he was.

As a variation on this activity, you can have your child hold a beanbag and try to hit yours after you toss it.

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