Auditory Memory: In one ear and out of the other?

Auditory Memory: In one ear and out of the other?

The frustration of talking to children where information goes “in one ear and out the other” is common to both teachers and parents. But for children with a poor auditory memory, this statement is pretty close to the truth.

Auditory Working Memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing
the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension

Can you add together 23 and 69 in your head?

When you ask for directions somewhere, can you get there without writing the instructions down?

Such tasks engage working memory, the memory we use to keep information immediately “in mind” so we can complete a task.

Some children find this relatively easy. Others try to carry out the instructions, but lose track of the details along the way.

Auditory Working Memory involves:
  1. Taking in information that is presented orally and Listening actively in order to rehearse what we have because this information rapidly decays after one or two seconds.
  2. Attending Selectively in order to repeat the information to ourselves. Research has shown that if short term memory is low, we have a hard time selecting what we wish to hear. In other words, selective attention doesn’t work so well when auditory memory is poor.

    Selective Attention

  3. Processing that information for meaning
  4. Storing  it in your mind
  5. Recalling what you have heard.


A “breakdown” in auditory memory can occur at any point in the pathway


Auditory Memory Pathway


In the classroom, teachers may describe these children as

  • Inattentive,
  • Easily distracted
  • Forgetting what they have learned,
  • Forgetting instructions
  •  Makes place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating steps)
  • Not completing tasks,
  • Making careless mistakes,
  • Difficulty in solving problems

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you are right!
A great deal of research in the last few years has shown that low auditory working memory is indeed associated with ADD/ADHD. Some research has shown that stimulant medications can enhance one’s auditory-verbal and visual-spatial working memory. However, there is no long term benefit. In other words, the working memory is improved only as long as the medication is in the system.


However some auditory memory weaknesses of students can easily go undetected by a teacher especially when there are no signs of ADD or ADHD.

Often children with auditory memory problems appear to be trying very hard to listen.
Their eyes are focused on the teacher and they appear to be attentive.
The teacher assumes that the child has heard all that is being taught. However, in reality, they often absorb and make sense out of very little of what is being stated by the teacher.

As a result, these students recall only a small amount or none of what is being said. They might remember a word here or there, or parts of a thought, but often do not truly understand much of the information presented orally to them.

The ability to learn from oral instructions and explanations is a fundamental skill required throughout life.


The following difficulties may arise because of poor auditory memory.


Poor Comprehension of Orally Presented Directions:
  • Often the child thinks that he has understood directions for completing an assignment, when actually he has understood very little. As a result, assignments are often completed incorrectly.
  • The child may only be able to take-in and think about only three or four words at a time so they only hear three or four words.
  • Subconsciously he stops listening in order to process the information.
  • Then he listens again.
  • As a result, the child loses a word or two from every phrase. The information no longer makes sense and becomes confusing, boring, and hard to pay attention to.

While some children can recall a lengthy sentence well, they may not be able to process and recall a short passage that is presented orally. These students may be able to answer a specific question about the information that has been presented to them orally or that they have read, but are not able to grasp the whole paragraph.

The child thinks that he knows what he has heard or read orally, when actually, he has processed and recalled very little of the material.

Sometimes parents and educators assume that children have understood an entire passage when they answer a specific question about the passage, yet, that specific information might be all that they have gleaned from the passage!

It is therefore important that when reading stories to children, they are encouraged to retell the story with the main idea and supporting details, in order to demonstrate that they have total comprehension.


Difficulty Copying from the Board:

As mentioned in the first example, a child with auditory memory difficulties can often only remember one or two words at a time. He therefore needs to constantly look up at the board, down at his paper, up at the board, down at his paper. Copying from the board is a tedious task for him whereas other children can remember a sentence at a time.


Difficulty Taking Notes:

In order to take notes you need to:

  • Listen to the teacher.
  • Hold what you have heard in memory while writing it down.
  • Continue listening as the teacher continues with the next sentence.
  •  If you are not writing verbatim what the teacher says, you must also use logic and reasoning to form your own thoughts about what’s being said, while writing, while listening.

If your auditory memory is poor, auditory processing, processing speed, or logic and reasoning, note taking could be practically impossible.


 Reading Difficulties:

Phonics (sounds) is an auditory learning system and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using phonics.  The ability to hold speech sounds in memory is needed for tasks such as comparing phonemes, relating phonemes to letters, and sounding out words.


 Spelling Difficulties:

Many poor-spellers depend on memory for spelling and so they don’t do very well. Even someone with a superior memory can only “remember” the spelling of a few hundred words. Spelling is actually an auditory and a visual skill.

You must be able to hear the sounds within the words and to visualize. How often have you spelled a word and recognized, “No, that doesn’t look right?”

Children who memorize spelling words often forget the words soon after the spelling test. The brain says, “I don’t need that anymore,” and dumps the words to make room for next week’s spelling list.


 Poor vocabulary:

Children may experience difficulty developing a good understanding of words, remembering terms and information that has been presented orally, for example, in history and science classes. These students will also experience difficulty processing and recalling information that they have read to themselves.

When we read we must listen and process information we say to ourselves, even when we read silently. If we do not attend and listen to our silent input of words, we cannot process the information or recall what we have read. Therefore, even silent reading involves a form of listening.

The good news is that auditory memory is trainable and like any muscle the more you exercise it, the more it will improve.

The not so good news is that the capacity for auditory memory appears to have a genetic basis and if you have a poor auditory memory the chances are that you won’t be able to rely on someone in your family for help.

Listen Hear!

Listen Hear!

One of the biggest complaints that I hear from teachers as children enter a more formal learning environment, is that the children do not know how to listen.

I am not talking about the children with Auditory Perception Difficulties or the children with any form of hearing loss. Neither am I referring to the “selective listening” behavior displayed by most children at one point or another.  I am referring to children who enter the formal schooling system without any delays or difficulties and develop difficulties because of poor listening skills.

The passive nature of hearing is very different from the active nature of listening.  Take, for example, many of the adverts on TV. Unless they have a very catchy jingle, or something visual that draws in your attention, you are often able to “tune out” and not even know what the advert was for.

We need to ask the question WHY children are not learning to listen.



When a child does not respond to a parent’s first request (and how many kids do?), parents often subscribe to what appears to be the obvious solution – they repeat their request, sometimes several times, until they get the desired response from their child. On occasion, this is a useful tactic for parents. Perhaps their child did not actually hear the request, or maybe he was distracted and needs another reminder.

However, when repeating requests, directions or questions becomes the typical way you interact with your child, it may very well be that bad habits have developed. And I say bad habits (plural!) because both the parents and the child have developed a bad habit here. The adults have become accustomed to talking and talking and talking while their child has learned to ignore, ignore and ignore. Why should he stop and pay attention the first time when he knows that there will be many opportunities to hear the request. And the child may even have developed a “deaf ear” to all the chatter, which means that he has stopped paying attention to what is being said.

Enter the grade one classroom, and the poor teacher is faced with a whole group of children with poor listening habits.


The ability to concentrate and pay attention are key factors in being a good listener. Research has shown that too much television watching at an early age might contribute to poor listening skills later in life.

When you think about it, does your child talk much when watching television or playing computer games?

Unless they provide commentary and annoy everyone else around them, you probably answered “not much at all”.

They will sit in front of a gaming console, computer, or television and become ‘mind slaves’ to the device as they ‘switch off’ their mind into the rapid, hypnotic pace these devices deliver. Of course, we do listen while watching yet the devices deliver sound at a greater speed that is considerably more entertaining to children then the sound of nagging parents talking to them.

I have often had the retort from parents that “my child can sit for hours playing a video-game. How come you are telling me he can’t focus?”  They are correct, but the type of focus required for a video game and active listening, is totally different. Activities such as video/computer games, require a high level of concentration and reasonable skills to play. When these two are combined, time becomes distorted. Children receive instant gratification from television and video games whereas the pace of normal conversation is slow in comparison.

Some research has suggested that extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention.

This being said, TV, video games and the like are not evil. In fact there is more and more research into how technology can be incorporated into learning and the plethora of educational  ‘’apps” is testament to this. The old adage of everything in moderation and everything with MEDIATION is paramount.


One of the many reasons that anxiety in children is on the increase, is because of pressure to succeed in the school environment. Whilst this issue is the realm of the psychologist/psychiatrist, the impact of anxiety on listening behavior cannot be discounted.

Anxious children are often preoccupied with worries about their success in activities and their ability to obtain the approval of others. They tend to “tune-out” when others are talking because they are often so worried about what they are going to say when it is his or her turn to speak.

Listening skills are something that requires practice. Good listening skills are an integral part of good communication and are one of the foundation skills for later learning success.