The brains of auditory dyslexics have difficulty processing the basic sounds of language—an ability sometimes referred to as phonemic awareness. Specifically, multiple sounds may be fused as a singular sound. For example the word 'back' will be heard as a single sound rather than something made up of the sounds /b/ - /ă/ -/ck/.
Alternatively, sounds may be reversed, or jumbled, with the constituent parts not heard correctly such as in 'Kershmal' instead of 'commercial' (one from our home) or the classic 'pasghetti' instead of spaghetti.
Note that we are using the phrase 'difficulty processing sounds' not the phrase 'difficulty hearing sounds'. Sounds are just the vibration of air molecules that your eardrum is sensitive to, but your brain has to do the heavy lifting of turning that vibration into something meaningful—something you actually 'hear'.
The ear of a child with auditory dyslexia captures sound just fine, but their brain processes the input differently or less accurately. But, before you identify dyslexia in a struggling reader, it is always a good idea to have the ears and eyes tested by professionals as part of a complete assessment process. It's better to rule out problems than to overlook one!
Not all dyslexics have auditory discrimination problems and symptoms can vary from mild to extreme but common signs include:
This short video from Gemm Learning provides a helpful explanation
How does this differ from dyslexia generally?
The auditory problem is related (it's not clear exactly how though) to the inability to use phonemes. This may explain why a phonics program alone is inadequate for helping someone with dyslexia: children with dyslexia must be able to discern the sounds of language precisely (phonemic awareness) before they can accurately break words up into syllable chunks (phonics).
The presence of auditory processing problems also helps explain why those with dyslexia often have trouble with verbal communication. It is difficult to reproduce sounds which are not heard correctly.
So is an auditory processing problem the root cause of dyslexia? Perhaps, but all we know for certain at this point is that dyslexia is a problem with the decoding of
words and the manipulation of the fundamental sounds of language or phonemes.
There is much more research evidence that dyslexia is an auditory processing problem rather than a visual one, but like all complex things, there are usually multiple causes. Vision, ability to focus attention and other capacities also play a role.
Those with auditory dyslexia have difficulty discriminating and manipulating the sounds of language. This in turn has very significant implications for the design of any reading program and explains in part why many reading programs fail to help dyslexics improve. Here are some important techniques for compensating for the auditory deficit:
1) Explicitly teach phonemes
Dyslexic readers need a program that explicitly teaches the phonemes of language, ensuring mastery of these sounds before diving into reading of sentences and paragraphs. Teachers themselves need to heighten their student's ability to discriminate the sounds and reproduce them accurately. Sometimes this can involve explicitly teaching children about the position of their lips and tongue required to make certain sounds. The Lindamood-Bell reading system notably teaches this ability.
2) Instruction needs to be individual and intensive
The specific sounds (44 in total for English) and sound combinations any specific reader will have difficulty with are always unique and so instruction must be tailored to those weaknesses. And because dyslexics tend to require many more repetitions to retain the information, the practice needs to be intensive and conducted in small groups or on a 1-1 basis.
3) Use multi-sensory methods
The student with auditory dyslexia needs to draw upon other learning methods to compensate for their auditory deficit. What are those methods? visual, touch, and kinesthetic (movement) are three helpful ones.
Instruction needs to involve touching the letters, seeing the letters (hopefully colorful), and even physically moving the letters around as they hear and reproduce the sounds in order to retain the learning.
4) Employ a speech language pathologist
SLP's can help your child configure their lips and tongue to produce the most difficult of English pronunciations and build their confidence in distinguishing, reproducing and comprehending sounds and words.
For a more complete review of the kinds of teaching techniques that dyslexic students require, see our page on programs that work
5) Adopt simple accommodations at home and in the classroom
A quiet workspace, simple instructions (one task at a time), assistive technology (text to speech, speech to text), speaking while making eye contact, eliminating background noise and lots of positive reinforcement are simple accommodations that can make a big difference.
The auditory dimension of dyslexia is one that can easily be overlooked or misunderstood but carries important implications for teachers, parents and language therapists. Effective intervention programs for young readers simply must begin by establishing phonemic awareness. Only then will students master the ability to audibly reproduce words, write and comprehend them.
For even more information try the U.S. National Center for Learning Disabilities page on auditory processing disorder.
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