Last reviewed 22 May 2020

Rebecca Fisk advises on how to support the development of listening skills in young children.

Our world is full of sounds. Often the environment that children grow up in is noisy, with traffic noise or background noise such as television/radio, or other children in a childcare setting. Learning to discriminate between different sounds around us through being able to listen well is a fundamental skill for life, which we continue to use.

All parents will, for example, recognise the sound of a grizzling tired cry from their child compared to an ‘emergency’ scream if they have hurt themselves and be able to respond and act quickly and appropriately. Not only do listening skills help us to manage our world and the dangers and pleasures within it, but it also underpins literacy skills. Listening supports being able to understand what is being said and to communicate through talk.

As young babies develop they learn to tell sounds apart (discriminate one sound from another) and give those sounds some meaning, such as being able to recognise the voice of their care givers from other household or environmental sounds within their hearing. Helping babies and toddlers to recognise sounds by letting them have time to listen and then respond, for example, by turning towards different sounds starts developing this essential skill. It is vital to ensure that children have their hearing tested as part of their developmental health checks or if you have any concerns, as hearing loss is a ‘hidden’ condition which may not be obvious at first. Many young children suffer from what is termed ‘glue ear’ where fluid builds up in the middle ear and sounds become muffled and are not easy to distinguish from each other. This is often a temporary condition and can remedy itself, although it reoccurs in 30% of sufferers. (NHS 2020) If you are concerned about your child’s hearing, which is affecting their ability to listen (not to be confused with simply following instructions) then an appointment with the doctor is recommended. Indicators that your child may be struggling to hear are listed on the following website. Hearing needs to be working well for listening skills to fully develop.

How can I support my child to listen and where can I find ideas?

Helping children to discriminate foreground and background noise can be supported by fun activities, such as playing music with your child to dance to and then giving them a one word instruction over the music, such as ‘stop’ or ‘jump’. In this way they have to listen hard to the instruction. Going on a listening walk together and identifying the sounds that you can hear, and naming the source, will support children to recognise familiar and less familiar environmental sounds. For this activity to work, children have to be quiet themselves to be able to listen well, for short periods of time. There are lots of other trusted resources for parents to access, for example:

Listening in a social context

Children learn to listen and take turns in conversation when adults respond to their focus and interests, commenting and allowing time for them to respond, which is known as ‘serve and return’ interactions. Attending to the facial expressions of the person speaking is part of listening and children will learn this from attentive adults who focus on them as they try to communicate. Children may ‘switch off’ if there is an expectation that they have to listen and concentrate for long periods or if they are not motivated to listen to the message being delivered. Sometimes visual reminders can support listening and understanding skills especially when following instructions, such as miming ‘get your coat on’ rather than simply making the request verbally over and over again. It is important to try and have realistic expectations of young children when they listen to social conversations or instructions. Penny Tassoni recommends that parents focus on activities which you enjoy together to support shared listening within your own social context at home, such as baking, dancing, or playing imaginary games with toys to build up quality interactions between parent and child.


Small regular outings are an important opportunity for children to learn about the sounds in the world around them. Research (EIF 2018) shows that children benefit cognitively if they experience responsive and joint-attention interactions with their caregivers. These can be outside of the home in their local environment where children can learn the meanings of words and sounds in context. Short shared activities at home which parents and children find enjoyable, such as games and playing with toys, household tasks or sharing stories, can all contribute to developing your child’s listening skills which will underpin future learning.


Tassoni, P(2014) in Nursery World article One to One – parents play a crucial role in helping children to communicate – but there is not a one-size fits all approach Nursery World 25th August 2014

Palmer, S and Bailey, R (2008) Foundations of Literacy – a balanced approach to language, listening and literacy skills in the early years

Asmussen et al (Dec 2018) Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) Key competencies in early cognitive development: Things, People, Numbers and Words

Hungry Little Minds Campaign by UK Government