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Auditory Processing Weakness

earDiagramAuditory processing weakness is an often overlooked cause of reading difficulties. It is estimated that 5-10% of school-age children have some auditory processing weakness, and this can significantly affect their ability to learn how to read.


There are a multitude of symptoms that come with APW, the most common of which include:

  • Behaves as if there is a hearing loss even though there is none
  • Difficulty hearing in the presence of ambient noise
  • Difficulty distinguishing similar sounds
  • Difficulty following auditory instructions, especially multi-step instructions
  • Speech delay or speech issues from a young age
  • Often misinterprets what is said, but doesn't realize it's been misinterpreted
  • Misses subtle social cues
  • May exhibit attention issues when in fact they are looking around for clues to what is going on.
  • Often says "huh?" or "what?"
  • Does not respond to questions or responds with inappropriate response
  • Over sensitive to loud sounds or noisy places.


An auditory processing weakness (APW) is not an issue with hearing sounds, but an issue with how the brain interprets the words that are heard. The difficulties most often occur with spoken speech since the differences between sounds can be subtle and therefore more difficult for an individual with auditory processing weakness to detect. The presence of background noise can make this even more of a challenge.

But even without background noise, people with APW often have difficulty distinguishing differences between similar parts of speech. For example, you can say "Please go to your room and get your red coat," and the person may hear "Please go on your broom and get your bed note."

People with significant auditory processing weakness may perceive speech as "blending all together" or "muddied." As a result, when a child with an auditory processing weakness begins to read, they have difficulty learning the distinct sounds (phonemes) that are used to make words.

Muddied sounds makes for inconsistent learning

When a child is taught to read, the early lessons start with teaching the sounds (phonemes), and how they correspond to letter patterns (graphemes). This is called the alphabetic principal. In addition to learning these letter/sound combinations, the child must master phonologic awareness, or the ability to break words apart (decoding) into their phonemes and put them together (blending) to make the word.

Since children with auditory processing weakness often confuse similar sounds, it can be very difficult for them to learn specific phoneme pronunciations, especially when they are delivered verbally. This causes great difficulty in learning how to decode the sounds that make up a word.

Environment contributes to the inconsistency

Because environment effects how a child with auditory processing weakness interprets sounds, the classroom environment can further hamper the learning process. What they learn one day with a quiet room can sound very different the next day when the air conditioning has been turned on. When you read to your child at home it sounds very different than a teacher reading in a classroom of 30 kids all rustling and making noise. This inconsistent input of reading instruction makes learning the phonemes and word structure very difficult.

For a child without auditory processing weakness, the reading lessons are consistent because they sound the same day after day, allowing the child to build up a knowledge of letter/sound combinations. A child with APW is faced with lesson that can sound like a totally new lesson on a different day. This clearly causes confusion because there appears to be no repetition of the material, which of course causes an extreme slowing of the learning process.

Kids with APW compensate with sight reading

Kids with APW are often of average or above-average intelligence, and to avoid this inconsistent learning situation, they will turn to their visual strengths as a strategy for learning to read. They will no longer bother with decoding (breaking apart) the words, but rather they will choose to learn the words as an image, like memorizing shapes or pictures. The child may still have difficulty distinguishing words that sound similar, but the confusion is decreased since they are no longer breaking the words down into individual phonemes.

In the short-term, this is an effective strategy for the child, but as they approach 8 or 9 years of age, the number of words they are required to know can reach into the 1,000's. As they struggle to learn new words, other words are forgotten, and reading becomes quite difficult. Not only that, a child with APW must be taught every new word they are faced with. The child has no strategy for decoding words in order to sound them out. This pattern of memorizing whole words is what we call Optilexia.


Clearly the auditory-only approach taken by most schools is not the optimum learning environment for a child with APW. It is best to supplement their reading instruction with a modality that engages the visual and/or kinesthetic approaches in order to expand ways the child can learn phonemes and decoding. By engaging the other senses the child has a way to verify decoding, and they can progress more rapidly in learning to read.

Guided Phonetic Reading is the perfect solution for children with auditory processing weakness. The visual characters provide a consistent input of the sounds, while at the same time helping the child to learn phoneme/sound combinations. Every time the child sees a character, the child knows the sound it is associated with, and that sound never changes. The child is able to rely on visual strengths to learn to read phonetically, and the knowledge provides a strategy for decoding unknown works.

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