Sound Discrimination: What to Do When Children Cannot “Hear” Beginning Sounds

Sound Discrimination- What to Do When Kids Can't "Hear" Sounds

Every year in Kindergarten, there are always a few children in my class that struggle with sound discrimination, or the ability to “hear” and distinguish between the beginning sounds in words.  The task that we give the children seems simple:  just tell me the beginning sound of the word that I say.  If I say dog, they should give me the sound of the letter “d,” (which we write down as “d/”.)  If I say the word “pig,” the child should say the sound, “/p/.”  The children are not supposed to give the letter name, just say the beginning sound that they heard.  However, for about 20-25% of the students in my class usually have a fair amount of trouble with identifying beginning sounds. This tiny little task is a big part of the Kindergarten DIBELS test, and a source of great frustration for both parents and teachers of children that struggle with it!  (To read my blog posts about DIBELS, please click here and here!)

Why is Sound Discrimination Important?
But what is this skill, and why is it so important?  Listening for sounds and telling the difference between one and the other is called sound discrimination.  Sound discrimination is very important to early readers and writers, because when a child wants to write the words “pig” or “bat,” it will be very important to be able to identify all of the sounds in those words.  Otherwise, reading and writing small words like these will be impossible without memorizing every what every single word looks like, right down to the last letter.  Imagine trying to write long words such as “encyclopedia” without being able to separate that word into syllables in your head as you write it down!  You would be relying only on memory to spell these long words, and might forget a letter or two.  Kids that learn to listen for and distinguish between each syllable and letter sound in the words that they read have a much better chance of reading and writing well than those that do not.  In addition, rhyming is a foundational skill for language arts, and depends entirely on sound discrimination.  Phonics in general is also highly dependent on sound discrimination skills as well.

Questions and Answers About Sound Discrimination
A few weeks ago, there was a question left on one of my blog posts from a very frustrated parent whose kindergarten child failed the beginning sounds portion of the DIBELS test. He said that his child’s teacher was very concerned and was discussing having his child repeat Kindergarten the following year.  The parent was looking for some ways to help his child learn to recognize beginning sounds.  Here is the comment he left:



Our daughter (5.5 y/.) has failed her DIBELS test. Completely. She cannot say what sound any word starts with. She can say the ABCs. She can repeat words. But she cannot comprehend that a word starts with a sound.

My wife and I didn’t start reading until the first grade, so I wasn’t particularly worried after the parent-teacher conference last week, but now the teacher is talking about holding her back next year. Kindergarten only started less than 2 months ago, so this seems premature to me, but be that as it may, I want to help my daughter.

We can say Pink, and Purple, and Pony over and over again, and she just doesn’t get it. “Pink starts with a P sound. What sound does Pink start with?” And she just doesn’t get it.

We’ve been working on “P” sounds for two days, and she just doesn’t get it. Any advice?”

Here is what I wrote in response to this parent, as well as some other information that I have found since then.  I hope that it will be helpful to you and your children or students!


Hello there!

Each year, I have had a few children with this sort of problem with sound discrimination. Below are the things I have done that usually help them.

1.  Read My Lips (and Listen Carefully!)
First I would try having your child watch your lips while you say the word, and then watch her own lips in the mirror as she says the word. Give her a small hand held mirror. Tell her that your mouths should be doing exactly the same thing if you are making the same sounds. What you’ll be trying to do is to introduce a visual clue into her listening skills/phonemic awareness skills, which are developing a bit more slowly than you want them to. But the visual “hook” of watching the lips move, (as in learning to read lips,) should help her realize when she is hearing two sounds that are the same and two that are different.

To Practice Listening for Sounds

I taught my students that struggled with sound discrimination to focus on my lips when I was working with them (and testing them!) by tapping my lips with my finger before I said the word.  I would just touch my index finger to my lips and say, “Watch my lips.  Listen!”  And then I would give the word.  This little clue helped my struggling kids focus and gave them the boost of the visual clue, and it seemed to help tremendously.


2.  Give Each Letter Sound a Unique Movement
Another thing to do is to add a movement to each letter sound. One great program for this is Zoo Phonics. They sell it at For example, when kids say the M sound, they make a certain movement.  They have special alphabet flash cards that go with the program that are extremely helpful as well.  When kids make different movements each time they make a different sound, they seem to become more aware that they are making different sounds with their mouths.  I have used Zoo Phonics since 1992 and I wouldn’t teach without it!

We have a lot of those same movements in our own Letters and Sounds CD/DVD, and I do think that using it helps kids learn their letter sounds to distinguish between them!



3.  Back Up (Waaaay Up!) and Start at the Beginning
I also recently read a blog post from a preschool teacher that I greatly respect:  Karen at  Her methods for teaching sound discrimination make total sense to me, and as I have researched them a bit more, I have found that the method she described is also used by specialists with special needs children!  Karen first taught her students to distinguish between sounds by using an iPad app with animal sounds! She held the app out of view of her students and played two animal sounds. If they were the same, the students indicated this by holding up a sign printed on a picture of a green iPad that said “yes.”  If they were different, they held up the “no” sign on the red iPad!  (These iPads are free to download on Karen’s blog post, too!)  This activity helped them understand that they were supposed to be listening for sounds that were the same and sounds that were different.  Sound discrimination is fairly simple with animal sounds, so it is not too hard for beginners.

iPad Sounds Game from
Check out this blog post at for some great advice on helping children learn how to “hear” the differences between one sound and another!

Once they got past that, they moved on to listening to words. Same word, or different word? Last they moved on to single sounds, and did the same. For example, the children listened to just the /p/ sound and another letter sound, such as the /b/.  Then the teacher would ask, are these two sounds the same, or different?

The next logical step is then to have the children listen to words and see if they can figure out what the beginning sound of the word is.  So, if they hear the word “milk,” they should give the sound /m/.  If they hear the word “brother,” they should give the sound /b/, but not /br/.  If they hear the word “shake,” then they give the sound /sh/, not say the letters “s” and “h.”  That makes sense, since children that young wouldn’t know how to spell, right?  They would just give the beginning sound, not the beginning spelling.


4.  Try Some Technology:  Great iPad Apps for Sound Discrimination
In researching sound discrimination, I also found several great looking iPad apps that were designed especially to help children that are struggling with sound discrimination.  In fact, I found an entire Pinterest board dedicated ONLY to apps that help learners with sound discrimination!  I pinned a few of the ones that looked the best to me to my own Pinterest board called “Favorite iPad Apps.”  Since I haven’t tried any of these yet, I hesitate to really recommend a specific one.  However, a few of them that really looked especially great to me were Sound Swaps ($9.99- YIKES!), Hear to Read ($7.99- Yikes again!), Ear Pairs, (99 cents!) and What’s That Sound?  (FREE- Yeah!).  The app called Hear to Read is one of the only ones I have seen that says it works on sound deletion and other phonemic awareness skills that kids usually learn in Kinder and first grade, so I am looking forward to checking that one out.

There is also a FREE online game that you could play on any computer called Listen and Match!  I think that a lot of the sound matching apps work just like this one, only on the iPad.

And I would just like to say one more thing here that just NEEDS to be said:  Expert pre-K teachers are the BEST ones to go to for ideas to help remedial Kindergartners or even first graders that struggle!  I discovered this one year that I had a particularly large group of struggling learners in Kindergarten, who were still making very SLOW progress by Thanksgiving!  I was completely frustrated and out of ideas, so I started searching and surprised even myself by finding support in blogs written by preschool teachers!

The blogs that I have read that have the very best instructional ideas for Pre-K students in particular are and  And if a beginning kindergartner is struggling, then he or she is probably struggling with a skill that is typically taught in preschool.


I hope you enjoy this blog post!  And don’t forget to sign up for our email updates!  You can also follow this blog on Bloglovin’, and keep in touch with me on Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube, too!

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Heidi Butkus

About Heidi Butkus

Heidi Butkus has been teaching in California public schools since 1985. She has somehow managed to stay in Kindergarten all of those years, with the exception of five years in first grade, and also taught a parent participation preschool for a short while! Combining a strong knowledge of brain research with practical experience, Heidi has created a wealth of fun and engaging teaching techniques that work well with diverse populations. She has presented at conferences nationwide, and is the owner and founder of Heidi has also created fourteen original CD's and DVD's for teaching beginning reading and math skills, three musical plays designed especially for young performers, and has written some picture books and many other teaching resources. Heidi's multimedia workshops are filled with fun and motivational educational activities that have been classroom tested and revised for effectiveness with all types of learners.
  1. This post is full of so many great ideas, Heidi! Thank you so much. I do always have a couple who just don’t “get it” like the others do. Thank you so much for the ideas!

  2. Pingback: Helping Kids Conquer DIBELS!!! | Heidi Songs

    • Wow! Well, I never thought about that, but I suspect that the process would be just about the same! Are you by any chance also tone deaf, musically speaking? That means when you are singing, are you way off the pitch? If you don’t know, ask some close friends to tell you the truth. 🙂
      Tone deafness and dyslexia are tied together, statistically speaking! So, your inability to distinguish one spoken sound from another and your inability to read and spell, (and possible tone deafness, if my guess is correct) are probably all related, and are signs of dyslexia that was never diagnosed. I would say that if you made it through school without any extra help of any kind, you should feel pretty good about yourself!
      If you would like to find out more about your abilities, find a reading specialist and get tested. Then keep an eye out for your children and any possible learning disabilities that they may wind up having, because these problems tend to run in families.

  3. Hope you don’t mind, I have a kindergarten question. I have been teaching my daughter (going to kindergarten this fall) to read (mostly sight words) and she is really struggling to make certain sounds at the beginning of words. I knew she could not say the “L” at beginning of words and now know she can’t say “th” either. I know these are sounds that a speech therapist would not see her for until she was older(I taught public pre-k before staying at home with my children), so in the past I wasn’t concerned, but now with kindergarten I wonder how she is going to learn to spell if she can’t same them correctly. For example she says “yap” for “lap” and “da” for “the”. The other day while reading to me she pointed to “the” and said, “Mommy, isn’t it funny that this word is da because there is no “d” in it.” So she understands now that she is saying it wrong, she just can’t say it correctly. Is this going to stop her from learning to read by sounding out and do kids who substitute letter sounds in speech still spell them correctly on paper? Thanks for any input you can give me!

    • Hi, Nina!
      Thank you for your question- it’s really an insightful one. In my experience, the connection between speech difficulties and learning to sound out words is often lost on parents.
      I have taught MANY children to read that have speech issues like the ones you are describing. And while it does tend to slow them down, it does not stop them. To be honest, many of the children with speech issues wind up in the low reading group (though I only know what happens to them in Kindergarten, of course.) However, not all of the children with speech difficulties struggle with reading; it just tends to be the norm. Some have been in the top half of the class, although I’ve only ever had one that wound up in my highest group and that was not until the very end of the year, after almost a full school year of speech therapy from the school speech and language specialist. That was after 25 years of teaching Kindergarten.

      I suggest that you request that your daughter be evaluated for speech issues, even if you think that she wouldn’t qualify. I have a feeling that she may qualify based on the substitution of the D sound for the Th sound, though perhaps not just for the other sounds alone. You may have more luck getting her tested if you put the request in writing and present the letter to the school district BEFORE school starts. I believe that there used to be a law in CA, at least, that parents could request a speech evaluation for a preschool aged child from the local school district and would get it, guaranteed. But once the child begins public school, that “rule” (or law) no longer applies, because the school takes it from there. And depending on the school district, it may or may not be easy to get your child tested. They don’t have to test, if they don’t think it is necessary. So put your request in writing, date it, sign it, and bring it to the school district. Drop it off and don’t take “No, just wait for school to start” for an answer. That’s my best advice regarding that.

      In any case, you should learn all you can about speech issues and help your child at home. When she makes an inaccurate sound, repeat it correctly and ask her to try again. Show her your tongue and what it is doing. Have her do the same thing with her tongue, and have her look in a mirror to see what it is doing. Make it a game, and see how many times during the day she can make the sound correctly. Have your child exercise her tongue by “brushing her teeth with her tongue,” and also by practicing to put her tongue in different positions in her mouth, and by rolling her tongue. You can probably find more tongue and speech exercises on YouTube, etc.
      Good luck!

  4. Thanks so much for your quick response. Unfortunately, since I worked for the school system I know how they work. I use to do pre-k evaluations for the up coming year in May. I would know from that testing which children needed a referral for speech and would put in for it asap, and more years than not, the children weren’t even screened until January. I will be talking with our pediatrician and looking into a private evaluation. I did look up videos on YouTube and we have been practicing. I just think she would do better with someone else. Sometimes the parent/child relationship is too close for these types of things —- she gives up too easy with me. Thanks again!

    • Hi, Nina!
      Well! It sounds like you have already “been around the block” a couple of times with this sort of thing! Good luck, and let me know how it all turns out, and if you have any more questions that I can help you with. I’m happy to help- plus questions from parents like you make great blog content!
      Take care,
      [email protected]

  5. Hi! I need some advice! I have a son who is GT. He was never taught to read at all. He apparently just knew how by age 2. He’s 5 and reads and comprehends 3rd grade level chapter books. He reads fast, fluently and accurately. Yay. The trouble is, he has absolutely no awareness of sounds in writing. He can read the newspaper perfectly, but he cannot spell ‘Cat’ to save his life. It is driving me nuts. How can a child with such an astonishing vocabulary and reading ability have no ability whatsoever to sound out words from his brain to paper…or out loud? It’s so strange! Please let me know your thoughts. Is it a form of dysgraphia or something?

    • WOW! That is really something! Congrats on having a child that has astonishingly great skills! I would say that it is WAY too early to diagnose anything like dysgraphia, unless he also can’t copy a single thing. Even so, he is only FIVE. So let’s give him some time. In Finland, they don’t even begin reading instruction until the age of seven!

      Well, you found your way to this blog post, and that’s good. Have you tried any of the things in this post? Because I would certainly start there. I would start with animal sounds that are the same and then different, and all of that stuff. I mean I would start at the VERY beginning, just as if he didn’t know a single thing about reading at all. I have seen similar things in other children, although without such a large “gap.” Children have come into Kinder knowing how to read at a first grade level reasonably well, but not able to write at all. And as you say, they seem to be totally unaware of the sounds that they seem to just know instinctively in reading.
      We actually had a very hard time convincing some parents that this was a real problem, so congratulations on figuring out that there is a vital skill missing. 🙂
      When we start teaching children to write words as they sound, we begin with just ONE sound. I say “mmmmmm” and the child writes the letter m. I say “ssssss” and the child writes the s. We work on just one or two letters per week. So go VERY slowly, even though it may be completely frustrating and makes no sense. Just set your sights on getting your amazingly bright child to write ONE sound when you say it. After he masters that, then try to get him to write another letter when you say that sound. If it takes a week per letter, DO it. What he lacks is understanding the alphabetic principal on an intellectual level. He knows it, but only instinctively. He just cannot yet explain it.

      I predict that eventually he will make the connection, and it will start to go much faster. Once he gets the idea, we start to add in the vowel sounds. Then one day, it’s three sounds together: “c…. aaaa….. t. Cat!” And there you go!
      I hope that helps! And I would love to hear how it goes, so I hope you keep in touch!

  6. I have two ELL students who both have difficulty hearing the /r/ in consonant blends at the beginning of words, like dr-, tr, and gr-. Is this something to pause on as other skills are developed? The students can read the words, but they can not hear them to spell them.

    • Hi, Heather,
      This is a phonemic awareness skill that is difficult for a lot of children. The skill of stretching out a word and listening for all of the sounds in it is called Phoneme Segmentation. It can be very hard for children who are second language learners and who have speech difficulties, and so yes- this is a skill to pause on and keep working at as you continue working on the rest of the required skills. Phoneme segmentation is a skill that is necessary if children are going to write words as they sound, and separating blended sounds is extra tricky!
      I wrote a blog post on teaching phoneme segmentation a while back, and it has all of the tips I could think of for teaching it written in it!
      Hope it helps!

  7. Thank you – I’m in the UK but sounds are sounds (and my little boy sounds American due to Disney & Nick Junior!).
    I particularly like the mirror tip & my little boy already makes his own movements for different sounds (he basically writes the letters in the air!)

  8. Hoping you can put some names to an issue I am having with my daughter. She is 7, will be entering 2nd grade. Everytime she takes standardized assessments she excels. She scores top of the class and ranked 98% state and nationally…but..when she tries to verbally read, write, or spell she just can’t do it well. Every year she is quickly moved to intervention reading classes even though her potential is very high. One thing I’ve noticed is that she doesn’t hear the beginning sounds of words correctly unless it is a very familiar word. (mixes up b and m often, L and h, etc. ) She sang Oba Badonald had a farm for ages. She always thought she was saying it correctly despite repeated corrections. She also has phoneme segmentation problems when writing, vowels just don’t exist in her spelling. Her school keeps having her tested by speech therapists and not finding an issue. Well, her speech IS fine. They do not pursue anything further. The occurrence isn’t 100%, making it even more difficult to identify. It depends on her seeing you speak and how familiar the phrase or words are. Her audiologist did notice this as well. (BTW I also do it and often request the first couple of letters of persons’ names to be spelled because I can’t distinguish them no matter how loudly or slowly it is said). She isn’t dyslexic according to the audiologist that tested her central processing. I am at a loss as to how to address this and how to get the school’s assistance. Being that they are moving to more automated, electronic education, I’m afraid this isn’t going to be addressed sufficiently. She ended up stuck on a phonics module for over 8 weeks that she couldn’t pass on the computer program. The program is set to advance their reading lessons as they do. In her case, it was holding her back. She was bored and frustrated because she does know her phonics, she just can’t always hear it at the beginning. It is affecting her self esteem. She is calling herself “dumb”. She doesn’t have the patience for me to work with her so I somehow need the school’s help addressing the issue that I know exists, but they don’t. Is there a name I can associate with this to help me direct the school’s specialists?

    • Wow, what a FRUSTRATING problem! It sounds like an intermittent (inconsistent) deficiency in auditory and verbal processing to me, but of course that’s just a guess. (Keep in mind, I’m not an educational psychologist and I haven’t met her.) It sounds like she does well on written tests in which she has to read and answer questions, am I right? So she can do this while reading silently, but not while reading aloud.
      I would get her to an independent educational psychologist that could do the same battery of tests that the school district might do, but whom you could pay to keep digging until they figure out what the problem is, so that you can figure out the best path to remediation. Schools are overloaded with many needy students and sometimes tend to give up when they can’t figure out the problem. A private ed psych should be different. It’s expensive, but not nearly as expensive as a lifetime of being unable to write, true?

      In the meantime, I think I would look up strategies on spelling and writing that teachers of deaf or hearing impaired students use (even though she has no hearing loss.) When trying to figure out beginning sounds, see if she can try to read lips and see if that helps. My students in Kinder that had a lot of trouble with beginning sounds really benefitted from focusing on my lips when I made the sounds. These strategies might truly make a difference for her. Perhaps finding a tutor that works with hearing impaired children can help you?Just a thought.
      God bless you, and let me know how it turns out! It would be useful for me to know what helped her; then I will know what to tell the next desperate parent that asks for help!
      Thank you,

  9. Thank you for giving some terminology and possible direction to seek more answers!!! Yes, she does prefer to read silently and must comprehend it just fine since she scores highly. I will most definitely follow your suggestions and give you feed-back as well. I was pondering the following lips method. Have you seen this improve general sound interpretation overall so that they are no longer dependent upon visual cues? Sort of, training the ears using sight, but then removing the sight element? (I’m thinking telephone).
    I really appreciate the time you take to respond to all of us parents 🙂

    • Hi again,
      I really haven’t had a chance to follow my students that struggled on into the higher grades to see what happened. So I don’t really have an answer for you on that. But I do know for sure that it helped them make the initial connection. Weaning them off it later is a different challenge, I would guess.
      Keep in touch! Let me know if you have more questions.

  10. Heidi, you are right on target. There is a great program called LiPS by Linda Mood Bell. As a specialist in have integrated the program into our regular program. Makes a huge difference. Early sound discrimination with environmental sounds also so important.

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