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Helping children listen in noisy environments is key to building language, researchers discover

Researchers have published important new information on how to get the best outcomes for young children born with hearing loss.
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  • Hearing

Researchers from NextSense, Macquarie University and National Acoustic Laboratories have published important new information on how to get the best outcomes for young children born with hearing loss—showing how children’s early ability to understand speech in noisy environments can help them develop better language at school.

Until now, there has been a major gap in existing knowledge about what impact early speech perception might have on later language ability in young children with cochlear implants.

The research team, led by Professorial Fellow at the NextSense Institute Teresa Ching, measured outcomes of children with hearing loss as they grow.

The research showed that children’s ability to understand speech in noisy environments at 5 years of age was a significant predictor of their language ability at 9 years of age, even after taking early language ability into consideration.

This new evidence suggests that there may be just as much need to enhance children’s early skills to perceive speech in noise as there is to develop early language skills.

Professionals working with young children with hearing loss could adopt a ‘two-pronged approach’ to early intervention with the goal of developing children’s language ability as well as their ability to use hearing in both ears to enhance speech perception in noise.

‘For young children who exhibit much difficulty when listening to speech in noise, intervention activities to improve their speech perception skills at an early age would give them the best chance to develop better speech perception and language abilities when they enter formal schooling,’ Professor Ching says.

‘Our findings lend support to early intervention that focuses on developing both language skills and speech perception skills.

‘Importantly, this needs to be integrated with the child’s/family’s unique values and circumstances and complemented with the right technology.’

Permanent childhood hearing loss affects about one in every 1000 newborns and can have a major impact on a child’s development. There is much evidence to show that early intervention improves children’s outcomes.

In children who need cochlear implants, the earlier a cochlear implant is provided, the better the outcomes.

‘We’re fortunate in Australia to have universal newborn hearing screening, which aims to improve long-term outcomes at a population level,’ Professor Ching says.

‘But there are still evidence gaps in understanding the long-term effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of early intervention for improving opportunities around participation in society, employability, educational attainment, mental health, and quality of life. Our research aims to close these gaps and provide important, population-based information that is crucial for both policymakers and practitioners.’

The research paper, ‘Predicting 9-Year Language Ability from Preschool Speech Recognition in Noise in Children Using Cochlear Implants (CIs)’ was published in Trends in Hearing. The paper draws on data collected in the LOCHI study – an ongoing research collaboration based at the National Acoustic Laboratories that is monitoring the developmental outcomes and quality of life of more than 450 children with hearing loss.

The LOCHI study is the first population-based study that compares over time the outcomes of children born with hearing loss who received early or later intervention.

Director of the NextSense Institute Professor Greg Leigh said these latest findings would be an important addition to the best practice approach taken by early intervention professionals at NextSense.

‘We’re delighted by the important new findings that this collaboration has produced and look forward to continuing to work with colleagues to generate evidence to help change the lives of children with hearing loss,’ he says.

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