(Please) Read my lips

Lately I’ve been thinking about redundancy, again.  Maybe it’s the fact that only after reading a bunch of tweets about an IATEFL presentation, moving on to 2 or 3 blogs about that same presentation, and finishing up with the actual video do I feel like I have some sense of what was actually happening.  Redundancy, even that vaguely annoying verbal kind where we think, “I know, I know,” is not a glitch in communication, but one of the ways meaning emerges from a communicative experience.

There’s a lot of tricks to bringing redundancy into the classroom.  One of the most used is stories that come with a story-board.  But in conversation, the most natural forms of redundancy are gestures, facial expression and simply saying the same thing over and over again.  When I talk with my grandmother on the phone, I have no idea how often she is waiving her hands about but I would peg her verbal redundancy level at about 80%.  I sometimes get the feeling that she thinks I’m pretty thick.  I recently read an article about the optimum background noise level for lip reading.  Turns out people are pretty excellent lip readers.  And when the noise level is pumped up just right, people’s lip reading skills peak.  Too noisy and you just give up.  Too quiet and you focus on the actual words.

So a few months ago, I decided to check with my students and see if they used lip reading at all when it came to understanding English.  It wasn’t the most scientific of methods.  I just talked and dropped my voice so that students couldn’t catch what I was saying unless they were looking at my lips moving.  Unfortunately, the more serious students were taking notes, so there was no way for them to notice anything but the fact that my voice had suddenly cut out.  The other problem, as identified by Ayano Sueyoshi and Debra Hardison, is cultural.  It’s kind of rude to look people full on in the face when talking in Japan.  That coupled with the fact that many Japanese learners of English are shy or nervous when engaging in English conversation makes the whole lip reading thing relatively rare.

So I wanted to help my students get some idea of how useful lip reading could actually be.  Luckily, I was team teaching, so Scott, my partner in crime, wrote down one thing he did during the weekend on a sheet of paper.  Then I told the class to make a lot of noise while Scott was answering my question.  I asked Scott, “What did you do this weekend?”  The students started hollering.  Scott talked in a pretty low voice.  I turned to the class and said, “Scott cooked spaghetti.”  Then Scott showed the note to the class.  Turned out Scott had cooked spaghetti.  Cue students’ gasps of surprise.  Or at least some mild, “wow”s here and there.

From there we watched a few Charlie Chaplin clips.  The end of the “The Lion’s Cage” was pretty fruitful.  I happened to have a large copy of Adrian Underhill’s phonetic alphabet from Sound Foundations.  We used it to identify the shape of the mouth and position of the tongue for “c”, “d”, “m”, “n”, and “w”.  Then students did their own lip-reading sleuthing game.  Every student wrote down three things they had done over the weekend.  I blasted some music.  And relying on lip-reading skills, they tried to guess what their partner had answered.  Some of the students were spot-on.  Especially when they were talking to a friend and had some kind of context about how their partner usually spent a weekend.  And some students were just so far off that they would explode in laughter.  Whenever someone started cracking up, I would rush over, hand them a marker and get them to jot down what they thought their pratner had said and the actual sentence up on the board. Unfortunately, these were the only two I wrote down in my class notes:

“I went to Osaka” became “I slept with Ohashi.”

“Nothing special” turned into “Nothing is pizza”

I carried the lip-reading over into my warm-up activities for the rest of the week.  I whispered excerpts like the following from Stories for Young Readers:

This is Keiko.  She lives in Osaka.  She is twenty-two years old.  She speaks Japanese.  She studies English…

I tried to make lip-reading a small part of lessons for the rest of the semester, especially during fluency practice.  I wish I had some kind of amazing data to throw out here.  But lip-reading was just one small part of what was happening in my classes at the end of the school year.  All I have is my own anecdotal evidence.  What I can say without a doubt is that students stopped taking notes during the warm-up exercises.  Which is great.  No matter how many times I had asked them not to take notes during warm-up exercises in the past, they had just ignored me.  And I do think there was less looking down in general during conversation practices.  Next year I am going to introduce lip-reading skills linked to phonology right from the beginning of the course.  And I will collect some hard data to see if there is any there there to back up my hunch.  Because after all, without some more hard information, it might just be a lot of “nothing is pizza” for all I know.


Sueyoshi, A. & Hardison, D. (2005). “The Role of Gestures and Facial Cues in Second Language Listening Comprehension”. Language Laerning (55) 4, pp. 661-699

Ma WJ, Zhou X, Ross LA, Foxe JJ, Parra LC (2009) “Lip-Reading Aids Word Recognition Most in Moderate Noise: A Bayesian Explanation Using High-Dimensional Feature Space”. PLoS ONE 4(3)

Kinney, R. & Kinney, D. (2003). Stories for Young Readers. Kinney Brothers Publishing: Saitama, Japan

Underhill, A. (1994). Sound Foundations. Macmillan Publishers: Oxford

And a big thank you to the IATEFL bloggers for lowering my almost incapacitating sense of jealousy at not being in Glasgow.  Must reads include, but are not limited to:

Throwing Back Tokens take on Penny Ur, Willy Cardoso, James E. Zull

Chia Suan Chong’s posts on anything IATEFL, but especially dug her write-up of Anthony Ghaughan

If you have any other good ones, please let me know.


16 thoughts on “(Please) Read my lips

  1. Thanks Kathy. Lip reading connects up well with all kinds of aspects of language learning and teaching. I was really pleased with how it would prime the students for pronunciation work. Hope it proves useful in your class. And I enjoyed your latest post as well. Just linked to your blog. Glad to have found you.Kevin


  2. If you want me to send you some sixth grade American girls, they will be able to share all sorts of excellent tips with your students; they have figured out more than one silent way to communicate when they're supposed to be working, and I'm sure lip reading plays into their mad skills!


  3. Hi Liz,It would be great to have your students visit Japan for a time and teach my kids the secret of lip reading in English. My students could teach your girls some Japanese to confound the teachers when they get back to America and everyone (student-wise) would be left better off than before.


  4. Thanks right back at you. Always enjoy the sites and articles you point out so I'm honored to be included in the list. I'll do a follow up post in May as soon as I see how the new first year students react to the class. If you have a chance, let me know what your students think.


  5. Interesting idea. Truthfully, I have a little innate discomfort about the thought of suggesting they lip read during a conversation. I'm not sure where it stems from. Perhaps it's because we often perceive those who don't look in our eyes directly (not constantly, but you know what I mean) as a little shady somehow. Then there's that weird feeling that the person you're talking to isn't quite looking at you, but somewhere around you… Haha. I also wonder about the cognitive load of trying to listen and read lips, like it's another skill for them to focus on. Of course, it can't be much different than listening and absorbing all the other non-verbal communique that happens.I'm sure you have valid points though. I'll have to try it out myself–seeing how much I focus on someone's lips as they speak, that is. I have to admit, I've tried doing it explicitly and not been that successful at detailing what was said. I think context and body language helps there (try guessing what dramas in Japanese are saying, sometime… I'm sure you can shock many by having reasonable guesses). =)Anyway, cheers Kevin. I'll do some investigation about this myself.


  6. Hi Tyson,Thanks for visiting. I can see your point about how someone gazing intently at your mouth could be uncomfortable and might give the impression of shifty-ness. On the other hand, Japanese speakers of English have a habit of looking at their feet, which probably doesn’t instill much trust either. As far as the cognitive load issue is concerned, I would imagine it could potentially decrease understanding unless it is introduced gradually and students are given time to practice and acquire the skill in a (semi)controlled environment. But I'm not sure that lip reading on its own is valuable. At least in my classes, it was the way lip reading led to pron work and pron work helped students develop lip reading skills, a virtuous feed-back loop, which I think ended up being beneficial.Please let me know how it all plays out with your students.Kevin


  7. Great response, Kevin. I once used a piece of software called Pronunciation Power that allowed students at computers to watch how sounds were made by clips of mouth closeups and then waveforms of individual sounds. This reminds me of your idea.


  8. Hi Kevin,A great post as usual. I have a few points I would like to add your post.The first is that a common mistake from new teachers is to read stuff aloud (instructions and answers) from behind a book so that their mouths are hidden. This obviously reduces the sound quality but also prevents students from looking at their teacher's lips.My second point is that I have great difficulty listenining in my L2 (Portuguese) when there is a group of people and some background noise, e.g. in a bar. After reading your post I think one of the reasons might be that it is impossible to look at people's lips when more than one person is talking.Finally, I have a young son (8 months old) and so I have been reading a lot about first language learning. There is a lot of literature out there that suggests lip reading is something that babies do when learning language before they actually start to talk. I have included one link but there are many more out there. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/337718/title/Babies_lip-read_before_talkingSorry for the long comment but your post really got me thinking.


  9. Hi Stephen,Thank you for the comment and the great link. I'm actually going to be presenting a paper which, in part, deals with lip reading at the CLESOL conference in New Zealand and am currently doing a lit review to help flesh out some of my ideas, so your link couldn't have been more timely. I had never given any thought to how engaged in conversation with multiple partners cuts down own our ability to utilize lip reading. But it sure seems reasonable that it impact understanding.Congrats on the new site. Looks terrific. Kevin


  10. The cooler thing about that software was as the mouth made the sound and you'd see the waveform of it appear as it did it, students could then try to replicate the sound into the mic and they'd see their waveform juxtaposed overtop. So, if they couldn't exactly get it by listening, they might keep trying visually…if that makes sense.


  11. Makes perfect sense. I can see how the immediate feedback and how they could simply play with the physicality of the sound would lead them to improved pronunciation. Oh how I wish I had this software. Wonder if there will be an app soon that does the same thing?


  12. Hello Leo,Thanks for the link. You are right, lots of excellent coverage. Your presentation is filled with great ideas. I probably have to do some more thinking about how I am going to cover vocab with my beginning students. Definitely have to get them to focus on chunks and not just individual words. Hope you don't mind that I've added you to my links.It's a pleasure to have met you. At least digitally.Kevin


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