National Cued Speech Association

Cued Speech: What and Why?

by R. Orin Cornett (Rev. 2000)

This article is a revision of one of my earliest articles on Cued Speech, intended for readers who need an elementary presentation of descriptive and explanatory material designed to clarify its nature and objectives.

Cued Speech is designed to overcome the following problems encountered by a large majority of children with a prelingual severe or profound hearing impairment:
  • The problem of limited communication in the early years, resulting in retarded personality development and delayed social maturation.
  • The problem of delayed and limited acquisition of verbal language, including its vocabulary, syntax, and common idioms. Rapid early verbal language rarely occurs in the profoundly child through only traditional methods.
  • Failure to acquire an accurate and extensive model of the phonological details of spoken language. Such a model is indispensable for accurate speech patterns and for maximum development of speechreading ability. Together with the needed verbal competence in vocabulary, syntax, and idioms, this phonological model constitutes the needed base for reading. At six years of age, the child needs this base in order to learn to read easily and enjoyably.
  • The lack of a convenient method of clear communication in the classroom, at home, and elsewhere, for use in interaction, for instruction, for clearing up misunderstanding, for clarifying pronunciation, and for increased awareness of and participation in whatever is going on.
The first of the above problems can be solved, in most cases, by some form of signing. However, about 95% of hearing-impaired children have hearing parents. Typically, hearing parents of children in signing programs at school tend to fall far behind their hearing-impaired children in signing, so that the problem of communication in the home persists. Fingerspelling has been used effectively in some cases, but not without giving up the basic oral commitments to (1) consistent dependence on the information visible on the mouth, leading to speechreading, and (2) consistent emphasis on spoken language in communication.

The second of the above problems is the central cause of failure in the education of hearing-impaired children. When he/she enters first grade, the hearing child typically know the language in which everything is taught, the language he is to learn to decode from its written representation, the language she/he needs to read, write, speak and understand. The hearing-impaired child is typically far below this level. Cued Speech is claimed by its advocates, and such claims are supported by extensive research results, to make possible the rapid learning of verbal language by profoundly hearing-impaired children.

The third problem, which is also crucial, cannot be solved through either present manual or aural/oral methods, for a majority of prelingually severe or profoundly hearing-impaired children. It can be readily solved by the use of Cued Speech.

The fourth problem can be solved through manual communication in self-contained classes, and in the mainstream class to some degree, through a sign interpreter, except for easy clarification of pronunciation, for which fingerspelling is of limited help. Of course Cued Speech solves the problem.

Though his/her limited aural feedback makes it difficult for the aurally handicapped child to learn to make speech sounds accurately, this is not his/her major problem. The child's major problem in use of expressive speech is that, once taught to make most of the speech sounds with reasonable accuracy, she/he is still not familiar with the pronunciations of most words, the rhythm and intonation of phrases, or with the meaningful patterns of the language itself, unless he/she has acquired these through Cued Speech. His/her major problem in speechreading arises from the same deficiency.

Cued Speech is based upon a very simple hypothesis: If all the essential sounds (phonemes) used in our spoken language looked clearly different from each other on the mouth of the speaker, even the completely deaf child would presumably learn language in much the same way as the child with normal hearing, but through vision rather than audition. This hypothesis implies some basic assumptions regarding the ability of the brain to decode serially-presented visual stimuli that I was unsure of until the results obtained with the first child demonstrated that this is not a problem.

With Cued Speech, in English, eight configurations and four locations of one hand are used in synchronization with speech to produce, with the hand and mouth in combination, a visually different pattern for each syllable of the spoken language. Syllables (and phonemes) that look alike on the mouth look different on the hand. Syllable that look alike on the hand look different from each other on the mouth. Thus, all syllables that sound different look different.

In Cued Speech every sound is read from the combination of what is seen on the mouth and what is seen on the hand. The hand serves only to identify, in each case, a group of sounds that are different from each other on the mouth. No sound or syllable can be read from the hand alone.

In order to learn new language, a deaf child must perceive it correctly. This is why lipreading alone is not a satisfactory means of learning new language. An example will illustrate the difficulty. Suppose one considers all the one-syllable words and pseudo words that can be started from choosing the first sound from p, b, or m, which look the same on the mouth. Then, choose a vowel from the sound uh, ih, eh, and ee, which look alike on the mouth. Finally, end the word with t, d, n, or l, which look alike. There are 48 possible combinations, most of which are familiar words, and all of which are reasonable combinations of sounds, such as mit, bit, pit, met, bet, pet, min, bin, pin, mid, bid, pid, mil, bil, pil, etc. All of them look essentially the same on the mouth, and thus cannot be lipread except in situations in which the context distinguishes them. In fact, the lipreader's chance of guessing one from the group is one in 48 – except, of course, that he/she would not choose one of the nonsense syllables. In Cued Speech, p, b, and m look clearly different on the hand. Also, uh, ih, eh, and ee are uttered with the hand in different locations, and t, d, n, and l look clearly different on the hand. Thus, in Cued Speech every one of the 48 possible syllables looks clearly different from all the rest, and is therefore easy to identify. The cues of Cued Speech clear up all the words that can be confused with each other on the mouth.

Of course, speechreading is not just a process of recognizing syllables, or even words, from the mouth. It is a process in which one's mental model of the spoken language is used to check against the many possible interpretations of what is seen on the mouth (often, millions for a five-word sentence), rejecting those possible interpretations that do not fit the known patterns of the language and the situation. The reason for presenting spoken language to the deaf in a form in which every syllable is clear (that is, in Cued Speech) is that this is essential for learning new spoken words and patterns, which are needed for use in speaking, speechreading, and reading.

Cued Speech has another benefit that is important to those who need to develop speechreading ability. The vast majority of oral teachers of the hearing impaired tend to exaggerate their mouth movements and facial expressions when teaching. Most try to refrain from this, but the need to communicate makes it almost impossible to resist this habit. Because it distorts the mouth movement, it does not provide practice in getting information from normal mouth movements. Cued Speech supplements normal mouth movements, rather than changing them. Since the child can get the needed information from normal mouth movements, there is no pressure to exaggerate them.

One of the most easily demonstrable advantages of Cued Speech is its facilitation of speech correction and speech therapy. First, it makes it easy to clarify each speech target for the child. Second, if the child cues what he/she says, and moves his/her lips normally, the teacher or parent who knows Cued Speech knows what the child is trying to say. Thus, parents and teachers can detect and easily correct the child's misconceptions regarding pronunciation, including both choice of sounds and the patterns of duration and stress.

An important and remarkable fact is that children who grow up on Cued Speech think in the spoken language. In 1978 I wrote to 15 teenagers who had grown up with Cued Speech, asking them to tell me what happens in their mind when they think. Thirteen replied to my letter. With regard to what happens in their minds when they think, aside from visualizing what they are thinking about, eleven wrote the identical words: "I hear myself talking." One, who has never had any evidence of any hearing, wrote: “I feel myself talking.” All were reported by their parents to talk in their sleep. Three four-year-old children fluent in both Cued Speech and sign language were reported by their parents to have expressed a preference for Cued Speech by using the same words: "Please cue to me. When you sign I can't hear what you say." Thus, each of them, at the age of four years, already thought in the spoken language.

In this paper a great deal of emphasis has been put on the role of Cued Speech in clarifying the patterns of the spoken language. Its basic purpose, however, is that of enabling the young aurally handicapped child to learn the spoken language in the early years of life, in a form and in a way acceptable to those who place a high priority upon the development of normal reading skills. Reading is the only avenue of learning that is under the complete control of the learner. The knowledge of the world is in the books, in the libraries. Though there may not be enough time for home and school to educate the hearing-impaired person adequately, if he/she can read well he/she can educate himself/herself.
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