How to lipread
10 useful techniques for lipreading
Learning to lipread never ends. There are different formations to learn, different dialects, and every face is different, dealing in its own way with words.
However, the more you learn, the more your confidence will grow, enhancing and strengthening your communication ability.
Don’t be surprised if you feel tired. Lipreading requires deep concentration, and you will need to give yourself frequent breaks, especially at first. When you get the chance, close your eyes and relax for a few minutes.
Put to the test these 10 lipreading tips and techniques:
1. Know the context
Whenever we are lipreading, knowing the context gives us a much better chance of lipreading accurately. It can feel awkward to check the subject being discussed, especially in mid-conversation, but don’t be afraid to ask what the current topic is (a polite ‘Are we talking about X?’ to the person beside you, may do the trick). Knowing the topic of conversation also makes it easier to lipread homophenes (words that look similar).
Context helps us to lipread because we can anticipate and interpret more easily and accurately.
2. Use lipreading to clarify what you hear
Most of us hear something however little (for those of us who are hard of hearing, lipreading ‘with no voice’ only happens in our lipreading classes). We need to use our lipreading skills to make sense of what we hear.
3. Look at the patterns of lip movements and shapes
One needs to notice the whole sequence of how the sound is made in order to lipread it.
If using a book to practise lipreading, we will see the visual sound shape at the end of a movement. But we need to follow the pattern to see how the shape is made (because several shapes look similar by the end of the lip movement/pattern).
At first, trying to lipread these lip patterns seems like mission impossible, but practise makes perfect and we can become quite accomplished at it.
As we become more accomplished we may notice miniscule differences between lip patterns and also be able observe movements made in the neck/throat areas.
4. Anticipate what kind of words will follow
When we are speaking we know what kind of word will follow another. This helps us to anticipate e.g. ‘I’ will usually be followed by a verb – I am, I went, I have etc.
If we lipread ‘I happy’ we will automatically put in ‘am’ for it to make sense.
Similarly, we know what might follow these phrases:
- It is …
- It was …
- It followed that …
- Can we …
- When did …
- It was a lovely – day/dress/meal/concert/party etc
- Give it to me/us/them/the children/him/her/the group/the class/my mother etc.
We have been using language for years and instinctively know what words and phrases might follow.
5. Use lateral thinking to make an educated guess
I’m going … away/on holiday/to work/by train etc
Do you have an appointment for … the doctors/hairdresser/dentist/consultant/lunch etc
Would you like … a cup of tea/a biscuit/to come with us/to wait here etc
We can use the evidence from the situation we are in to help us to lipread. Are we … with a friend/in a waiting room/at a social event/in a meeting? Our experience can help!
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6. Substitute to make sense!
We know that some words look very similar, so if we can quickly substitute a similar looking word we can make sense of the sentence.
For example when speaking to a friend in the bus queue we may lipread, ‘Have you seen the new chop?’ This doesn’t make sense! We know ‘shop’ and ‘chop’ look similar, so if we quickly change chop for shop it now becomes, ‘Have you seen the new shop?’ That’s better, that makes sense.
As we become more familiar with lipreading we will do this more often.
7. Practise recognising well-known words and phrases
Putting ourselves in different situations can be stressful e.g. the doctors, shopping, a hospital appointment, visiting a friend, an interview.
We can help to take some of the stress away by practising these situations with a friend. There are key phrases and questions that could be asked in these situations, and by learning to recognise them we can help ourselves.
8. Use knowledge of rhythm of speech
It may seem strange but when we speak we use rhythm, stress and intonation to help us convey our message. Even if we can’t hear this we can see the difference in how the words are said and use this to help us even more with our lip reading.
Greetings and phrases used for appointments are really good to lipread because almost instinctively we can recognise the words and rhythm.
Imagine you can see a friend who says, ‘Hello how are you?’. You will recognise this almost instantly because it is so familiar.
We need to make use of such phrases to help us build our confidence as lipreaders and to extend our experience.
This can be applied to many situations, for example out shopping when an assistant comes to help us. They might ask, ‘Can I help you?’ or ‘What size are you looking for?’ Because of our familiarity and knowledge of these situations we can recognise the questions really well.
9. Use non-verbal communication
People often convey information about themselves (how they’re feeling, what they’re talking about) through their body language and gestures. It seems impossible to take this in at first – all we can concentrate on is the mouth, but eventually we will develop our skills and look for all these clues.
- Stretching can indicate boredom, tiredness, even pain.
- Hand gestures help to demonstrate how a person is feeling (finger pointing to emphasise a point or laying down the law when angry).
- Facial expressions speak volumes (happy, sad, fed up, bored, cross, excited, puzzled, curious etc) and similarly the droop or raising of shoulders give extra information about the person’s mood.
|If a person is anxious, you may notice
|Lips are not just for reading…
|If a person is interested, you may notice
|If a person is evaluating you, you may notice
Not looking at you
Hands covering mouth
Index finger pulling collar from neck
Trembling lips – unhappy
Biting a lip – pensive
Compressed lips – anger, sadness or annoyance
Pouting lips – sadness or uncertainty
Smiling, parted lips – happiness
Hand to face gestures
Hand to bridge of nose
Holding glasses earpiece to mouth
If you want to find out more about body language there are lots of excellent and interesting books you could read.
- Watching the English by Kate Fox
- People Watching: the Desmond Morris guide to body language by Desmond Morris
- Body Language in the Workplace: by Allan Pease and Barbara Pease
- The Definitive Book of Body Language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures, by Allan Pease
10. Enlist the help of a buddy!
We’ve all experienced where we’ve been talking about something e.g. the weather or skiing, and while we are still talking about the ski slopes everyone else has gone in the direction of ice in their gin and tonics.
At times like these it is so useful to have a buddy, who can gently direct us in the direction of the conversation.
Lipreading at busy social events can be much more difficult than lip reading one person in a quiet room. There is usually more background noise, there may be background music and the close proximity of other people’s conversations means that we may receive mixed messages in that we are lipreading one conversation and hearing snippets of another. Very difficult.
Social conversations don’t follow a regular pattern, so we have to be on the lookout for clues about the current topic of conversation. If we happen to say something that has already been said it can be embarrassing, but everybody does it from time to time, hearing or non-hearing!
A buddy can help us to overcome some of these difficulties and help to keep us included in the conversation.
Free online lipreading exercises
Lipreading Practice is a free website with lipreading videos and exercises to try at home. Visit the Lipreading Practice website.
Webpage updated: October 2023
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