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

Every year in Kindergarten, there are always a few children in my class who struggle with sound discrimination, or the ability to “hear” and distinguish between the beginning sounds in words.  What we ask children to do 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.

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 has trouble saying what sound any word starts with. She can say the ABCs and 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.



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 video collection, available on our Video Streaming site, 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.

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, Hear2Read and What’s That Sound?.

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 they are probably struggling with a skill that is typically taught in preschool.

I hope you enjoy this blog post! And check out our Video Streaming Site!


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