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How Speech Reading Can Help Maximize the Benefits of Your Hearing Aid

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Hearing aids will greatly increase your ability to understand conversations, but learning to read visual cues and understanding basic speech reading, can help supplement your ears with other information and fill in the blank spots in your communication. Everyone—with or without hearing loss—uses these cues to some extent. It is important to understand that, with practice, everyone can learn to read these cues more effectively.

What is speech reading?

The terms “lip reading” and “speech reading” are sometimes used interchangeably, but most experts prefer the latter. “Lip reading” means you are watching the speaker’s mouth for clues to what they are saying. Using the term “speech reading” helps to remind us that important clues in the conversation come from many sources, in addition to the lips.

While it is difficult to “lip read” perfectly, knowing some basic lip and speech reading techniques can supplement what you are able to hear and keep conversation flowing smoothly. Essentially, learning to use these visual cues is a game of narrowing down the possible sounds or meanings of a specific portion of speech to help you make a more educated guess at what someone is saying.

Businesswoman explaining, canon 1Ds mark III

In English, about 30% of speech sounds can be visualized.

These sounds tend to make very specific shapes near the front of the mouth. So, if you can determine where a tricky sound or letter is being made in a person’s mouth it can help to decipher what that word may be.

Exercises for your lips

For example, making these sounds in front of a mirror while looking at your lips:/p>

  • Words with /p/, /b/, /m/, and /w/ are made by pursing the lips together. Good practice words to visualize these are: mom, map, we, pill, boat, etc.
  • Words with /v/ and /f/ are made by pressing the upper teeth to the lower lip. Practice words like: fat, vein, very, have, sofa, food, etc.
  • The sounds /s/ and /sh/ make a rounded shape, with the speaker’s teeth close together. The /r/ sound also makes a rounded shape, but the teeth are slightly separated. Practice with shirt, round, rat, etc.
  • Vowels tend to leave the speaker’s mouth open. Try saying bat, meet, suit, my, etc.

It can be very difficult to pick out specific sounds in speech, especially if they have the same placement in the mouth. But, narrowing the options to just a few possible sounds makes it much easier to guess what is being said.

Lip reading can be particularly helpful for those with hearing loss as many of these visible sounds fall in the ranges where most people tend to lose hearing first.

Just as sounds that tend to be easier to see are usually more difficult to hear, sounds that are easier to hear are generally more difficult to see.

Speech reading is about more that your mouth

As stated above, “speech reading” means incorporating cues from all aspects of the conversation including: body language, gestures, interests, context, and even current events.

Here are some tips that go beyond trying to “read” someone’s words that will help you have better communication overall:

  • Try to find out the topic of conversation as soon as possible. This will help you fill in the gaps of a conversation if you run into lip reading difficulties.
  • Focus on the big picture instead of each sound/word. Understanding a sentence or comment as a whole is much more important than pinpointing a single word.
  • Make sure you are able to see the other individual’s face. Being aware of facial expressions and gestures they are making can provide clues about their speech and mood. Some gestures can be entire comments in and of themselves. Simply being aware that someone has nodded their head, shrugged, raised their eyebrows, or winked can provide a lot of information about the conversation that has nothing to do with the words coming out of their mouth.
Young woman making sixteen different facial expressions. High resolution image. All the pictures was taken with a medium format Hasselblad Camera system and developed from Raw.
  • Use context to fill in the blanks. Considering your own situation can help to distinguish between words that look similar by lip reading only. For example a waiter is more likely to say “Would you like a CUP of water?” than “Would you like a TUB of water?”
  • Keep up to date with current issues and the interests of friends and family. This will help you to know which topics or even keywords or buzzwords they are likely use regularly.

Some of these techniques come naturally to all of us, but by paying even a little more attention to the context and visual cues of a conversation can help you ain greater understanding and communicate more effectively.

The most important thing

The most important thing to remember while speech reading, particularly if you have a hearing loss is to be patient with yourself and those you are speaking with. Learning the finer details of lip and speech reading takes practice and patience from everyone involved.

All these tips and methods above can be practiced informally, just by talking with friends and family. However, if you are interested in learning more about speech reading, there are many formal classes and websites (like this one and this one) that provide extensive information as well as video-based practice lessons. (Click here for a great list of books, videos, and advice on finding a local speech reading class.) If you want more information on speech reading and learning to use visual cues, talk to your hearing healthcare provider and they’ll point you in the right direction.