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Cued Speech: A System of Enhanced Lip Reading

by Julia Sneden

When I read Jean Leinweber's touching "I Can't Hear You", I was reminded of a remarkable experience I had many years ago, when I taught a beautiful little girl named Catherine. She had become profoundly deaf following a bout of meningitis when she was less than two. Her parents, after much careful thought and research, decided to start using something called "Cued Speech" to help their communication with Catherine.

I came into the picture when Catherine was in accepted into the school where I taught kindergarten. The school administrators sent all the teachers who would come into contact with Catherine during the first two or three years of her schooling, to a four-day workshop to learn how to Cue. We were told that we could pick it up fairly easily, although of course it would take daily practice for a while before we became proficient.

Cued Speech is a system of enhanced lip reading. Because many of the sounds of the English language look alike on the lips, a phrase like "have a pet to cover" could be interpreted as: "half a bed do go for." While context can help comprehension, if one is busy figuring out which sound one is seeing, one loses several of the following words. With Cued Speech, the lip reader watches the speaker's mouth, but also sees a series of hand signals that help to differentiate sounds that look alike, like b/p or v/f. When the lips come together to make a "b," for instance, the speaker's hand is held near the mouth with four fingers extended, and the thumb folded in. If the sound in question is a "p," the fingers are folded in with the index finger pointed straight up.

Amazingly quickly, the deaf observer learns to see what the hearing observer hears. The system allows a child to learn the English language exactly as it is spoken, with correct syntax and phonemes. Because of this, a deaf child can easily pick up such subtleties as rhyme, alliteration, puns, word play, and even foreign languages. (Catherine quickly picked up some French, and later moved on to Spanish). I was delighted to find that Cued Speech's phonemic approach fit with our pre-reading program, IBM's "Writing to Read," although I am sure it would work well with any phonetic reading program. By the end of kindergarten, Catherine was reading at 1st grade, eighth month level. She also wrote delightful little sentences to accompany her drawings, and large signs to post on her block buildings: "No Boyz Alaoud!" (her spelling has improved since then; she is now in high school, and an honors scholar).

Cued Speech was developed at Gaullaudet University by Dr. Orin Cornett, back in the '60's. It has spread throughout America and to many foreign countries, although it is still struggling for recognition in the deaf community.

In the world of the hearing impaired, there has long been a fierce battle between the oralists (who believe in lip reading) and those who advocate sign language (ASL, Signed English, or other systems). In the last thirty years or so, Total Communication, a system that combines aspects of both, has made some strides in bridging the gap between the two camps. It is not my place to enter the fray, inasmuch as I am neither an educator of the hearing impaired, nor (yet) deaf myself - although the latter is creeping up on me.

I understand that the signing community feels that there is a whole deaf culture that is inaccessible to those of us who hear, and they protect it vigorously. Although I do not sign, I have been told that learning to do so is like learning a whole new language. The syntax is different: for instance, a signing friend tells me that a sentence like: "Yesterday I went to the store" is signed with (1) the sign for "store;" (2) the sign for "me;" and (3) the sign for "ago," followed by a number to indicate how many days, hours, etc.

I would like to learn sign language just because I find it fascinating, but at my age, I suspect I would find it pretty difficult.

When I read Jean's article, it struck me that I really hadn't thought much about Cued Speech except as a superb method of making English accessible to small children learning how to talk, read and write, because that's how Catherine's family had used it. But I did remember that I had met several older, hearing-impaired people when we went to the Cued Speech Center for our workshop. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that Cued Speech would be ideal for adults who experience late life hearing loss.

Since they have already been using the language all their lives, they understand the structure of sentences and the complications of homonyms. They are used to thinking language in phonemic units. Best of all, the process can be easily learned by their family members, so that the deaf person can continue to participate in the give and take of family life.

As I said, it takes a bit of practice to become as fluent with the hands as with speech. But even if you don't ever get up to speed, you can use an occasional cue to straighten out misunderstood speech.

Every hearing impaired adult interested in this system should first take a really good lip reading class (usually available through Senior Services). Without lip reading, Cued Speech is pretty meaningless. But for those of us who face increasing loss of hearing, it offers hope that we will not become isolated in our silent worlds.


If you are interested in learning more about Cued Speech, visit, or go to and type in the words "Cued Speech" (with the quotation marks). There is probably a Cued Speech center near you that will be happy to give you more information.

New England Cued Speech Services

National Cued Speech Association



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