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What is lipreading?

Lipreading empowers someone with a hearing loss to lead an independent and fulfilled life. Lipreading is often described as a ‘third ear’.

Of the eight to nine million people in Britain who have a hearing loss around 50,000 to 70,000 use British Sign Language as their preferred method of communication.

Nearly everyone else will rely to some extent on lipreading.


What are the skills involved in lipreading? A few facts about lipreading Lipreading involves

Training your eyes to help your ears

Watching the movements of the mouth, teeth and tongue

Reading the expression on the face

Noticing body language and gestures

Using residual hearing


Consonant shapes (p, f, sh, w) are:

  • Hard to hear
  • Easy to see
  • High frequency sounds

Vowel shapes are:

  • Easy to hear
  • Hard to see
  • Low frequency sounds

Lipreading some of the shapes

Hearing some of the sounds

Recognising and interpreting facial expression, body language and gesture.

‘Putting two and two together’ and guessing words that you can neither lipread or hear by using the context and common sense to help you.


Strangely enough, sentences are easier to lipread than individual words and long words are easier to lipread than short words.  This always impresses hearing people!

Bear in mind that …

  • Lipreaders cannot lipread in the dark
  • You need reasonably good eyesight to lipread
  • Lipreading is difficult unless you are lipreading your first language, e.g. an English person lipreads English better than they lipread French
  • Some lipshapes look alike, for example, ‘f’ and ‘v’
  • Special equipment is not required
  • Batteries are not needed
  • Since most people speak, most people can be lipread (but not everyone)
  • Lipreading is not expensive
  • You can take your lipreading ability anywhere
  • When two words look similar, you can often tell which is the correct one from the context

Take this example of an every day conversation between Jessica who is deaf, and Jonathan who is hearing.

Step 1: Interpreting expression and gesture

Based on people in general and Jessica’s specialised knowledge of Jonathan in particular:

  • Jessica recognises Jonathan’s expression as one she has seen before
  • Jonathan touched his trouser pocket where he keeps his wallet, he is checking he has money with him, he wants to buy something
  • Jonathan’s voice goes up so he is asking a question
  • Jonathan looks eager and he licks his lips – he is hungry

Step 2: Listening

Jessica is listening using her residual hearing.  She hears something like this:

__a__ _e __o_ _o_  _i__ _o__ee a__ a _a___i__

Step 3: Lipreading

She lipreads something like this:

Ch_ll qu_ t_m v_r qu_k t_vv_nt_ _p r_j

She puts listening and lipreading together and gets:

Chall que tom vora wick toffee anter am rich

Step 3: Calculating

First she tries to sort out the shapes that look the same:

Shall we top for a quick toffee anter am rich

Then she applies common sense to fill in the gaps and correct misunderstandings:

Shall we top for a quick coffee anter samwich (sic)

Finally she puts everything together:

Shall we stop for a quick coffee and a sandwich?

Then she thinks of an answer!

US company ProCare have created this video quiz featuring seven real-life lipreading scenarios. See how you get on – and test your family too.

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