Healthy ears and listening skills

Listening skills are important for children’s speech and language development. Children who communicate well can attend to what others are saying and respond effectively. 

The Sounds good to me online course for early educators includes a whole teaching module on general listening skills, including ear health, with a range of activities and resources for use in your centre or service. 

Let’s start with a brief look at the mechanics of ears and how they work. 

Ears are amazing and complex little pieces of our body. Sound waves travel through the air and enter the ear canal. The sound wave causes the eardrum vibrate and the sound is then transmitted mechanically through to the middle air. Here, the vibrations are transferred to a chain of 3 tiny bones called the ossicles, which move causing movement in the fluid in the inner ear or cochlear. The movement causes tiny hair-like cells in the cochlear bend and transfers the movement into electrical impulses which travel along the auditory nerve to the parts of the brain that interpret meaning from sounds. 

Amazing isn’t it?

There are many things that can interrupt the pathway that carries sound through the ear and to the brain. Ear canals can be blocked with wax. The middle ear can fill with fluid that is thick and sticky and stops the little bones from moving freely. There can be problems affecting the inner ear from birth or damage can occur through exposure to noise.

However, by far the most common cause of hearing loss in children is middle ear infections also known as otitis media.

The middle ear is a chamber that is connected to the back of our nose and throat via a narrow tub called the Eustachian tube. This tube can get blocked by mucous when you have a cold. When the tube is blocked the pressure in the middle ear can’t be released.  You may have experienced this when you have flown in a plane or been at high altitudes. We all know that popping sounds when ears unblock. Sometimes you feel it and hear it when to blow your nose. That is the Eustachian tube releasing pressure.

Supporting healthy middle ear function is as simple as teaching children how to blow their nose correctly and regularly. It won’t cure otitis media but it will help to keep healthy ears healthy.

What makes a good listener?

Teaching children how to listen is an important part of early childhood programs and a great school readiness activity. Using visual prompts can remind children of what they need to be doing with their ears, eyes, mouth and body in order to be still, quiet and attentive.

Talk about the things that good listeners do (e.g. keep quiet, ears and eyes ready). Ask the children to show you how good they are at listening and talk about why listening carefully is important.

Encourage the children to listen attentively to the sounds around them and make comments about the different sounds they can hear. This is also a good activity to do before you read a story, have news or play a game.

Use a visual prompt such as a poster to remind the children and refer to it throughout the day.