Auditory discrimination refers to the brain's ability to organize and make sense of language sounds. Children who have difficulties with this might have trouble understanding and developing language skills because their brains either misinterpret language sounds, or process them too slowly. Often, these children cannot differentiate between similar sounds, or they are unable to recognize language in certain situations.
Language is made up of phonemes. A phoneme is the smallest possible sound in a word, and is not necessarily related to spelling. For example, the word "night" has three phonemes: the "n" sound, the "eye" sound, and the "t" sound. When humans listen to language, their brains organize the different sounds into meaningful chunks that can be interpreted as words. This is called phonological awareness.
People with auditory discrimination disorders may appear to be deaf or hard of hearing. They might not respond to spoken language if there is background noise, or they might understand sounds incorrectly. Problems with this ability are usually related to the brain rather than to the ear itself. It means the person can hear, but he or she hears things "wrong." A medical professional can diagnose a disorder after tests have shown there are no physical hearing problems.
Children with these disabilities often fall behind in school, particularly in reading and spelling, because they lack the phonological awareness needed to make relationships between sounds and the symbols that represent them. Sometimes, they appear to have speech impediments or a stammer because they cannot accurately produce the language sounds they can't hear properly. These children may also be unable to understand a teacher who is not facing them or addressing them directly, or they will have difficulty picking out language sounds if there is any background noise.
The Wepman's Auditory Discrimination Test (WADT) is an assessment tool that is commonly used to diagnose auditory processing disorders in young children. In this test, a child is seated so that she can't see the examiner. The examiner reads a series of minimal pairs, or words that differ by only one phoneme such as "bit/pit" or "ship/sheep." Some of the pairs of words have no differences, and the child is given a score based on how many pairs she correctly identifies as the same or different. Other tests might involve asking a child to repeat words back to an examiner, or say a word back with a sound missing.