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Natural vs. Taught Lipreading

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Updated January 21, 2009

Cover of I Can't Hear You in the Dark: How to Learn and Teach Lipreading

Cover of I Can't Hear You in the Dark: How to Learn and Teach Lipreading

Photo Courtesy of Pricegrabber
One of the first questions hearing people often ask a deaf person is, "Do you read lips?" In my case, the answer is yes, but for many deaf people, the answer is no. Some people believe a deaf person will pick up lipreading naturally. In fact, in my blog post Lipreading - Natural or Taught? an About.com visitor said 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."

Several About.com visitors posted comments about lipreading. Some edited comments follow:

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.
- BEG

I was deafened at [the] age of ten...I soon learned that it's impossible to teach someone something that must be learned, without assistance...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.
-Gary

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.
- D-a-nrez

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.
- Lena

...I lost my hearing at age of 7. Came to a deaf school where lipreading is..required...Therefore lipreading did not come natural, it was taught. Although 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 imagine how I can do without.
- BB

Two other commenters whose deafness was identified later in childhood, recalled how they had somehow become natural lipreaders, and were good enough to fool people into thinking they could hear.

Journal Articles on Natural versus Taught Lipreading

Is there any official information to back up what the About.com commenters said about natural versus taught lipreading? In the detailed article The Structure and Optimization of Speechreading, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 1997; 2: 199 - 211, author Paul Arnold argues against the idea that speechreading (lipreading) is "innate" (natural) and training therefore has limited effect. (Arnold defines speechreading as lipreading combined with interpreting body language, facial expressions, etc.) In his review of studies and literature on speechreading (an extensive bibliography is included), Arnold admitted that some components of speechreading may indeed be "hard-wired," but that those components probably include things such as "neural responsivity or the perceptual intake of information."

Arnold's article has the following subheadings:

  • Is Speechreading the Same in the Hearing and Hearing-Impaired?
  • The Effectiveness of Speechreading Training
  • How Much Exposure Is Required to Develop Facility in Speechreading?
  • The Skills Underlying Speechreading Skill
  • The Relationship Between Auditory Speech Perception and Speechreading
  • Speechreading and Age
  • Toward the Optimal Teaching of Speechreading
  • Motivating the Speechreader to Learn
One study compared the speechreading skills of 10-year-old hearing, orally educated hearing-impaired children, and bilingually educated hearing-impaired children. That study found a significant correlation between speechreading ability and reading skills for oral deaf children, but no similar connection for bilingual deaf children. Another cited source had observed several lipreading students, some of whom were good without training and others whose ability failed to improve even after intensive training. However, that same source also found that many adults who lose their hearing do not watch speakers' lips correctly. Another study found that after giving speechreading training to hearing impaired adults, their speechreading scores improved.

Should I or My Child Learn to Lipread?

When I wear my implant, I can understand hearing people well, but am aware that I am also using my lipreading skills. Sound alone is not enough for me as an adult, although I understand it may be enough for children growing up with implants. However, if I am at the office and my implant is not working for whatever reason, I am forced to fall back on my lipreading skills. If a deaf child is not taught how to lipread, then when the source of artificial hearing becomes unavailable, that deaf child's only other communication option is writing on paper, or computer screen. What if something to write on is not available at that moment? How is that deaf child going to be able to communicate with playmates, or as an adult, with co-workers and supervisors? My personal opinion therefore is that lipreading is a critical skill that should be taught to a deaf child who is not a natural lipreader (although there is no guarantee instruction will be successful, the effort should be made).

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