University of Edinburgh

Lipreading Issues

Presented in December 2005

Phonics and Lipreading

Recent research in the UK showed that tests of the ability to distinguish isolated phonemes and syllables did not relate to tests of the ability to discriminate normal, everyday speech in any meaningful way. So why consider phonics for deaf children? I think if you are careful in the way you apply phonics, it can be helpful.

It's certainly not something I had considered until, during an HMI inspection back in around 1999, staff were asked "What phonics system are you using?" My own reaction was "They don't understand, these children are deaf!" I did however start to look at the currently available systems - the favourites of the time were, and possibly still are Jolly Phonics and Letterland.

Standard phonics systems do not suit deaf children in a number of ways. Foremost is the assumption that the child can both hear and discriminate the various speech sounds that occur in our language. In developing the Visual Phonics programme I considered the most deaf child in the class and what might help him to make use of phonics. The programme aims to make the area of phonics accessible to deaf children by focusing on the use of visual clues and accepting that only some of the children can make us of the auditory information.

The basis of phonics is linking sounds and letters. In Visual Phonics we are linking a visual representation of sounds - lip patterns and hand cues (from Jane Passy's Cued Articulation) with written letters and fingerspelling. I anticipated that this might be confusing, but in fact the children seem to find the links useful. The fact that the hand cues and lip patterns are at one level and the written letters and fingerspelling are at a different level helps to strengthen the appropriate connections.

In the sense that we are linking letters, hand cues and lip patterns the children are 'lipreading'. However for general lipreading work we continue to operate at sentence level, aware of the necessity of natural speech patterns. Even hearing people don't hear language as individual sounds or even as words, but in 'chunks', confirming the need for normal fluency.

A number of benefits have become apparent for those children who have been introduced to the Visual Phonics programme:

  • improved word attack skills for reading
  • a better understanding of the link between the spoken word and the written word
  • much better awareness of lip patterns in general, with a definite improvement in both the
  • ability to lipread and to use recognisable lip patterns

NOTE: Cued Articulation should not be confused with Cued Speech. The system is based on linguistic theory, with each hand cue representing one speech sound/phoneme. The position, shape and movement of the hand clearly represent the placement, manner and articulation of each sound.

The hand cues used Cued Speech however, are arbitrary and have no obvious link with the sounds they represent.