Why Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) Makes Reading Difficult.Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) is not an issue of poor hearing, but an issue with how the brain interprets the nerve signals from the ear. APD challenges are most often seen with spoken speech since the differences between speech pronunciation can be subtle and therefore more difficult for an individual with APD to discern. The presence of background noise can make this even more difficult.

But even in a quiet room, people with APD may have difficulty distinguishing differences between similar sounds, or phonemes. For example, you can say “Go to your room and get your red coat,” and the person may hear “Go to your broom and get your bed note.”

Research has shown that APD impairs the ability to distinguish specific sounds within speech. This causes speech to be perceived as “mumbled” or “running all together.” As a result, when children with APD begin to read, they have difficulty learning the distinct sounds that are used to sound out words. Sometimes this is called phonological processing disorder. Some researchers say it is a form of dyslexia.

Muddied sounds makes for inconsistent learning

When a child is learning to read, the first part of that process is teaching the sounds (phonemes), and how they relate to the letters (graphemes). This is known as the alphabetic principal. In addition, the child must master phonologic awareness, or the ability to break words apart (decoding) into their phonemes and put them together (blending) to make the word.

Since children with APD often perceive similar sounds as the same, this can make it very difficult for them to learn the specific phoneme pronunciations. As a result it is very difficult for them to learn how to decode the sounds in a word.

Environment contributes to the inconsistency

Because environment effects how a child with APD interprets sounds, the classroom environment can further hamper the learning process. What they learn one day with a quiet room can sound very different the next day when the air conditioning has been turned on. When you read to your child at home it sounds very different than in a classroom of 30 kids all rustling and making noise. This inconsistent input makes learning a struggle.

A child without APD is presented with phonics and reading exercises which are the same day-to-day. A child with APD is faced with exercises that can sound very different day-to-day. This clearly causes confusion, frustration and an extreme slowing of the learning process.

Kids with APD compensate with sight reading

Kids with APD are often very bright, and to bypass this inconsistent learning situation, they will often rely on their visual strengths to help them learn to read. As a result, they will not bother with the breaking apart (or decoding) of the words, but instead learn the word in its entirety, like memorizing a picture. The child may still struggle to hear the different words, but there is less confusion than breaking the word into specific phonemes.

At first this technique is an effective coping strategy, but as the volume of words turns into 1,000’s of words, reading becomes cumbersome and slow as they continually have to access this visual memory bank. In addition, when faced when an unknown word, the child has no tools for deciphering the word and must rely on others to teach new words.

Around a third of children try to read by sight recognition of the words, a reading pattern known as Optilexia. Some of them have auditory weaknesses, like APD, while others just have great visual memories and so memorizing words seems the easiest way to deal with inconsistent English spelling.

57% of kids with APD have reading difficulties

A lot of research has been done to identify causes of reading difficulties in children. Recent studies have identified a causal relationship between APD and problems learning to read (Sharma et al., 2009; Watson et al., 1993; Wright et al., 2000). In 2009 Sharma et al. did a study of 68 children diagnosed with APD. 57% of these children were found to have a reading disorder. 47% of these children were found to have a language disorder in addition to the reading difficulties.

Helping a child with APD learn to read

Clearly the auditory-only approach taken by most schools is not the optimum learning environment for a child with APD. It is best to supplement their reading instruction with a modality that engages the visual and/or kinesthetic approaches in order to expand ways the child can learn phonemes and decoding. By engaging the other senses the child has a way to verify decoding, and they can progress more rapidly in learning to read.

It is important to not use reading programs that involve a lot of language or word-structure rules which require even more auditory memory for the children. For example, having to remember a silent ‘e’ at the end of the word makes the vowel say its name. Modalities that layer language rules on top of reading rules requires more short-term memory processing, which children with APD often struggle with.

For my son who had APD, I found Easyread, which is a visual approach to learning phonics. In 6 weeks on the program he went from a Kindergarten reading level to a 2nd grade reading level. In 6 months he reached a 3rd grade, 8th month reading level, which was right on target for his age.

It would be optimum to understand the child’s strongest learning style, and choose a program that fits this strength. Then the child can have a structure that will be engaging as well as assisting in learning to read.

Steve Weed
Steve Weed
Steve is a professional mediator and father to two kids with IEPs. He is Bonnie's husband and contributed to her book, Special Ed Mom’s Survival Guide. While he is trained to facilitate conversations between people who disagree, as a parent involved on the front lines, he has cultivated many tips and processes that have helped navigate the IEP process.