Jim Durkel Listen to Jim Durkel’s advice on how families can support their child’s sensory efficiency in the area of listening skills.


Hi, I’m Jim Durkel. I’m an outreach teacher with the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Outreach Program. My first professions actually were as a speech-language pathologist and audiologist, and I worked so much with students that were deaf-blind that I came to Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and joined the Outreach Program as a deaf-blind specialist, and while here, went on and got my training as a teacher for the visually impaired.

How can parents and other family members support their child’s sensory efficiency in the area of listening skills?

I think one way to start is to read, not just to the child, but with the child. That’s a little different. We want to read, and we want to ask questions to make sure that the child really has been paying attention and understands what is being read. So we’d ask things like, “What do you think is going to happen next? Why did she say that? How do you think he feels? Uh oh! What just happened?” So that the child is actively engaged in reading. It’s not just us reading a story from the first page to the last page to the child, but the child is really having to think about what he’s just heard.

I think there are lots of listening games that we can play with children. One would be things like, “Can you point to the barking dog? Where’s the crying baby?” You know, having the child learn to localize—which is to find in space where a sound is coming from—and to try and point out where that is happening. Localization is a very important skill that children are going to need for orientation and mobility later in life, so we can turn that into a game. We can play rhyming games. Let Dr. Seuss be your guide. I love green eggs and ham! “I will not eat them in a box. I will not eat them with a fox. I will not eat them here or there. I will not eat them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.” That rhyming is a very important listening skill called phonological awareness, and it is highly connected to later reading ability. Children that can listen to words and pull apart the rhyme and make rhymes tend to be better readers than children that have difficulty doing that. So playing these kinds of rhyming games is really important with children.

I also think you can play sounds like you would play “I spy with my little eye.” You can play games like “I hear with my little ear.” “I hear with my little ear a loud sound,” and the child has to listen and say what sound was loud that you might have heard and see if they can say it. “I hear with my little ear, a far away sound.” And what sound sounds far away? So you’re helping children start to think about how sounds are different from each other and to really start to pay attention to different aspects of sound, like are they high pitched, are they low pitched, are they loud, are they quiet, are they near, are they far? Is it something that’s standing still? Is it something that’s moving? Again, all of that is going to become really important for later orientation and mobility, as well as really being able to listen in a classroom as a teacher moves across the front of the classroom—the student can really track the teacher’s movement.

There’s one game, though, that nobody should ever play with a child with visual impairment, and that is “Guess Who I Am.” “Hi, do you know who this is?” That is a very disrespectful thing to do to anybody with a visual impairment but particularly to a child. Think of how much you don’t like it on the telephone when you answer the phone and somebody starts talking, and they haven’t identified who they are. And even if it’s somebody that you know really well, it may take you a minute to figure out who it is, and while you’re trying to think who it is, you’re not paying attention to the conversation, and it’s just really hard. So don’t play that game with the child with visual impairments.

When you’re watching television, I think, talk about things that are happening that the child may be hearing but may be not fully understanding. Particularly like emotions. So you might say something to the child like, “Well, how did that girl sound? Did she sound happy to you? Did she sound sad? Was that boy being mean? How do you know he was being mean? What about his voice let you know that?” Because children with visual impairments are relying on the emotional component of what they’re hearing—because they don’t have the ability to look at person’s face, you know, to see maybe if someone is smiling or if someone is frowning—so they’ve got to get good at sort of understanding all of that kind of emotional subtlety that goes on. So while you’re watching TV, asking children to, again, think about what they’re hearing, just like we did with the reading. It’s not bad to watch TV, but we want to be active participants in that process, not just staring at the screen or listening.

With older children, what you might want to do is listen to commercials and the news and then talk about what you hear and talk about, well, what is truth and what’s spin? So there’s a big skill in being able to listen to somebody and being able to separate out what is fact and what isn’t fact and what did they really mean and what did they want you to believe when they were telling you this and do you believe that? Why might you believe it? Why might not you believe that? We don’t want our kids listening to commercials and totally believing that everything that’s said in the commercial is true because they’re going to go out and try to buy a whole lot of things thinking they’re going to get something that they’re not. So we really want to help older children develop that skill.

I think the last thing that we can really do as a family together is listen to song lyrics and then talk about what those lyrics mean. I don’t particularly like rap music, however, there’re some really interesting rhythms in rap. There’re a lot of important things that rap singers are saying that if you don’t really listen and analyze what the song is about, your child may have some very odd ideas about how the world works and how you can and cannot treat people, and you know, what policemen are really like and what they’re not really like. So you really want to talk about the lyrics, and lyrics often are very beautiful, it’s poetry. And I think, you know, helping our children have that kind of fine appreciation of how language can just be so beautiful and can convey so many things is just a really important skill for our children to have.