Lip Reading: Can you SEE what I am saying?

Do you know how to read lips? Try it. It’s harder than you think…..

Lip reading is a skill.  Everyone knows how to do it a little bit, but normally a hearing person’s lip reading skills are not well developed. You see to you as a hearing person it would be considered supplementary, communication, information compared to the audio feed your brain is getting from your ears. It is just a “nice to have” when conversing with others.

For a hard of hearing person the information you receive from lip reading is absolutely essential for communication.

When I tell people I’m deaf they will often ask if I am reading their lips. (Um, well if I wasn’t … how would we be talking at all??)

I have heard it said that a good lip-reader can get 30 – 40% of what is being said. That’s pretty good, but considering that means they are also are missing 60-70 % of all words spoken you can see that there are limitations.

What you need to know is lip reading has what I like to call “outcome variability”.

For me, my accuracy in lip reading is impacted by many factors including:

  • how much light is on your face,
  • how well I know you,
  • how tired I am,
  • how well I know what we are talking about,
  • how skilled of a lip reader I am to begin with, etc.


Using lip reading to understand in a conversation is like getting a few pieces of a puzzle and trying to figure out what the picture is….then, while you are putting it together the conversation moves onto another topic.

The good news is lip reading is a skill that can be learned or improved on with practice. Also when lip reading is paired with other information it can really make a difference in a hard of hearing person’s overall listening experience.

For example, using the sound received by a hearing aid or watching for visual cues, like facial expression or gesturing can all be used together to enhance understanding when communicating with someone who can’t hear well – or not at all.

Remember, if you are not understanding the sender’s message then communication is not happening. So if you really want to communicate with someone who relies on lip reading you need to be prepared to partner with them to ensure understanding is happening.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Speak steadily – not too slow, but a step down from regular speed.

Don’t over do it on your pronunciation – it is annoying, condescending, and also tough to read!

Pause, before changing topics. Remember the puzzle?  My mind is doing a lot of processing as we are talking so sometimes I need a second to get a clear picture. Also, I need a warning when we are changing topics too so I can clear the slate and be ready to get started on the next conversation enigma.

Don’t eat, or chew gum when talking to me. I don’t want to see that and I have no choice but to look. I need to see your face so keep that hand down too please.

Look at me. If you turn your head – you lost me.

Stay in the light. This is just for your face though. Back light can be as difficulty as low light.

Shave or trim your facial hair. It is hard to lip read. Besides, I think it looks  unattractive on most people – like 99% of the people I have seen. (No, you are not the 1%)

One of best parts about lip reading is the humour opportunities.  I love to repeat back something strange that I think I heard so that we can both laugh about it.

Words that sound the same are called homophones. You know like eight and ate, but in lip reading it is not just about spelling and meaning, but the lip movement too. Since I am not getting all the words if I misread a keyword then the conversation can go off the rails in a hurry. Remember the lip reader in Seinfeld? Exactly.

You don’t have to be deaf to learn to lip read. Do you want to give it a try? Watch the news with no sound and see how you do.

Think you are pretty good already? Ok, see if you can find the letter K on your lips by mouthing these words with no sound in front of a mirror? Spark, Kite, Kyle.

How did it got? Not well I would guess. I was teasing you. You can’t see the K sound on the lips. The sound for K is made in the back of your mouth, not on the lips. You can still see these words, but it’s not the K giving you any help.

If you are serious about learning to lip read then I suggest starting with some easy letters first. In my class we start with B,P,M.

Ready? Now go to the mirror and try it. Say these words with no voice: Ball, Paul, Mall. See if you can see the difference. Tricky right?

It takes time to train your brain to hear in a new way. Don’t give up! Communication is always worth it!! In the end of the day you don’t need every word to understand what is being said so keep at it.  Besides, with a little practice, I am confident you will be able to see exactly what I am  talking about 🙂



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