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Rhoades, E. A.

Sound-Object Association

Ellen A. Rhoades, EdS, LSLS Cert. AVT

Citation for this paper:

Rhoades, E.A. (2007). Sound-object associations. In S. Easterbrooks, & E. Estes (Eds.), Helping children
who are deaf and hard of hearing learn spoken language (pp. 181-188). Thousand Oaks CA:
Corwin Press.

Long before babies speak words or know their meanings, they hear sounds and then
memorize them (Jusczyk, 1997). For children using hearing prostheses, Sound-Object Association
activities can facilitate listening. This involves associating a sound with a referent, a meaningful
object or action. Parents of normally hearing babies consistently associate sounds to items or
actions (e.g., Harding, 1983; Norris & Hoffman, 1994). Young babies become familiar with
frequently heard sounds before they understand and say words. Often referred to as Learning to
Listen sounds, Sound-Object Associations are frequently used with hearing impaired children
engaging in auditory-based learning. Regardless of what this activity is called, linking a sound to
a referent is an important activity for auditory-based intervention. Imitating a sound that is
associated with an object is called onomatopoeia and the sound itself is considered an
onomatopoetic word.

There are many reasons for facilitating the development of sound-object associations. Some
of these are:
To encourage the child to attend to sounds.
To facilitate the recognition that sounds are different.
To help the child understand that different sounds have different meaning.
To develop auditory imprints, also known as auditory schema or stored perceptual
representations, for specific sounds or language-based phonemes.
To highlight critical parameters used in spoken language
To engage the child in turn-taking and joint attention behavioral interactions.
To stimulate fluent movement of the childs articulators needed for speech.
To help the child experiment with producing different sounds.
To integrate and synchronize physical and social behaviors into vocal interactions.
To develop communicative intention.
To develop auditory familiarity with the spoken language.
To enable the child to become a communicator before he or she understands the concept
of communicating.

Young children need to participate actively in the learning and listening process. Therefore,
parents should use toys and common actions, as opposed to pictures, during sound-object
association activities. Sound-object activities are meant to be meaningful as well as actively
enjoyable for both adult and child not passive, rote drill work (Stark, Ansel, & Bond, 1988).
Each time children hear a sound in a different context, it restructures the auditory schema of a
particular sound (Norris & Hoffman, 1994). For this reason, we should vary how we use each
Start with just one, two, or three sound-object associations when first implementing sound-
object activities and introduce more associations after a few exposures. Young infants categorize

Rhoades, E. A. 2007
Sound-Object Association

their newly learned concepts (Hasegawa & Miyashita, 2002), so follow this natural pattern and
present sound-object associations categorically for ease in planning and learning. For example,
avoid mixing transportation vehicle sounds with animal sounds in the same session at first. Use
toys that are easily recognizable and have simple, obvious representations. For example, moo
obviously represents a toy cow. Choose toy animals in standing rather than sitting positions, and
choose generic representation of objects. For example, use typical vehicles such as a sedan rather
than a convertible; however, if all you have available is a convertible, then by all means use that.
Children 18+ months may be able to work with toys that are less representational; that is,
dimensions or colors are not salient features. Avoid toys that produce a sound while being moved,
since these sounds typically take precedence over speech. If the toy is battery-operated, remove
the battery during the session. As the child gains success, vary the objects you use for each sound,
that is, use a variety of cars to expand the child's concept of what that associated sound
represents. Multiple objects used as the same referent also serve to maintain the child's interest.
A variety of table-top props lend themselves to more interesting activities, and many of
these props can be handmade rather easily. Examples of table-top props are a plastic fence, a gas
station or airport hangar, a train track, a barn, an oval piece of blue paper representing a small
water pond, some small pebbles, and twigs retrieved from outdoors. The more props one can use,
the more opportunities there will be for repeated vocalization of sounds, and the more varied will
be the connected language that accompanies the sounds being made. Even young infants seem to
attend more to visual objects when they have an auditory stimulus associated with it (Schafer,
Plunkett, & Harris, 1999). This relates to early word comprehension.
An effective auditory-verbal strategy that should be used with sound-object association
activities is that hearing always comes first. The adult should vocalize the sound before showing
the child the item. Special attention should be given to voiceless sounds also known as fricatives.
These are phonemes that are not voiced, instead being whispered, e.g., /h/, /t/, /p/, /k/, /s/, /f/, /ch/,
and /sh/. These high frequency sounds are often difficult for young children to hear when couched
within whole words, since vowels seem to supersede the whispered phonemes because they may
seem louder to the child using hearing prostheses. Therefore, it is important that these voiceless
sounds be used without any vowels during sound-object association activities. Table 1 provides
examples of sound-object associations that are based on my experiences as someone with a
hearing loss and as an Auditory-Verbal Master Clinician for 35+ years.
Pointers to Remember
1. Assess current associations. Determine if the child is already making sound-object
associations and use the associate the child has naturally made. For example, a child may already
associate toot toot with a train moving. Therefore, engage in a train playing activity where the
chchchch sound is made only when the train is starting up and the toot toot sound is made
when the train moves, or use another referent for the chchchch sound.
2. Check comprehension. From time to time, check on the child's understanding of
sound-object associations. While it is unrealistic to ask babies to make appropriate selections,
toddlers one year and older are capable of choosing the requested target object (e.g., Woodward
& Hoyne, 1999). For example, after playing with a garage, some cars, a fire truck, some
airplanes, and a paper landing strip, ask the child for a vehicle by sound while holding out a hand
or receptacle and wait for the appropriate response. Comprehension checks should be done
naturally, meaningfully, and in a playful manner. Keep a record of those sounds that the child
understands without the use of visual cues.
3. Know when to move on. Typically, when the child understands most of the sounds, it's
time to move on to using the words and dropping the sounds; that is, chchchch becomes train.
4. Expect inconsistency. Young children do not always perform in a consistent manner.
The 80% target of many school objectives is unrealistic for young children. As long as the child
demonstrates incidentally on at least one occasion that he clearly understands a particular sound is

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Sound-Object Association

associated with the referent, comprehension for a handful of animal sounds and another handful
of vehicle sounds is all thats needed. At this point, the young child has demonstrated
understanding that sounds are meaningful and differentiated, and that exposure to varied auditory
schema has occurred.
5. Be creative. Daily activities should be presented in a variety of ways, and
incorporating seasonal themes can facilitate creativity. For example, ghosts say Oooooo during
Halloween; we click our tongues when playing with cowboy toys; Santa Claus says Ho ho ho!
during Christmas; Mmmmm is what we say when eating Halloween or Valentines Day candy;
Hop hop hop is what the Easter bunny does; Sssss is what we say as we are filling up the
inflatable wading pool with water.
6. Avoid boredom and facilitate flexibility. Use multiple toys in multiple
contexts, varying the playful situation each day. Party and dollar stores have bags of inexpensive
plastic planes and other vehicles as well as animals. One day, small boats can slosh around in a
large plastic bowl halfway filled with water. The next day, those same boats can be imaginatively
'sailed' across a blue piece of paper. The following day, little plastic people or animals can
board a larger toy boat. Moreover, the sounds can be appropriately used when reading
children's books. Because children can become bored with repetition, the hardest part of the
adults' job is to be creative.
7. Separate special toys. Since therapy materials involve adult participation, parents
should be advised to keep these toys separate from the child's regular toys. Young children come
to view these toys as being special and that provides even more of an incentive for them to
engage in play therapy with their parents.
8. Make interactions enjoyable. Caution parents that these activities should be fun
without applying pressure on the child to talk. After all, the child is just learning to listen; we do
not expect the child to talk prior to one year of hearing. With sufficient exposure over time and
across multiple situations, the child will begin vocalizing. Talking should be a comfortably
spontaneous act that occurs subsequent to multiple sound exposures (Meltzoff, 1999).
9. Transition from sounds to words as soon as possible. When the child can identify
many of the objects based on the associated sounds made by the adult, transition to word-object
associations whereby animals and vehicles are named. Delaying the child's transition from sounds
to words may result in the situation where 'overkill erases. Some children have difficulty making
this transition to a higher symbolic level due to an excessive amount of time spent on sounds or to
co-occurring learning disorders such as ASD or APD.
10. Follow the developmental sequence of acquisition. These are:
Step 1: Child will identify the object by the sound
Step 2: Child may vocalize the sound, either by imitation or spontaneously
Step 3: Child will identify the object by its name and sound
Step 4: Child will identify the object by its name
Step 5: Child may vocalize the name, either by imitation or spontaneously
The sounds presented in the following table are sufficient for exposing children to many
features of speech, particularly those of duration, intensity, pitch, voicing and non-voicing, as
well as some basic consonants and vowels. The adult need not incorporate additional sounds into
play therapy, since too many may inhibit progress toward lexical learning.

Harding, C.G. (1983). Setting the stage for language acquisition: Communication
development in the first year. In R.M. Golinkoff (Ed.), The transition from prelinguistic
to linguistic communication (pp. 93-113). Hillside NJ: Erlbaum.
Hasegawa, I. & Miyashita, Y. (2002). Categorizing the world: expert neurons look into

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Sound-Object Association

key features. Nature Neuroscience, 5(2), 90-91.

Jusczyk, P. (1997). The discovery of spoken language. Boston, MA: The MIT Press.
Meints, K., Plunkett, K., & Harris, P.L. (1999). When does an ostrich become a bird? The
role of typicality in early word comprehension. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1072-
Meltzoff, A.N. (1999). Origins of theory of mind, cognition, and communication. Journal
of Communication Disorders, 32, 251-269.
Norris, J.A. & Hoffman, P.R. (1994). Whole language and representational theories:
Helping children to build a network of associations. Journal of Childhood
Communication Disorders, 16(1), 5-12.
Schafer, G., Plunkett, K. & Harris, P.L. (1999). Whats in a name? Lexical knowledge
drives infants visual preference in the absence of referential point. Developmental
Science, 2, 187-194.
Stark, R.E., Ansel, B.M., & Bond, J. (1988). Are prelinguistic abilities predictive of
learning disability? A follow-up study. In R. L. Masland and M.W. Masland (Eds.)
Preschool prevention of reading failure. Parkton, MD: York Press.
Woodward, A. & Hoyne, K. (1999). Infants learning about words and sounds in relation
to objects. Child Development, 70(1), 65-77.

Citation for this paper:

Rhoades, E.A. (2007). Sound-object associations. In S. Easterbrooks, & E. Estes (Eds.),

Helping children who are deaf and hard of hearing learn spoken language (pp. 181-
188). Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Rhoades, E. A. 2007
Sound-Object Association

Sound Toy Characteristics Suggestions

Transportation Vehicles
Aaaaaah airplane Stimulates use of strong low- Use among the first sounds. Exaggerate suprasegmental features (inflection and
frequency vowel. Generally duration). Fly plane up and down to mimic vocal duration. Listen for suprasegmental
easy for all children, no matter variations when the child spontaneously imitates the sound. If child is using a
the degree of loss. monotone voice, sing the sound, exaggerating intonation and incorporating rhythmic,
whole body movements.
Buhbuhbuhbuh bus Stimulates use of lip Sing the sound using various rhythms to synchronize with bus movements. If child
articulators. One of the first says muhmuhmuh, child may be cochlear implant candidate. Since /b/ and /m/ look
consonants babies with normal the same, do not let child see lips while adult says the sound. Vocalize the sound only
hearing produce. when moving the bus. To highlight intensity differences, use small bus for soft sounds
and large bus for loud sounds.
Oooooooo fire truck, Stimulates use of intonation or Vocalize from high to low and low to high while imitating the sound of a siren.
ambulance, pitch variations. A favorite of Gradually expand duration. If a parent is not be able to vary pitch on this sound,
or police car children. choose eeeeee. Synchronize sound with truck movement in both voicing and pitch. If
truck is not available, use ambulance or police car. Do not use Cheerios or round
objects to stimulate ooooo. Focus on intonation without visual cues.
Brrrrrrrrrr car Stimulates use of lip Parents may be more comfortable practicing this first at home. Synchronize lip-trilling
articulators. Also known as sound with car movements in both length and rhythm. Accept any lip or tongue trilling
blowing raspberries. efforts from child.
Ptptptptpt boat Some therapists prefer using Sound should be produced with a whisper, so help parents practice saying it until there
the p-p-p-p sound. Develops is complete absence of a vowel. Explain the logic behind this to parents: vowels
familiarity with high frequency "drown out" high frequency consonants; we want acoustic clarity when
sounds. imprinting consonants on the child's brain. Strive for voice-action synchrony. Presence
and absence of sound associates with presence and absence of movement; rhythm of
voice associates with movement of boat.
Chchchchch train Stimulates high frequency Avoid saying choo-choo-choo. Whispering highlights the consonant whereas hearing
consonants, pushing tongue to the vowel will take precedence over the high-frequency consonant for the
roof of mouth, and for possible inexperienced listener. Check parents ability to produce without the vowel. Try to find
later use when comparing short a train that does not make a sound as turning on the sound will be too tempting for the
sounds with longer sounds child and the objective will not be reached. Fun noises compete unfavorably with
such as ch as compared to human speech. If a noiseless train is unavailable, remove batteries. Allow child to play

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sh. with another train that makes noises; save the noiseless one for therapy.
Moooooooo cow Stimulates use of strong, basic Use a low voice, dropping it to bass. Children find this change interesting. Do not
vowel. vary pitch or loudness, but do vary duration. Synchronize your voice with how the
cow is moved.
Repeated tongue horse Stimulates use of tongue articulator. The child may want to see your mouth when you make this sound, so try to
clicking produce it without visible movement of your articulators. Child may not be able
to produce this, but objective is for child to notice it as being different from other
sounds. Synchronize the rhythm and speed of your clicks with the speed and
rhythm of a trotting or galloping horse.
Meeow cat Facilitates two-syllable vowel Make an effort to sound like a cat. Be sure the ow part is nicely rounded. Play
transitions. with cows and cats in one activity so that the child becomes familiar with hearing
the differences between moo and meeow.
Woof-woof, arf-arf, dog Introduces voiceless, high frequency Do not use bow-wow as the /b/ is already used for bus and the ow is already
or ruff-ruff sound in final position. used for cat; each sound should be uniquely associated with each toy. Say this
sound softly (not loud), so that the fricative /f/ will be heard, especially if said
within close proximity to the childs ear. Make the sound rise from your chest as
if you were barking.
Ssssssss snake Facilitates whispering and use of Typically, normally hearing children younger than two years of age will not
voiceless consonant. Also checks produce this sound. Babies and toddlers love to have adults whisper in their ear.
whether child's hearing prosthesis is Children with aided hearing thresholds worse than 35 dB may have difficulty
working. hearing this sound. Be sure you are in close proximity to the childs ear. If child is
fearful of snakes, use this sound to represent the use of a hose to water flowers, to
put out a pretend fire, or to put gas in a toy car.
Quack quack duck Highlights the fricative /k/ in initial Use a low voice (bass). Good for working on duration changes; make both long
and final positions. and short quacks to mimic the toy ducks actions. If child does not respond to the
sound, you may need to move closer to his ear and highlight the /k/ sound more
Hop hop hop rabbit Highlights action-oriented word and Use the sound in a whisper and voiced. Dim lights and whisper what a toy rabbit
fricatives /h/ and /p/. Develops is doing. Turn on the light when you voice what the movement of the rabbit.
awareness of voicing and non- Whispering helps child to hear the high frequency sounds; changing the lighting
voicing contrasts. helps to highlight the concept of voicing and non-voicing.
Oink oink pig Highlights the first diphthong and Follow rules of voice-action synchrony. Sing Old McDonald had a farm and

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the nk final sound. read childrens stories about farm animals that include pigs.
Ba-a-a-a-a sheep Develops awareness of variation Provides for a listening contrast between aaaah and a-a-a-a-a. The difference
with fundamental vowel. is more noticeable as vowels are prolonged in duration. This is an appropriate
time to play with both animal (sheep) and vehicle (airplane), such as having a
little sheep ride in a big toy airplane.
Squeak (or) mouse Develops awareness of falsetto In a very high pitched voice, adult uses either sound to represent mouse. Follow
Eeek voice. rules of voice-action synchrony. Say the squeaking sound as a wind-up mouse
moves around on the floor or table..
Whistling like a bird Facilitates use of mouth articulator. Most young children will not be able to whistle, but many will spontaneously try
bird by vocalizing a falsetto oooo or eeeee, Try to imitate loud bird sounds that are
heard outside in an otherwise quiet environment.
Mmmmm To indicate Facilitates eventual production of Pretend to eat foods, saying Mmmm, its good. with naturally occurring
foods sound in isolation. inflection (rise and fall in pitch). Avoid overuse of this sound; dropping it after
tastiness child hears and produces it without saying mba.
Shhhhh To indicate Facilitates eventual production of Pretend a doll is sleeping; turn off lights and tip-toe with a finger over your mouth
the need for sound in isolation. saying Shhh. If child is unable to hear this sound from 3 feet, he may be a
quiet cochlear implant candidate.
Smacking lips To indicate Stimulates use of pursed lips as Use as the drinking sound when feeding doll a bottle. Let cows and horses move
sucking or articulators. to water trough on toy farm and lap make-believe water. As usual, engage in
kissing voice-action synchrony.
T-t-t-t-t To indicate Facilitates eventual production of You can use a finger moving back and forth to represent the rhythmic movement
the ticking the voiceless sound. of a clocks second hand. The child should hear a loud clock ticking when in
of a clock close proximity. Do not insert a vowel sound. Hide a clock that makes a loud
ticking sound and search for it.
K-k-k-k-k To indicate Stimulates back tongue Take care not to insert a vowel sound with k-k-k-k. Pretend a baby doll is
G-g-g-g-g coughing, articulators. Facilitates eventual coughing and gently pat it on its back. Pretend a doll is gargling after brushing its
gargling production of voiced and voiceless teeth. Have the child watch while you hold water in your mouth, making bubbles
consonant equivalents. with your head tilted back.