With today’s unprecedented global pandemic and the population being encouraged to wear mouth coverings there has been an increasing awareness of lipreading and the access people need to it. Lipreading is a skill that can be learned and indeed taught but did you know that most of us will automatically lipread at some point in our lives, even if we are not aware we are doing it at the time.

We have all experienced noisy environments where ability to hear speech clearly is compromised, loud pubs and clubs, noisy work factories and classrooms. Most of the time we do not explicitly notice we are utilising this skill.

For people, children and adults alike the awareness of lipreading and the ability to learn to lipread in a classroom becomes increasingly important with a diagnosis of hearing loss. Most people consider the idea of being deaf is to describe people whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL). This is only accurate for people who were born deaf, now consider people who have acquired spoken language. What happens when they become deaf?

These people can of course access hearing technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, however even with the best technology can offer lipreading still plays an important role in allowing people to use what they can hear and what they can see on the lips to gain a more accurate understanding. We all make use of body language and facial expressions to support our understanding of someone’s intentions and emotions.

Lipreading, although an automatic ability, can be hindered by many factors such as speakers who mumble, not having a clear view of the speaker’s face, a speaker with a moustache or beard. Often people forget and turn away while talking, making lipreading impossible.

Lipreading is a skill that can be learned and supported. Lipreading skills are a combination of awareness of a person’s own hearing loss and how this disrupts what they hear combined with an understanding of what can be read on a speakers lips.

One “lip pattern” is the combination P,B,M  and even when seen clearly these have almost identical patterns. This means that a simple word like mat looks identical to the words pat or bat. Lipreaders require a good understanding of their language and the context of a conversation to be able to decide which word was spoken.

Basically,  “which word makes the most sense in the sentence”

Lipreading is often likened to brain training and builds skills in lip patterns, memory, and discrimination skills. Tutors and classes enable explicit practice of lipreading through a variety of different activities and over a range of everyday topics. Lipreading classes also support people with the impact of hearing loss and isolation.

Only now that we understand that Lipreading is a combination of using what we can hear with what we can see on the lips to understand what was said do we realise that auditory and visual speech perception work together.

An interesting perceptual illusion that highlights this is the McGurk effect.  This was first described in 1976 by Harry McGurk and John MacDonald.  They reported that when a person watched a lip pattern that was different to the sound they heard, the result was the person reported hearing a different sound altogether. Meaning that if there is a difference in visual speech and auditory speech perception then the brain can be tricked when the two don’t match. For Lipreading this shows a very strong connection between what can be heard by the ears and seen by the eyes, allowing the brain to use both senses to perceive speech.

Lipreading and how the brain perceives speech are two areas of growing interest and research. Why don’t you try to lipread something yourself? Next time your favourite programme is on television try watching with no sound.


Pamela Myles

Qualified Lipreading Tutor.