Attention and Listening Skills Building

Attention and Listening is the ability to listen and attend to sounds or activities and to focus on the sound or activity for long enough in order to learn from it.

A child needs to be able to attend to relevant things in their environment in order to be able to learn. The ability to focus and to maintain concentration is essential in learning language.
Gradually a child learns to shift their focus of attention from one activity or object to another and to listen at the same time. (See ‘Age Related Development’ here)
A child needs to be able to hear before they can speak. However, a child also needs to be able to ‘listen’ and this is very different from hearing.
Listening involves being able to concentrate on the sounds a child hears around them, so as to be able to understand where the sounds came from.
It involves: –

  • picking out speech from all the other noises that are going on around them
  • concentrating on the speech
  • hearing and noticing the differences between the speech sounds and
  • picking out the differences between words.

Building those attention and listening skills:

Many young children find it difficult to learn to wait, share and take turns.

Your child may play happily for a short while with something that they have chosen to do, but find it difficult to concentrate on a new activity or listen to ideas that you suggest. This short attention span may slow down your child’s ability to learn new words and speech sounds.


  • Quiet room. Switch off the TV and radio.
  • Keep activities short. 5 minutes of good work is valuable.
  • Get down to your child’s level and encourage them to look at you.
  • Try some of the activities in small groups to encourage social interaction skills.
  • Praise your child.
  • Keep it fun!    

Listening – Awareness of Sounds:

Your child first needs to be made aware of the differences between sounds and encouraged to enjoy listening to the different sounds that objects can make.

  • Collect together things that make different sounds, for example, rattles bells, chimes, spoon in a cup, wooden sticks, musical instruments,comb and paper, squeaky toys, water in bottles. Show your child how to make a noise with the different objects and encourage him to have a go.
  • During the day, whenever you hear a noise, draw your child’s attention to it. Take them to see what made the noise and talk about it.
  • Beat out a rhythm, listen to the radio, the record player, the piano, or any musical instrument which can be obtained. See if your child can copy the beat by joining in with you, and then see if they can copy the beat when you have finished. Encourage your child to walk, march, skip, run, dance, clap appropriately to the beat.
  • Activity toys which also make noises, will encourage your child to be aware of sounds, for example, a pull along telephone.
  • When looking at picture books with your child talk about the different sounds various objects make. You can make the noise of a car, cow, clock, etc and encourage your child to join in.
  • Cut out from catalogues pictures of objects that make different noises. Stick them in a book and talk about the different noises encouraging your child to join in.

Listening – Location of Sounds:

  • Collect together toys which make different noises, e.g. rattles, squeaky toys, whistles etc. Squeak a toy behind your child’s back when they are not expecting it and see if they will turn to the sound. Vary this by squeaking the toy from various parts of the room when your child is not looking, and encourage your child to find where the sound came from.
  • Hide a ticking clock or softly playing radio and encourage your child to find it by listening.

Listening – Discrimination Between Sounds:

  • Collect together two containers, a cardboard box and a metal tin, and some stones. Show your child how to drop stones into the tin and the box, pointing out the difference in noise as the stone hits the card or the metal. When you child has dropped a stone into one of the containers, encourage them to show you which one it was by pointing to it. Make this game more difficult for your child by asking them to shut their eyes and listen carefully while you drop a stone into the box or tin. Ask your child to open their eyes and tell you where the stone is (make sure they cannot cheat by looking into the box).
  • Collect together six identical plastic pots with lids. You may be able to use margarine tubs or yoghurt cartons with paper lids. Make two sets of shakers by filling each pair of containers with something that will make very different noises, e.g. fill two with rice, two with corks, two with screwed up paper. Muddle up the shakers. Encourage your child to find the matching pair by listening to the noise each makes. As your child gets better at this, you can increase the number of pots used and fill them with things that make similar noises.
  • Collect toys that make different noises. Put them into a large container so that when you make a noise with one of the toys, your child is unable to see which one it was. Encourage your child to find the toy that made the sound.
  • Collect four bottles and fill them with varying amounts of water. Tap them with a stick or pencil. See if your child can pick the highest note and then the lowest. Ask your child to close their eyes while you tap one of the bottles. See if they can find which bottle made the sound.

Game ideas

  • Turn taking
    • You may need another adult so that your child can sit on their lap, to help focus their attention and take their turn.
    • Use language such as “my turn, your turn”.
    • If your child is reluctant to take turns, let them have two turns to your one turn. If they are still unwilling, remove the toy and come back to it later.

Give and take games – e.g. rolling a ball back and forth to each other. You could vary this game by playing with other toys, e.g. cars, bean bags, wind up toys.

Posting boxes – e.g. take turns to post a shape into a box, or tidy toys away.

Mirror – take turns to pull funny faces in the mirror.

Sharing out food – “one for you, one for me”.

Echo – copy noises your child makes. Wait for your child to respond to you, before making your next sound. 

  • Listening and Waiting


  • Copying noises – Put together a selection of noise-makers (e.g. saucepan lid and spoon, plastic box with peas).  Get your child to copy different noises. Make a noise behind your back and see if he can choose the right noise-maker.
  • Ready Steady Go – Have a ball to throw, or an object ready to run and fetch. Explain to your child that they cannot do the action until you say “go”. Gradually increase the time between saying “ready, steady …. “ and “GO”.
  • Hide and listen – Hide a noisy object (e.g. loudly ticking clock). Ask your child to listen and find it.
  • Musical Bumps – Get your child to listen to the stop and start of the music, i.e. sit down when the music stops.
  • Animal and toy sounds – put out 3 or 4 toy animals or pictures. Make an animal noise. Ask your child to show you the right picture or toy.

Once your child can do these games, try:

  • Stories – Read a story to your child. Get him to do something (e.g. stand up/clap hands) every time he hears a particular word.
  • Following instructions  – Ask your child to do a series of actions. Say “go” after you’ve given the instruction and see if he can remember it all.  You can make these as hard as you like (e.g. clap, then hop, then sit then turn around and touch the wall … etc).
  • Guessing Game – present a selection of objects or pictures. Give pieces of information about one of the objects or pictures. Your child must guess which one you are talking about, e.g. it’s crunchy, it’s orange, you eat it (carrot). How many clues does he need before he guesses correctly?

Further ideas for developing attention and listening:

Bubbles – Blow bubbles. Your child waits for “ready, steady, go” before popping them.
Bricks – Build a tower, and wait for “ready, steady, go” before knocking it down.
Peek-a-boo – Your child hides and has to wait for “boo” before popping out.
Beads/buttons – Make necklaces or ‘snakes’.  Sort them into colours, shapes and sizes. Put them into pots and shake them.  Make patterns to be copied.
Inset puzzles – Take all the pieces out and put them back in. Talk about the pieces. Hide a piece and ask your child what is missing.
Feely boxes – Place objects in a box (e.g. car, apple, toy etc). Let your child pull the objects out of the box one at a time, to talk about and play with.
Songs/Rhymes – Use action songs, e.g. wheels on the bus, wind the bobbin up, incey wincey spider, heads and shoulders.
Hiding Games – Use 2 objects the same, e.g. farm animals, musical instruments. Hide one object and leave the matching one out for your child to look at. Make the noise of the object hidden and see if your child can find the matching one.
Shopping – Place 3-5 objects on the table. Ask your child to fetch one item, then two items, etc.
Sounds – Sit in a quiet room. Talk about the sounds you can hear outside, e.g. cars on the road, birds singing, people talking.
Lotto – Listen to a tape and identify the sound heard by pointing to the appropriate picture. Adult chooses a card and talks about the picture on it. Your child looks at matching cards and sees if he can find the correct card.
Daily tasks – During everyday activities encourage your child to copy you.