Auditory Memory & Why Your Child Forgets What She Hears

Auditory Memory Why Your Child Forgets What She Hears

Takeaway: Auditory memory is how we take in, process, store, and recall the things we hear. If your child has poor auditory memory, she’ll struggle to learn language and keep up in class. But a trained specialist can help strengthen her auditory memory and compensate for its weaknesses where needed.  

Your child has to listen to and process speech every day. But what does this involve?

There’s more to listening than just taking in sound. To process what people say to us, we have to separate their speech from background noise, pick out individual words, interpret those words, and so on. And all of this is possible only when we have a temporary space to ‘put’ the sounds we’re trying to process. This space is our auditory memory.

Auditory memory is a way of remembering ‘sound images’ for a short period of time.

We’ve heard of short-term, long-term, and working memory. But there are other components to memory, too. And sensory memory is one of them. That is, our ability to store an impression of sensory information (sights, smells, sounds, tastes, etc.) for short periods of time, even after the input has gone. For example, our sensory memory for smell helps us remember a perfume’s scent even after the wearer has walked past us. Similarly, our sensory memory for sound (a.k.a. auditory memory) converts the sounds we hear into ‘sound images’ that our brains can store, process, and recall for about 4 to 6 seconds. (‘Sound image’ might seem a bit confusing, but it’s a convenient way of describing how our brains transform sounds into memories.)

Your child constantly uses her auditory memory, but especially so to follow along in class.

She’ll need it through the day for things like using the name of someone she just met or reciting back a phone number you just told her. But it’ll be most important in class, where everything revolves around listening to a teacher and following her instructions. She could have no problem answering a question she’s just read but will struggle if the same question is asked aloud instead. Children with auditory memory difficulties often come across as being easily distractible when really they’re struggling to follow what’s being discussed. It’s like their memory is a sieve that’s leaking most of what it gets.

Most damaging of all, auditory memory difficulties affect the way your child learns to read, write, and spell.

Children with poor auditory memory find it harder to learn language because they can’t match the sounds they hear with the letters they see on a page. This affects their ability to read, write, spell, and understand maths. (Interestingly, children with dyslexia often have auditory memory difficulties — another reason they might struggle to spell.) Some studies show that these early literacy problems make it so much harder for children to succeed later on in school and in their career, unless they get the right kind of support.

The good news is that we can help your child with her auditory memory difficulties. And our ally is the magic of ‘brain plasticity’.

All of us can gradually change our brains (both structure and function) at any point in life — even well into adulthood. And your child can use this plasticity to reprogramme her brain. Just like she can learn to run longer and faster with regular practice, she can improve her auditory memory with practice, too. So, she can realistically aim for things like remembering words she hears, following simple directions, taking notes while listening, narrating a story you told her, and more.

The secret is to help her understand her needs and compensate for any weaknesses.

A speech and language therapist can help your child through well-planned individual sessions, but there are small things you can do at home, too. Here are a few examples:

  • Break up information into smaller chunks since that takes up less auditory working memory. So, you’ll say something, pause, then say the next thing. And instead of rattling off a string of instructions, you’ll break them up and say each one in turn — repeating yourself where necessary.
  • Encourage her to rehearse information vocally until she can remember it silently. For example, if you’ve just told her how to do something, she’ll start by repeating those instructions out loud. The act of speaking will help strengthen the memory of what she has to do. And after doing this for a bit, she’ll begin to whisper the instructions softer and softer until she stops relying on her vocalisation completely. Now she’ll be repeating the instructions silently in her head. This exercise is like using training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle.
  • Use visual learning where possible to compensate for auditory challenges. So, she can engage her brain through sight by playing around with pictures, mind maps, spider diagrams, charts, infographics, and more. She can practise summarising chapters using keywords along with catchy icons and symbols. And to stay on schedule, she can write things down in a diary or visual timetable instead of trying to remember what someone said.
  • Teach her to explain her needs to others. The more open she is, the more people can help her. For example, her teachers will know to repeat instructions or key lesson points where necessary. And her friends will be more patient when she’s struggling to follow a story they’re telling her.

Ideally, though, you’ll want to consult a specialist for your child’s auditory memory difficulties.

It’ll be challenging to try and meet your child’s needs on your own. That’s why we encourage parents to ask for help. It makes things so much easier when you have a trained professional on your team. The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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