Erber’s Hierarchy: The Listening Ladder

How do we take a new listener from hearing beeps at their cochlear implant activation to enjoying the whole wide world of sound? Well, if you remember how to eat an elephant, it’s not so hard at all! Erber’s Hierarcy, developed by speech scientist Dr. Norman Erber, breaks the listening task into four steps. By guiding children (or new adult listeners) up this “listening ladder,” parents and therapists break the task of learning to listen into more manageable parts.

Step One: DETECTION.  Do I hear the sound or not?  Can I detect the presence of sound?  Your baby might blink, widen his eyes, turn his head, or point to his ear.  This demonstrates detection.

Can I tell one sound from another?  If you put two toys in front of the baby (e.g. cow and dog) and say one Learning to Listen Sound (“woof woof”), can the child indicate the correct toy for the sound-object association?  The goal here is pattern perception and indicating same vs. different.


a.       Discrimination moves through various stages: discrimination by duration (e.g. short vs. long sounds, single syllable vs. multisyllabic words), discrimination between words that are the same length but have different consonant and vowel information, discrimination between individual consonants and vowels, etc.


b.      Skilled adult listeners are doing this ALL THE TIME.  You constantly take in information and “weed out” all of the things it is not (discrimination) to get to the real meaning (e.g. you hear “bat” and effortlessly weed out baD, Cat, bUt, etc.)


Step Three: IDENTIFICATION.  If you hear a sound, can you tell what it is?  For example, if the child hears a dog barking with no visual reference, can he say, “That’s a dog!”  Can the child name or repeat what he’s heard?


Step Four: COMPREHENSION.  Making use of the auditory information.  For example, if the child hears a story read at school he can not only make out the words but understands them and can use them to answer questions about the book.


 Can I hear a sound (detection), know what it is not (discrimination), single out what it is (identification), and use that information for something meaningful (comprehension)?

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