Formants, frequencies and how to understand hearing loss better

You might be asking yourself, “What are formants, and why should I know them?”  The short answer is they help you understand hearing loss a little better.  In simple terms, formants are the frequencies of different sounds, particularly vowels.  They vary in frequency based on the size and shape of the vocal tract.  Together, all the formants let us know what a specific sound is.  For example, /o/ as in top and /u/ as in cup have similar articulation.  Go ahead and say them.  Notice how your jaw moves ever so slightly?  You might not realize it, but your vocal tract is also changing slightly.  The slight change in the size and shape of your vocal tract produces different frequencies, allowing us to perceive different sounds.

Now, consider /ee/ as in cheese and /oo/ as in moon in the Ling Sound check.  Many times children respond with /ee/ when you present /oo/ and vice versa.  If this is a consistent error, the child might not be able to hear all the formants of these sounds.  In this case, the first formants of these sounds are similar; however it’s the second formant that’s important for distinguishing these two sounds.  So, if mishearing sounds are a common occurrence, it might be a good time to have a discussion with your best friend, the pediatric audiologist and make sure you mention formants!

Jennifer Manley served as a classroom teacher for students ages 3 to 12 at CID – Central Institute for the Deaf. She currently works in professional development giving presentations on auditory development and is co-author of CID SPICE for Life, an auditory learning curriculum and author of the 2nd edition of CID SPICE.

4 replies
  1. Stella
    Stella says:

    I’ve been taking voice lessons for a while now and it’s fascinating how applicable voice study is to teaching deaf children! Having to be aware of my own vocal tracts and folds and how changing one area of focus can change the sound tremendously has had me thinking more deliberately about how sounds are made and how subtle differences that our children may not detect can make all the difference.

  2. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    As a future teacher of the Deaf I think it is really important to understand consistent speech errors that correlate with what a child is hearing or not hearing. Do you have any examples of what activities you might do to better differentiate between /o/ and /u/, and /ee/ and /oo/ as you mentioned?

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      You must first establish that the child’s devices are programmed appropriately to hear the differences between those sounds. Determine if the child is repeating those sounds accurately and consistently in the Ling sound check. If needed, you can do discrimination (same/different) tasks if you want to work on comparing/contrasting those sounds.

    • Yara
      Yara says:

      For some of the students that I work with who tend to have trouble differentiating some speech sounds, cued speech has shown to help them greatly.


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