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The lip reading challenge

by Charlie Swinbourne

20th April 2011

Hearing impaired Charlie Swinbourne taught himself to lip read and has been perfecting the art for personal use, throughout his life. recently he decided to test his homegrown skills by attending a lip reading class. Find out how he got on in the article below ...

How well do you think you can lip read? Take Charlie's video challenge ...

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Two weeks ago I returned to college after twelve years. This time, it was a fact finding mission; I took a class on lip reading. I’ve been doing it all my life so I expected to breeze through the lesson but I was in for a real surprise.

I grew up in a deaf family. At home we communicated in a variety of ways depending on who we were speaking to and because we all had different levels of deafness. But whether we were speaking or signing, the one constant was that we all focused on each others’ lips.

Lip reading was so natural to us that we often didn’t need sound. A favourite party trick of mine was talking to my parents across busy rooms which my mates thought was very cool.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, lip reading was crucial in helping me discern what hearing people were saying. Sometimes in school, university and the workplace, I focused so hard on peoples’ lips that it made some hearing folk very self conscious.

So how does lip reading work?

Everyone lip reads to an extent, subconsciously taking in the movement of the lips, tongue, mouth and facial expressions; combined, they all help us to make sense of what people are saying. Obviously, deaf people rely on this far more than your average person.

Lipreading is not an exact science. It is often said that anywhere between seventy and ninety per cent is guesswork, filling in the gaps between words you can’t make out. While most of the time you get it right, it's inevitable you occasionally get it wrong.

I still remember being twelve years old and thinking that two girls in my English class at school had told me they loved me. I was mentally working out which one I’d like to go out with when I realised they were testing out the theory that mouthing the words "elephants shoes" makes it look like you're saying 'I love you'. I was gutted.

Though I was lip reading from an early age, many people become deaf or hard of hearing later in life and suddenly find it hard to understand what people are saying. This is where classes may be able to offer some help.

It is not easy for everyone to find a free course, however. The RNID is currently campaigning for better funding and says "there is a postcode lottery in the UK for lip reading classes." The ones that do exist are often prohibitively expensive.

The charity points out that while nine million people in the UK have some level of hearing loss, only five thousand are currently taking a lip reading class.

I'm a lifelong lip reader and, intrigued to know more about the techniques used to teach a method of communication I learnt naturally, I recently attended a lesson to discover how it works.
Lip reading tutor Ollie Goldstone
Lip reading tutor Ollie Goldstone
Richmond Adult Community College agreed to let me sit in on a class with their tutor Ollie Goldstone who won a National Star Award for her teaching in 2010.

After being greeted warmly by Ollie and the other students I sat down feeling very confident, even a tad cocky. But on just the first exercise I was forced to re-evaluate this.

I was certain she asked us all "would you like something to drink?" only to find she had actually said "would you like something to read?"

Fortunately, she then showed us how to differentiate between the vowel sounds in the words 'drink' and 'read'. This involves looking out for the longer vowel sound of 'ee' in the middle of the word 'read' which lasts a millisecond or two longer than the quicker vowel sound of 'i' in the middle of the word 'drink.'

A few minutes later we were all getting it right and I had learned a technique I would remember for life.

The lesson taught me why I find certain words hard to tell apart. Ollie explained that consonants like p, b and m all involve a similar pattern of bringing your lips together. Try saying a word beginning with each of these letters now and you'll see your mouth make similar shapes which are hard to tell apart.

Ollie also suggested two key tips to employ when talking to lip readers.

• Firstly, add context to sentences. An example would be adding "I’ve just put the kettle on" to the phrase "would you like a drink?" The first bit makes the second bit much more guessable.

• Secondly, rephrase sentences that might contain words that people don’t easily understand. For example, "would you like a drink" could become "are you thirsty?"

Another part of the lesson involved us getting into groups and reading out a series of statements. The sentences contained things which are really tough to lip read such as numbers, dates, names and acronyms.
A lip reading class at Richmond Adult Community College
Charlie's lip reading class
If fellow group members didn’t understand, we were encouraged to find other ways of getting the message across, including emphasising certain words or finger spelling them. It was difficult but practical and fun.

The students clearly benefited from the positive and supportive environment. After the class one of them told me how socialising in the group had helped her feel less isolated: "It gives me strategies for listening which increases my confidence. I can go anywhere now."

An elderly woman who had just recovered from a stroke, told me: "The classes create a feeling of togetherness that is so helpful and you begin to talk to people more."

For her students, Ollie’s lip reading class is about more than just learning a new skill. It provides a toolkit of techniques they could use in the real world to communicate, understand, and be heard.


    • 1. At 4:28pm on 24 Apr 2011, Carohamilton1 wrote:

      Two comments about this cheery "test":
      Lip-reading on a screen looks flatter than on a live person and is much more difficult. I'm good in the class but was always surprised at how badly I did with television until a class mate with no hearing at all and a brilliant lip-reader explained she had the same problem. (Hurray for subtitles!)
      Alas, there is no such thing as popping along to your local lip-reading class, they are few and far between. One member of our Richmond class comes from Guildford. First our classes were cut from 3 levels to a bigger, more mixed ability 2 classes and this year we are no longer 'supported learning' and are paying £8.50 a lesson. Nevertheless we all keep attending as it really is a tremendous confidence booster and I warmly recommend being taught the theory to help avoid the typical '15 or 50' pitfalls or Charlie's very amusing 'The elephant's shoes.'

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    • 2. At 4:18pm on 26 Apr 2011, John Howard Norfolk wrote:

      I agree - you never stop learning lip reading. I can get used to reading one particular family member, friend or TV presenter but find I can struggle with another person.
      Some of the TV news readers are really difficult to understand.
      One fun activity is when the TV cameras zoom in on an argument with a football referee. I lip read what the players are saying and it bears no relation to the subtitles on the screen!!!!

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    • 3. At 2:33pm on 13 Jun 2011, Papabear40 wrote:

      As a lifelong speechreader (lipreader) from America and being deaf, I tried to see if I could "read" the accent and understand what is being said.

      I had difficult time reading about 1/2 of the sentences. Could be reading from screen is different than seeing a live person. Typical read-a-like words on the lips always trips us up. It's fun guessing what is really being said.

      Then again, most of us at best can "read" every word about 33-66% of the time anyway. Thanks for the article and good luck in further research.

      Papabear in the Great Lakes region USA

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