Speechreading is an art. Speechreading is also a skill that can be learned, practiced, and honed. Some people are naturally better at it than others, sometimes for very practical reasons. Speechreading is used by people with hearing loss to glean additional clues from spoken content. The term lip–reading is commonly used, but since speakers use the throat, cheeks, tongue, and facial expressions to communicate, the term speechreading is more accurate.
Many people use speechreading to some extent. Even someone with excellent hearing will use visual cues, including speechreading, in a noisy environment. But people with hearing loss may rely heavily on speechreading to supplement the speech sounds that are not heard.
Only a small percentage of speech is visible to a speechreader. About 70% of speech cannot be seen on the lips. Try this: Make the sound of “pah.” Now make the sound for “bah.” If you have good hearing, you can hear the difference. But feel your lips as you make the two sounds, and look in a mirror. Relying only on what can be seen, there is no difference in how the “pa” and the “ba” sounds are formed on the lips. This is why even the best speechreader, in the best of situations, can only see about 30% of speech.
However, this 30 % can be crucial to understanding a conversation or concept. To many people with hearing loss words such as van, sand, and than, may all sound alike. (Try them and look in a mirror!) Do you see that in speechreading, the first consonants of each of these words look extremely different!
The most successful speechreaders have a good understanding of the language being spoken and have some residual hearing. People who lose their hearing gradually through adulthood may unconsciously teach themselves to speechread over time. They may be better at speechreading than someone who is born deaf and has never heard spoken language. On the other hand, a person with very little hearing, who is very determined, participates in special training, and has some natural talent, may be an excellent speechreader.
A person’s ability to understand what is being spoken through speechreading is influenced by the content of the conversation. If the person knows what the topic is, and is familiar with the language used, it will be easier to speechread. If the topic is unfamiliar, especially if it requires unfamiliar vocabulary, speechreading will be very difficult.
The environment in which the conversation takes place is important for speechreaders. Good lighting is a must. It is also critical that light is shining on the speakers face. If the light source is behind the speaker, their face will appear in shadow, making speechreading more difficult. Extra movement and sound in the room will also interfere with speechreading. Remember, the speechreader is using as much hearing as they have, so a quiet environment is important.
Another factor to consider for speechreading is the fatigue factor. It is a lot of work to listen with your eyes, and can be very exhausting. Also, if one is tired, upset or unable to concentrate, speechreading abilities are lowered.
Lastly, several factors influence whether a person is easy or difficult to speechread. Someone with a foreign accent, unusual pronunciation, or speech disability will be harder to speechread. People who barely move their lips when speaking are also difficult to speechread. Facial expressions, body language, and mouth movement may help, but they can also cause distraction if over done. Rate of speech is also important. Slightly slower speech will be understood more easily than rapid speech. Of course, anything covering or distorting the mouth or face will interfere. Overgrown mustaches, chewing gum, cigarettes, and hands over the mouth are all obstacles to effective speechreading.
- Learning to speechread is like learning to read a book. A novice speechreader will concentrate on each sound, and may miss the meaning. Speechreading will be more effective if you receive the message as a whole rather than each individual sound.
- Make sure you can see the speaker’s face clearly.
- Hold the conversation in a quiet environment, with good lighting, and not a lot of visual distractions.
- Make sure that light is behind you, not the person you are trying to speechread.
- Gently remind people that you need to see their face when they forget and look down or away from you.
- Ask for the topic of the conversation, if you are not sure.
- If the speaker over–exaggerates, or talks too loudly, gently request that they speak normally.
- Remind speakers to move their hands or other objects away from their face.
- If you still don’t understand after a repeat, ask the speaker to rephrase.
Some communities offer classes in speechreading. To find a class near you contact your audiologist, a speech and language center, or one of the organizations listed below. A large variety of books, videos and computer instruction programs are available. Some of these are listed below.
Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing
(877) 499–6232 V/TTY