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Auditory Comprehension


Auditory Comprehension:

Speech perception is the set of listening skills that are essential for communicating by spoken language.  Speech perception skills can be described in four categories: awareness, discrimination, identification and comprehension. Each skill set is described on web pages in  the Listening (Auditory Skills) Development section.

These listening skills do not develop sequentially from one category to the next. Rather, a child might simultaneously be developing skills in two, three, or even all four categories, but at varying levels of complexity.
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Speech perception training also requires attention to the complexity of the listening task, or the amount of acoustic information in the message.  Generally, levels of complexity are described as the sound/phoneme level, word level, phrase/sentence level, and discourse/connected speech.

Auditory comprehension is understanding what one hears through listening. The student demonstrates  auditory comprehension of a message by responding to it using language that usually “references the stimulus but is unique in its content.”  (Estabrooks, 2000).

Two examples can illustrate how comprehension differs from identification.

Example of a Response that Demonstrates Auditory Comprehension

Adult: Hi. What’s your name?

Student: Norman! What’s yours?

Example of a Response that Demonstrates Auditory Identification

Adult: Hi. What’s your name?

Student: Hi. What’s your name?


Auditory comprehension of a message is dependent upon successfully performing ALL of these auditory response tasks:

(possibly localization)


It is ALSO dependent upon these characteristics of the message:

– Acoustic information (vowels, consonants, intonation, etc.)

– Vocabulary

– Word usage (e.g., idiomatic phrases)

– Grammar (passive voice, indirect objects, etc.)


AND on these characteristics of the student:

Auditory processing abilities                                           Motivation

Linguistic processing abilities                                          Cognitive abilities

Physical condition (hunger, sleep, fatigue)                     Mental State

We must also consider the characteristics of the talker:

Rate of speech
Clarity of expressing thoughts Clarity of articulation (accent, idiosyncrasies)
Accent or dialect
Ease of speechreading (moustache, etc.)


Finally, comprehension is affected by the environment in which the communication takes place:

Background noise                                     Reverberation

Auditory and visual distractions              Distance from the talker


Comprehension is where listening meets the real world in an attempt to engage in successful communication. Many of the characteristics listed are out of our control as educators and beyond the scope of this discussion. The professional who is mindful of the complexity of asking a student with hearing loss to demonstrate comprehension will nevertheless be better able to guide that student toward success.

Selected Component Skills of Auditory Comprehension

Tasks that require auditory comprehension typically occur at the phrase or sentence level through extended discourse such as conversation, small group or class discussion or listening to audio text.

Sustained Attention was discussed in the Auditory Awareness section. LINK. When students are asked to listen to and recall longer messages and greater amounts of information, they are practicing sustained attention and hopefully improving their stamina for listening.

Memory  Auditory Memory is the processing, storing and recalling of what one hears. Auditory memory is not a single entity, but has several facets, including memory for:

– words

– for phonemes

– for digits

– for rules

– for information heard in extended discourse

Scientists also study sequential memory and memory for numbers. All of this becomes auditory memory if the information was received through listening alone, with little or no visual support.


Informal Assessment of and Practice with Auditory Memory

Auditory memory is formally evaluated within cognitive assessments. These formal evaluations  should be administered by a professional, such as a psychometrist, speech language pathologist or audiologist.

Miller (1956) established that auditory memory of an individual has a limited capacity. Successful recall can be affected by the length and complexity of the message. It is generally accepted that the  number of objects an average adult can recall from short term memory is “seven, plus or minus 2”. Rhodes (2011) reports that by 6 years of age, a child “imitates a 16-syllable sentence, based on short-term recollection …. Remembers six items of a story … (and) repeats three numbers backwards.” Students with hearing loss often do not meet these milestones before entering school.

The criteria listed by Rhodes can be used to

– establish a baseline for each student

– identifying goals for progress

– determine a starting point for practice

Some suggested methods for checking and practicing auditory memory skills are offered here.  It is not necessary to use an auditory hoop for these tasks.

Memory for Words (or numbers)

1. Select 9 picture cards of objects (or numbers) within the student’s vocabulary. Explain the task to the student – you will list some words, and the student should remember and repeat them in the correct order. Encourage the student to give his or her best effort.

2. Choose 5 cards to start. Without showing the pictures to the student, name the objects one a time, with a 1- or 2-second pause between words. When you have read the 5th word, have the student repeat the list.

3. Increase or decrease the number of words for the next set, based on the student’s success.

When a student’s baseline for recall of words is established, add one more word and practice three different sets each session. It is important to use different categories of words within one session to avoid ‘spillover’ from previous trials. Although recalling the order of the words is ideal (English grammar is sequential!), it is not essential in the beginning.  As the student builds memory skills, continue increasing the length of the list, up to the “Magic 7”.  Teachers of students with hearing loss have noticed that words with more than one syllable increase the difficulty of recalling the entire list, so one-syllable words are preferred for this task in the beginning.

Some students may need visual ‘markers’ for the words. If this is the case, after saying each word, place its picture face down in a row in front of the student, proceeding from left to right. The student can point to each picture and say the word. Turn over the pictures at the end of the student’s list to show which were correct. To reduce the visual support, after naming the picture, place it face down in a stack rather than a row.

Memory for Sentences

The context of a sentence aids in recall of the words within it. As with memory for words, counting syllables may be a more accurate way to predict the length of text a student can recall.

1. Select text within the student’s receptive language level. Based on the student’s auditory memory for words, break the text into meaningful phrases. Each phrase should contain the number of syllables (plus or minus one) corresponding to the student’s recall for words, as established in the previous task. Do not break up syntactic phrases (e.g., prepositional, adverbial, etc.).

2. Explain the task to the student. Read the first chunk, and have the student repeat it verbatim. The student should repeat each morpheme (e.g. prefixes and word endings).

3. If there are no errors, repeat Step 2. If there are errors in repetition of words, address them as described here.

– If a word is omitted, repeat the entire phrase. If it is omitted again, say, “You skipped a word,” and repeat the phrase again. If it is omitted a third time, say the omitted word, then repeat the entire phrase, adding emphasis to the omitted word. The student should repeat the phrase correctly. If not, note the error and continue with the next piece of text.

– If a morpheme (such as final -s or past tense marker) is omitted, repeat the entire phrase. If it is omitted again, say, “Listen carefully to the [word endings, prefixes, etc.],” and repeat the phrase again. If it is omitted a third time, say the erroneous word, highlighting the missed morpheme, then repeat the entire phrase, adding emphasis to the omitted morpheme. The student should repeat the phrase correctly. If not, note the error and continue with the next piece of text.

– If a word is substituted (e.g., have for has) or inserted (e.g., adding a word not in the text), repeat the entire phrase. If the error occurs again, say, “Not [incorrect word],” and repeat the phrase again. If the error occurs a third time, say “There is no [inserted word]”, then repeat the entire phrase, slowing at the point of the incorrect insertion. The student should repeat the phrase correctly. If not, note the error and continue with the next piece of text.

– If the student repeats with incorrect word order, repeat the entire phrase. If the error is repeated, say, “You switched some words,” and repeat the phrase again. If the error is repeated a third time, say only the affected words. The student should repeat the affected words correctly. If not, note the error and continue with the next piece of text.

Memory for Information

Memory for spoken information is a more typical academic task, and requires a more global comprehension of the message, rather than a word-by-word recall.

To assess or practice memory for information, select a text within the student’s receptive language level. Choose a text about which you can ask wh- questions as well as higher level questions. The wh- questions will establish basic recall of what was heard. Successfully answering higher order questions, however, is essential for success in school.

Write down your questions prior to the activity.  You will use this paper to record what occurs during the activity.

1. Explain to the student that you will be reading a selection and then asking questions to find out what the student remembers about what you read.

2. Read the text naturally.

3. Ask your first question. If the student answers correctly, note that next to the question and ask the next question. If the student does not answer correctly, suggested responses are provided here. Note your responses next to the question.

– Ask the student to repeat your question back to you. Clarify the question if needed.

– Repeat the question then re-read the portion of the text that contains the correct answer. Include one or two sentences before and after the sentence containing the answer. Repeat the question.

– Address any vocabulary that may be unfamiliar.

– If the student is unable to answer correctly after two or three attempts, note the error, quickly explain the correct answer, and move to the next question.

The Impact of Language on Auditory Comprehension

If the content to which the student is listening uses language structures, vocabulary or background information beyond the student’s skills, the best of listening skills cannot produce a successful communication task.

Therefore,  one strategy for improving auditory comprehension is to build the student’s range of syntax, vocabulary, and background knowledge. Those tasks are beyond the scope of this text. Auditory memory and speech perception in general, however, is one set of  skills that can improve with instruction and practice and can contribute to better comprehension of spoken language.


More Auditory Comprehension Resources

Strategies for Improving Auditory Memory and Speech Perception Skills for Connected Speech – two free webinars from CID – Central Institute for the Deaf

Auditory Memory for Quick Stories – from Super Duper Inc.


Assessment of Story Comprehension

OPUS – Oral Passage Understanding Scales

Listening Comprehension Test – 2 (elementary)

Listening Comprehension Test – Adolescent

TAPS-4  – Test of Auditory Processing Skills (memory, auditory discrimination, comprehension, phonological awareness)


No Glamour  Memory

Look Who’s Listening Game

Spotlight on Listening Comprehension 4 book set (details, story comprehension, making inferences, reasoning and problem solving

SPICE – Speech Perception Instructional Curriculum & Evaluation

SPICE to Life Auditory Learning Curriculum


Estabrooks, W. (2000). Auditory Verbal Practice. The Listener, Summer, pp 6-29.

Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”Psychological Review63 (2): 81–97.).

Rhodes, Ellen. 2011. Auditory Developmental Scale: 0-6 Years.


Posted August 2019. This information was authored by Julia West, teacher of the deaf/hard of hearing who has taught students with hearing loss in private and public schools for over 20 years. She is co-author of the CID SPICE for Life Auditory Learning Curriculum and authors the Listening and Self-Advocacy sections of the Teacher Tools e-Magazine.