Lipreading is a helpful tool for understanding speech. Even those with normal hearing may miss part of a message. In essence, it is one sense (vision) assisting another (hearing) to address the communication breakdown. We look at some tips to help with lipreading.
To successfully communicate should never be taken for granted. It is not a given that a message will be appropriately transmitted and accurately received. Communication involves both effective speech on the part of the speaker and active listening on the part of the listener.
Optimizing the use of residual hearing with adequate amplification is crucial, but may prove inadequate in difficult listening circumstances.
Many factors, apart from hearing loss, can negatively impact the audibility of a spoken message. Factors include the distance from the speaker, background noise, and reverberation (echoes). There are also additional factors unique to the speaker that can make understanding difficult. These include clarity of speech, rate (speed) of speech, the volume of speech relative to ambient sounds in the environment, and dialect or accent.
It is common practice to look at a person when they are speaking. It is considered good manners to do so. But in addition to showing good manners, it also has the added benefit of providing supplementary information where part of a message is not heard.
What is lipreading?
Lipreading is an essential skill for those with any degree of hearing loss to be able to understand spoken language. These skills become more crucial with increasing the degree of hearing loss.
Studies have shown the percentage of the English language that can be understood through lipreading alone to be around 30 to 45 percent. Therefore, lipreading, including other available visual information like interpreting facial expressions, body language, and context, can be very successful in improving the understanding of speech.
Visual cues in the environment can give us clues on the content of the message. An example of such visual cues is when the speaker is pointing to an object, you can deduce what the message is about. Another example of visual cues is when they are shaking their head or employing any other form of body language or adopting a particular facial expression, you may get an idea of the emotion they are conveying.
As you’ll most likely be looking at the speaker anyway, why not harness the benefits lipreading offers. Here are some tips to make the most of this helpful tool.
Tips to help lipreaders
Make sure that you can see the speaker.
Lipreading is dependent on being able to see the speaker. If you cannot see the speaker, you will not be able to read their lips. If you are attending a lecture or seminar, arrive before the time so that you can find a decent seat, near to the speaker, and where you can easily see them.
Ensure adequate lighting.
If you have any control over lighting conditions, make sure that there is enough light in the room or area. If you are scheduling a meeting, for example, try to arrange it for a time and place where there will be sufficient lighting. If you are booking a table at a restaurant, ask for a table in a well-lit area.
Rectify any visual impairment.
Lipreading is so much more difficult if your vision is affecting your ability to see the speaker’s lips. It may be worthwhile having your vision checked annually and, where necessary, wearing the correct prescription lenses.
Ensure that there are no barriers in front of the speaker’s mouth.
Make sure that there are no piles of paper or books stacked in front of the speaker so that the view of their mouth is not obstructed. You cannot always control this, but where you can, it is worth being aware of it.
Watch the speaker’s lips and facial expressions as they talk.
Watching the accompanying gestures and body language can also assist with understanding the overall message conveyed and, ultimately, better communication. It is considered good manners to look at a person while they are speaking, so this is something most people do naturally. However, you will want to give the speaker your undivided attention if you are trying to lipread. You may want to set your phone to flight mode or turn it upside down so that you are not distracted by incoming calls or messages during an important meeting or lecture.
Get to know the context of the topic.
Having prior knowledge of the topic or understanding the context of the discussion is advantageous. If you are not given information beforehand, the sooner you can identify the topic, the better. Once you know the topic of the talk or discussion, it will be easier to “fill in the blanks” where lipreading does not provide adequate information.
Get to know the language.
When you know what language the speaker is speaking, you will be searching for words within the vocabulary of that language, which will get you off to a good start, to begin with. If they are speaking English, it may also be helpful to know the dialect and accent of the speaker.
Tell the speaker you have a hearing loss.
Remember, the goal is to understand the message.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to read every single word, facial expression, or gesture correctly. Keep calm and give the speaker your undivided attention so that you can get the most out of the exchange. It isn’t necessary to read every single word that is said. Instead, focus on the topic and complete sentences, which will help you to figure out the rhythm of the speech patterns. Through awareness of the speaker’s rhythm, you will be able to pace yourself to essential clues.
Ask for clarification.
If you’re not sure of what was said, ask for clarification to check whether you have understood correctly.
Tips to help speakers
Speakers can make some adjustments to allow those with hearing loss who rely more on lipreading access to communication.
Make sure you are visible to your audience.
Position yourself in such a way that your audience cannot miss you. Stand on a stage if you are giving a presentation. Make sure that there are no physical obstructions such as trees or pillars between you and your audience.
Ensure adequate lighting.
If you are on a stage, make sure that there is sufficient light on you. If you are in a coffee shop, avoid dark corners, or if you are outdoors, make sure you not in a shady or shadowy spot. Also, be aware that lights behind you can cause shadows to be cast on your face, compromising lipreading.
Ensure that there are no barriers in front of your mouth.
Examples of barriers include:
Try to hold the microphone in such a way that it does not obstruct the view of your lips. Better yet, try to make use of a lapel microphone that is clipped onto your clothing.
Avoid touching your face and mouth while speaking.
Cups, glasses or bottles
If you need to take a sip during a speech or conversation, do so during a pause, or while the other party is speaking. When you resume speaking, lower the cup/glass/bottle so that it is not obstructing the view of your lips.
Books or other materials
If you are reading from a book or paper, make sure that you hold it lower than your lips, being conscious of the fact that some may be relying on lipreading to understand your message.
Masks or other facial gear
The wearing of masks, now mandatory in some countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, is a significant obstacle to communication for the hearing impaired. If you have the option to do so, wear a clear face shield instead, and if you are required to wear a mask, make sure that it is transparent over your mouth area.
Look at the audience as you speak.
Whether you are addressing one person, a small group, or a large hall full of people, make sure that you look at them as you speak. Sometimes we may be tempted to look around, or perhaps if you are giving a lecture to look at the pages in front of you or the screen behind you. This is detrimental to lipreading. Not only that, but it also does not engage the listeners. Make sure you look at the listeners.
Enunciate as you speak.
Regardless of who the audience is, make sure that you pronounce each word. Do not mumble or “swallow your words.” Be aware of your speed, instead of rushing through the message, speak slowly and clearly. But be careful not to shout or over-enunciate because a person trying to lipread is more likely to recognize normal lip movements than distorted ones.
Lipreading is a valuable skill that you can develop, and as with so many things, practice makes perfect. Be patient with yourself, and remember it will get easier. As you become more accustomed to lipreading, it will feel more natural.
Applying the above tips with patience and practice should improve your lipreading. Should you want to master this skill further, you may want to take this online course offered by lipreading.org.