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Lipreading - Natural or Taught?

By October 12, 2007

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Is lipreading always natural for deaf children, or is it a skill that can be taught to deaf children? An About.com visitor told me that her deaf children were not taught to lipread when they were little. She was told her children would pick it up on their own, and the focus should be on listening and making use of their residual hearing. Plus, today "Deaf and hard of hearing students who are educated to communicate orally are trained to use their residual hearing with hearing aids and implants, and are not taught to speechread."

This has me bewildered. Isn't lipreading an essential communication skill for a deaf person, especially an oral deaf person? I can not begin to imagine how difficult communication would be for me if I could not read lips, especially on the job. When a deaf or hard of hearing person has hearing aids or a cochlear implant, combining lipreading with sound enables them to make more sense out of what they are hearing. When there is no sound and no sign language, lipreading is the only avenue left aside from written communication. Sometimes it is faster to read lips than it is to write to each other via notepad on the computer.

I can not remember anymore but I think I was taught how to read lips in speech therapy as a child.

October 12, 2007 at 9:19 pm
(1) BEG says:

From my own experiences and observations, lipreading is at its heart a talent. It can be improved upon with practice, but if you have little talent for it, you’ll never be all that good at it. This is true, IMO of both hearing and deaf people.

October 12, 2007 at 9:19 pm
(2) Rox says:

I was never taught to lipread, but I picked it up naturally, although I was never very good at it.

After experiencing many frustrating conversations where I talk, the other person talks, I say “what?” several times, then we resort to paper and pencil, I just tell people I don’t lipread and have them write it down in the beginning. No use wasting our time and patience. It actually works out better; I’m not embarrassed, and we don’t have any confusion, such as when I thought someone was telling me the garage door was open, and when I went to my car several hours later, I realized he was telling me that I had left my lights on :-(

October 12, 2007 at 9:42 pm
(3) gnarlydorkette says:

I have no residual hearing BUT I was taught how to lipread from age 4 to age 14 when I called for termination of speech therapy.

I did have speech therapy where the therapist would have me practicing to detect the difference between M and B or L and T. I would try to write down what the therapist had just spoken in sentences. By age 14, I was succeeding my IEP goal of lipreading five sentences in a row without any pauses or slow-down.
Oh, what a big hooray… blah.

My speech therapy had focused on lipreading when they realized that they cannot get me to use my voice.

Also it helped to have a thick case outlining every evidence and reason that as a toodler, I was very visual and the sign language was (and still is) the best method for me as well lipreading where I could use my eyes instead of my ears because they suspected that I was born deaf– I was too visual-orientated at a precious age of two.

October 13, 2007 at 12:11 am
(4) Gary says:

I was deafened at that age of ten.
When I began the fifth grade, the county school district assigned their speech therapist to teach me how to lipread and I soon learned that it’s impossible to teach someone something that must be learned, without assistance.

Over the years, people have asked me if lipreading is hard and, also, who taught me how.
My, stock, reply is, “Not as hard, for a Deaf person, as it is, for a heairng person…because your ears get in the way.”
I, also, tell them that it’s impossible for someone to teach someone else to lipread, it only comes with experience.
Often, I’ve likened it to driving…I can tell you everything you have to do, but, unless you can do it, you’re not going to learn to drive.

October 13, 2007 at 2:06 am
(5) D-a-nrez says:

It is a talent, but as a skill it can also be taught to some extent. The important thing to keep in mind is that it requires knowledge of the language before one can lipread it. For a small child without language, it is especially difficult to teach an oral language when it is only partly heard and partly visible on the lips.

Once the child has learned a language, either by sign or reading or the more difficult method of oral-auditory instruction, then lipreading falls into place for the visually alert child.

Hearing people who are visually aware often lipread without realizing it. Lipreading classes are offered for elderly who are losing their hearing and it is appreciated by them when they catch on to visually attending to the speakers. These are people who already have language to build the skill of lipreading upon.

The deaf child is starting with a blank slate and one needs to fill it up with a language base first. Talent or skill, it needs material to use.

October 13, 2007 at 9:17 am
(6) Lena says:

Deaf children who receive an implant very early do not need to lipread. It’s evident every day of their lives… they actually hear so similarly to hearing people that it is not only unnecessary, but teaching it to them would create a crutch that could be a problem. Of course they will use the same degree of looking at lips and faces as hearing people do, in natural conversation, but they can also carry on full conversations in the dark or on the phone or with backs turned, with no problem. Lip reading is no big deal for my kids. The only time I try to use it is in the bathtub, and I can say that they don’t do it well enough to rely completely on it, because it is sort of comical at times! Really, though, lipreading isn’t necessary for early implanted kids. They hear all speech sounds very clearly.

October 13, 2007 at 9:22 am
(7) White Ghost says:

Natural and taught are never existing!

We faced some difficult vowels with those words such as mat, bat, pat, hat, hot. I was TAUGHT to learn the vowels with the picture covered. It was extremely hard.

Natural do not work for me at all.

We worked with the brains to catch the vowels. Lots of thinking. I must admit that it did not work for me at all!

White Ghost

October 13, 2007 at 10:53 am
(8) Natural lipreader says:

It helps to master English well to be able to lipread and understand what is said wholly. You pick up new words once you know what they are in conversations… It requires patience, determination, and aptitude. If I use sign language all the time, I notice my lipreading skills drop slightly. We are delighted whenever we encounter “lipreadable” people while others are not easy to lipread due to their cleft lips, braces, mumbling… The bottom line is that lipreading is an art.

October 13, 2007 at 1:23 pm
(9) Rox says:

Lena, I want to clarify something that you said. Your assumption that your kids can hear all sounds is a very dangerous one. I’m sure they have passed 100% accuracy on their audiology tests and such, but so have many other CI people, and they don’t hear all the sounds.

I’m assuming that you do not have a CI. You cannot possibly know all the sounds that a person can hear with a CI unless you have experienced it yourself.

I grew up with hearing aids and could hear all the speech sounds, but I still relied on lipreading a lot.

Also, please do not make the assumption that because your kids can hear perfectly, that all other children implanted early can hear just as well. There are many variables involved.

October 13, 2007 at 1:50 pm
(10) MM says:

I think lip-reading is an inherent skill, many babies exhibit some knowledge from birth, then as they get older and are hearing the skills get replaced or lost. There is an actual divide, females are better at it than any male is, and females communicate better and more often anyway. In a survey in the UK near all the best lip-readers were women far outnumbering males 6 to 1. This suggests men need considerably more help to communicate on going deaf than women do…. and why they cope worse too.

October 13, 2007 at 2:51 pm
(11) Lena says:


I’m not guessing about my kids hearing. It’s perfectly clear to me what they hear and don’t hear. The only time my oldest implanted kid has any difficulty at all is in a very noisy setting. But even that is improving, now, with bilaterals. When I say he hears well, it has nothing to do with testing– it’s what he would tell you. And he’s not making it up. We talk all the time, and he listens to me read lots of books. He never, ever tries to look at my face when I read, and he can answer any question when I stop and ask about the content or plot. Whatever difference there is between him and my hearing kids is so slight that as a stay at home mom who has homeschooled all my kids in elementary years, I can’t even detect much more than incidental differences. The main differences are just that he can’t hear in the bath or when he takes them off to sleep.

I get so tired of people not believing that kids with CIs hear well. It’s about the BRAIN, not so much the device, as to the difference between adult implantees and kids. The adults who didn’t hear prior to implantation, or hadn’t heard for many years, or who went from moderate to severe and then profound… well their brains are never going to be wired like a hearing person. That’s fine– they are welcomed, in my opinion, to use a CI or whatever device they choose to amplify or help their lives be easier. But kids who are implanted can live so much like a hearing person that the issue of their hearing becomes a non-issue. No one has to teach them to hear; they do hear. Their brain can develop the pathways which allow for normal language development.

The whole question posed– about lipreading– shows that people still don’t really “get” that kids with cochlear implants, implanted early, can hear so well that they don’t need to lipread. Since lipreading is a poor substitute (because many sounds look the same on the lips) it really doesn’t correlate. Everyone uses it to some degree in places like a noisy restaurant or concert, but it would never replace the clear hearing that a hearing person or implanted person can hear in everyday settings.

What cracks me up is the “expert” people who have never experienced a CI or an early implanted child telling me that my child doesn’t hear well! I guess you have to be here, but he shows us every day how well he hears. This is not anything like someone who struggled with hearing aids as a kid thirty years ago; it’s a whole different ball game. We don’t spend any time whatsoever on mitigating deafness anymore. Our kids lives can revolve around their activities, friends, school and athletics, and they function like all their friends. Just today we had a guitar teacher over at our house for my oldest son (hearing) and the man was shocked that my implanted son couldn’t hear, as he asked him all sorts of questions and was answered in normal and complex ways. The reality is that all of my kids hear well, not just those born with biological hearing.

A few minutes ago my 1st grader, born deaf, read a 3rd grade level chapter book to my husband. When he had difficulty with a word or two, my husband would say the word. He would correct himself. He never looked at his father’s face during this entire exchange, nor did he want to or need to.

October 14, 2007 at 1:42 am
(12) Lena says:

I find it interesting that you have become so defensive in your response. I am simply stating that you must be careful when making assumptions (and yes, they are assumptions, because you have never experienced a hearing loss or a CI).

When you say that deaf people who are implanted early do not need to lipread, in a way, you are correct. I have met more than 20 individuals who were implanted early and do not use lipreading because they use paper and pencil instead. Your broad statement about people with CIs being able to hear all speech sounds shows how many people with CIs you have really met.

Don’t get me wrong… I am very happy to hear your children are doing well. You are obviously a devoted parent and you care about your child’s well-being. However, when you make broad statements about all children implanted early, and that no one has to teach them how to hear, you are really starting some gross misconceptions.

If you think it’s funny when the “expert” people who have never experienced a CI or an early implanted child telling you that your child doesn’t hear well, think of how funny I think it is that some “expert” parents/Doctors/professionals who have never experienced a hearing loss telling me that I can hear well!

I must apologize for my previous comment. It was a bit harsh. You remind me so much of my mother. My mother assumed I could hear everything perfectly, and I agreed with her. It wasn’t until I became an adult how much I was really missing. My mother and I don’t have a good relationship today because of her false assumptions that she refuses to acknowledge (and this is not uncommon). In all honesty, when you say that your child can understand everything, I hope you’re right. But please don’t make the same mistakes that my mother did.

October 14, 2007 at 2:21 am
(13) BB says:

I would like to say that I lost my hearing at age of 7. Came to a deaf school where lip reading is one of the total communication that is requied. There is a lipreading test on one giving day a week. Therefore lipreading did not come natural, it was taught. Althought, I continue to speak well with and/or without the use of hearing aids or implant I am grateful to this day that I can make use of the
technique to communicate with the hearing world. Can not imgaine how I can do without.

October 14, 2007 at 7:25 am
(14) Karen Mayes says:

This article came at the right time.

My 10 year old son who is mainstreamed paid a visit to an audiologist to keep track of his progressive hearing loss and to re-program his digital hearing aids had a few tests.

One test… FM alone, with no visual cues (no interpreters, no lipreading, etc.) he scored 52% on word recognition. Then next test, no auditory aids… no FM, no hearing aids… just lipreading alone… he scored 72% on word recognition. Whoa. Then with FM/hearing aids AND lipreading… no interpreter still… he scored 92%. No wonder my son LOVES his hearing aids.

So lipreading comes naturally to some people while it needs to be taught to other people. It all depends. For me, it is not a natural skill.

October 14, 2007 at 1:46 pm
(15) Lena says:

Karen, I think absolutely that some people find use for and need or like to lipread. Your son’s scores are a great indication of the help that he receives from them.

To the person who thinks I might be like her mother, I can only say that it’s a different generation, with different hearing. My son hears in a HINT test at nearly 100%. This is a test specifically for hearing in noise. Not that we base all our decisions on that one test, but over the years his tests have been high routinely, and his language expressively and receptively caught up very quickly after implantation and continues to be high.

Right now he’s across the neighborhood, and has been for an hour. He crosses streets, plays with the neighbor kids, communicates well with the other mothers… he just doesn’t need lip reading to do this.

I just wanted to point out to Jamie Berke that, indeed, early implanted kids do not need lipreading to do well on a daily basis. We don’t discourage it in regular conversation, but he never really does it more than the average Joe. We DID discourage it in AV therapy, though, because we were working during those periods of time on audition. We were focusing on learning to listen. It has paid off. It was new in the beginning; now it’s old hat for him.

I would say that it depends on the mother as to how intuitive they are, and how they gauge hearing. If a mother can routinely ask a child something like “are you dressed yet?” or “did you finish your homework?” from another room, and the child can answer just fine, then it’s a pretty good indication of hearing. If you can read Winnie the Pooh or Mrs. Piggle Wiggle out loud and then ask pointed questions and get the correct ansers… then the child is probably hearing. If you can discuss questions like “why did Grandpa have to pass away?” while driving, and your child is in the third row of seating in a minivan, then he’s probably hearing. These are just a few examples of the normal day of an implanted child.

October 14, 2007 at 4:24 pm
(16) Melissa says:

I have to concur with Lena. I have two daughters with bilateral CIs. The older one was implanted at age 2 and a half, the younger at 15 months. Both learned to hear and speak through the A-V approach. My older daughter picked up on some lipreading on her own. She is a naturally visual learner. My younger daughter, despite being born totally deaf, is a naturally auditory learner. Not only does she not have any lipreading skills, but she also has not been able to learn to lipread when I’ve tried to teach her. Both girls score 100% in the booth on testing of connected language. My younger daughter also scores 100% on single syllable words. In the most difficult test of background noise, she scores 84%. Perhaps, though, the true real life test is on the phone. They both are able to converse beautifully on the phone without using a telecoil. As Lena said, this type of hearing is very typical of kids born deaf today, implanted early, and taught to use their CI hearing through the A-V approach. I just don’t get why there is so much resistance to accepting that this level of hearing is not only possible but common among kids born deaf today. Stories of what it was like growing up deaf years ago are irrelevant to today’s kids.

October 21, 2007 at 10:41 am
(17) J says:

I believe that it’s automatic for any young child to pick up lipreading as a communication tool to learn the pronouciation of words. I have a profound hearing loss since birth and my educators in a public school system did not discover my hearing loss until I was hearing tested in the second grade. They were ashtonished that I could get away from being diagnosed for so long, but realized I did due to lipreading skills I gained to communicate. Ironically, I was told by my hearing speech-therapy teacher growing up to never become heavily dependent on just the lipreading. He helped me work on utilizing sounds and words by using lipreading and by using my ears to hear. This enables activity to process auditory brain processing neuropaths as well as “see” how words are pronouced. Now that I am older, it helps tremendously to use both skills to communicate in the hearing world, and people are still surprised that I wear two hearing aids because of my impairment.

March 5, 2008 at 2:58 pm
(18) Kerry says:

As a child, I was in a similar position to J, except that I was not born with hearing loss (and am told that I had very good hearing as a baby/toddler), and was not diagnosed until age 7.

The ironic thing is that it had been noticed by my teachers, and suggested to my parents, and we had gone to the doctors, who tested me and said “Her hearing’s fine”. This happened a few times, until one smart doctor turned me to face the wall while testing – and was astounded at my lack of response! I had unconsciously learned not only to lip-read, but was also reading the audiologists body language for when they expected a response, thus fooling pure-tone audiographs as well (not to mention screwing up their measurements)!

Because I had learned language normally before my hearing loss began, and the loss itself was gradual, I had no idea that I was effectively “hearing” in a different way to other people, and my speech is perfect (to the point that some people can’t believe that I’m hearing impaired). I have note-takers in lectures, but have never needed any other support. I have never been taught to lip-read, and it was not until I was 18 that I realised just how much I rely on the visual information.

A disability advisor at college gave me a quick verbal test, first normally, and then covering her mouth – I went from 95% to 35% correct, which simply amazed me. Until that point, I had thought that my ability to hear (with my hearing aids, of course!) was only slightly less than that of normal hearing people.

As a psychology student, I’m now working on my dissertation – about lip-reading!

@Lena – I’m glad that your kids are doing so well with their CIs, but I think that the point that was being made is that what is true for your children may not be true for others.

There are many causes of deafness, and it is even possible that a person “hears” perfectly normally, but the brain cannot interpret speech signals at all (word-deafness). For a neurological problem like this, no type of hearing aid can help, and the person must rely on non-audible means of communication.
It’s always worth remembering that hearing and language are separate systems, however intertwined they are for most of us, and the important thing is for a child to learn language at an early age – whatever language that may be!

May 7, 2008 at 12:54 pm
(19) retro says:

My daughter is 11, and has been wearing hearing aids for 3 years now. We were not aware of the degree of her hearing loss until she started getting so many instructions wrong when being told about tasks to do. (she was born 2 months premature, which contributed to her deafness) Also–she spoke relatively clearly.(I emphasized good speech/grammar at home)
We wondered if she was able to “fool” us for so long due to the fact that she might have been lipreading. Turns out, she was “guessing” at what we were saying, by filling in the words/sounds she didn’t hear. Now she has hearing aids, and it has improved her hearing to the point that she hears more sounds (60-70%), but continues to just guess–just not as often. This has become a real catch 22–she doesn’t bother to lip read, due to the fact that she hears more. It’s almost worse now, because she doesn’t even attempt to watch our mouths to see what we are saying, if she can somewhat accurately guess at the gyst of the conversation, since she can “hear” more. It’s very obvious when she didn’t hear, and just filled in the blanks. It’s a really bad habit she has gotten into, and I don’t have a clue how to work her toward the lip reading!
Just something to look out for, if you have a hearing-impaired child.

April 24, 2011 at 9:09 am
(20) Virginia says:

I an now classified as a hard of hearing person and use a hearing aid,however I really should be using 2 hearing aids but try not to because I feel that I may weaken the other ear by doing this. It is quite frustrating at times because even with the hearing aid I miss alot of what is said to me. Case in point,back in the 80′s I had a co-worker who was deaf and I became close friends with her and amazingly I learned to sign with her and lip read her as well. I got pretty good at signing to where I could even translate for her to our supervisor etc. To date I still rely on lip reading at work due to the noise level being so loud that I have to rely on this technique to enter data in to a computer. So yes it can be learned but it is like everything,it requires practice.

January 11, 2012 at 10:39 pm
(21) Catherine says:

Although I am not deaf, and no one in my family is, I’ve always been able to read lips..and I never thought it was anything special until I was watching football with my boyfriend one day and I said “did you see what he said!?” and he said no and I told him word for word what was said..and he was so impressed. He told his family and I honestly never thought anything about it. It’s just something I picked up in my attention to detail, I guess.

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