Sam Works to Discriminate Between Sounds and Words

38-month old Sam reveals how sound discrimination is a difficult job for young children. The video demonstrates that Sam produces his babysitter Nicole’s name with closed lips at the beginning of the word to say “Micole.” The sounds “n” and “m” sound very similar, so it is not surprising that Sam “mis-hears” “n” as “m.” The key to learning to discriminate between sounds successfully for Sam is that I brought his attention to it, by emphasizing that the sitter’s name is “NNNNicole,” not “Micole.” What you can’t see on the video is that I held my tongue position for my “n” sound a bit longer than usual in order to show him how the sound LOOKS in addition to emphasizing how “n” sounds. This visual-auditory connection for learning to speak has been important for Sam since he was about 4 months old (Babies as young as 4 months have been shown to stay interested in faces whose lip/tongue positions match the sounds they hear; babies lose interest in faces when the lip/tongue positions don’t match the sound they hear.). It continues to be important for him as he moves forward in his development, since his ability to successfully discriminate between sounds will be hugely important for pre-literacy and academic learning.

At the end of the video, I remind Sam that last time we had the chat about “Nicole” versus “Micole” that he told me “Nicole” sounded like “nickel.” I was amazed at his ability to make the connection between the two words when he made it a week or so ago, since “nickel” is not a word we use frequently in our home or around Sam, in general. I’m not even sure how many times he might have heard the word “nickel” in his life! The overall point is that he had it stored in his verbal memory bank and instantly heard the similarity between the words “Nicole” and “nickel” when he made the mistake of calling the sitter “Micole.” This demonstrates that not only is Sam learning crucial discrimination skills at the sound level (e.g., “m” versus “n”) but that he is also learning discrimination skills at the word level (e.g., “Nicole” versus “nickel”), which he will also need for pre-literacy and academic learning. As a child starts to sound out words while reading, his brain will pull words that start similarly or sound similar, but will select the word from his verbal memory that “fits” in meaning in the sentence for successful reading comprehension. That is, if Sam were reading (2-1/2 or so years from now!), and he were reading about a character named Nicole, it would be most important for reading comprehension for his brain to retrieve, or “pull out” of storage, the word “Nicole” (a girl’s name) versus the word “nickel.”

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