5 benefits of learning to lipread when you’re hard of hearing
Lipreading isn’t a perfect method for understanding what someone is saying. In particular, rhyming words (think “pop” and “mop”) can present a challenge. But then, if you’re hard of hearing, you probably know that there’s no single method that allows you to hear with the same clarity as someone with normal hearing abilities.
What is lipreading? What about speechreading?
The terms are often used interchangeably, but they are slightly different. Lipreading is the common term used by most people, and it means to watch the movements of a person's mouth while they speak, to detect speech. Speechreading is very similar, but also means that a person takes cues from the speaker's face, hands, body language and other context clues to pick up on what someone is saying.
Because you’re almost always looking at more than just a person’s lips, experts often prefer the term speechreading. (But for simplicity's sake, we're mostly using the term "lipreading" in this article.)
No matter the name, it’s impossible to do if you can’t see a person’s face because of dim lighting, a poor angle, or other factors. But when the conditions are good, lipreading will allow you to pick up about 40 percent of what people say, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Recently, the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) hosted a webinar with Alison Butler, a lip-reading specialist with the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association-Newfoundland and Labrador (CHHA-NL), on some of the biggest benefits that accompany having this skill.
5 benefits of lipreading
Here, a look at Butler’s take on why people who are hard of hearing might want to develop the skill.
1. You’ll be able to follow along on video calls.
During the pandemic, video chats—whether with family members or in a professional context—have been commonplace. If you have hearing loss and wear hearing aids, you may find that video chats make it easier for you to hear—after all, many times these programs offer some form of automatic captioning and you can usually see the speaker’s face.
But the sound can be strange or lag behind, and typically, AI-powered captioning is good but far from perfect.
If you read the speaker’s lips—as well as using any hearing aid or cochlear implant technology you have—you’ll be able to capture more of what’s being said, Butler says.
2. Feel confident even when there’s background noise.
When you’re hard of hearing, you have a heightened awareness of just how noisy spaces are—classrooms, restaurants, and museums typically have a low din of chatter, clanging dishes, and a general rustling that accompanies movement and the hustle-bustle of life.
“When there's background noise in any setting, it's harder to hear,” Butler notes. It makes it harder to focus, and even with technology, it’s hard to catch everything, she says.
Lipreading offers another way to fill in the blanks that our ears may miss, Butler says.
Adding sight can help enhance comprehension: After all, some sounds that are hard to hear (like the pop of the letter “p”) are easier to understand when you can see the speaker’s mouth.
“In my experience as an instructor, this is one of the big motivating factors behind wanting to improve lipreading skills,” Butler says.
3. Improve your relationships.
If you’re hard of hearing, you’ve likely noticed that you’re surrounded by mumblers and people who turn their faces down or away as they speak. It’s natural to feel frustrated that people with good hearing are so very bad at speaking so that others (particularly those who are hard of hearing) can understand.
"A lot of people out there are really terrible communicators,” Butler says.
And it can feel tedious to constantly ask people to speak up and avoid mumbling. Building your lipreading skills allows you to approach this challenge in a new way, Butler says. Tell everybody—friends, family, co-workers—that you’re learning lipreading.
“Ask them if they will practice with you, in person or on a video call,” she suggests. Then, tell them precisely what you need to make it work.
“In order to practice, they need to face you. They need to speak clearly. It helps them understand what you need. It helps them become better communicators overall,” Butler says.
You can also tell people you’re practicing with to keep facial hair well groomed (a moustache can interfere with valuable sightlines to a person’s lips) and avoid exaggerating their speech or speaking loudly—this may seem helpful, but actually makes speechreading more difficult.
4. Feel more connected.
Just as your communication skills are improving as you master this skill, so too are the communication skills of those around you. And, instead of feeling frustrated, you’ll connect with people as you share the common goal.
You may find yourself laughing together, instead of feeling isolated and irritated.
“Feeling like you are part of the conversation can help you feel more connected to the people that matter to you,” Butler says.
5. Enhance your technology.
There’s no question: The technology that exists to aid people who are hearing is incredible. Hearing aids and cochlear implants have a transformative effect, so do assistive listening devices. But background noise can still make it hard to hear, even with artificial intelligence-powered devices aimed at bringing down the levels of that sound.
Plus, something as simple as a dead battery can derail a conversation, Butler points out.
“I can think of many examples over the years where the skill of lipreading has really helped someone when their technology stopped working, for whatever reason,” she says.
A strong ability to speechread gives you another tool in your arsenal to help you understand others.
Lipreading and speechreading resources
Search online, and you can find plenty of books, online videos, and courses to learn speechreading.
Butler, who previously taught lipreading in classrooms, is now part of the self-paced online lipreading program, Read Our Lips, to help people practice and perfect the skill.
“It doesn't matter if you've had hearing loss for years or if you're just starting to explore a small drop in your hearing, we can all benefit from adding to our skills and our confidence,” Butler says.