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Improved Communication with ReadMyQuips

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Leading aural rehabilitation specialist Mark Ross shows you how to get the most out of ReadMyQuips.

Perhaps the most common complaint among people with hearing loss is that speech is difficult to understand in a noisy environment. Often, because of this difficulty, people isolate themselves (and their significant others) from many social situations that they previously enjoyed. ReadMyQuips is an innovative training program specially designed to help you face these challenges in a fun and creative way. Studies indicate that with dedicated practice using ReadMyQuips, many people can significantly improve their speech perception capabilities, thus gaining the confidence they need to tackle everyday, difficult listening situations.

Face-to-face communication makes use of a skill known as lipreading. Actually, the more correct term for this skill is speechreading, because although it is true that the lips convey valuable information, they are not the only source of clues to comprehension. When we speechread, we also get information from facial expressions, body language, and the situational context of the conversation.

There are two basic approaches to improving speechreading. One approach involves focusing on the individual sounds of speech and the associated facial patterns. This is known as the Analytic approach. Unfortunately, parts of speech look and sound different when they are used in natural conversation as opposed to the way they look and sound when produced individually. Also, by focusing too intensely on one sound, it is likely that another sound will be missed. This makes the Analytic approach problematic.

The other approach—and the one we recommend—is to try to understand the message that is being communicated and then let your brain put the pieces together. This method is known as the Synthetic or Global approach, since the focus is on understanding the message as a whole—the big picture—and not on deciphering individual sounds. Besides being more effective, this technique is also generally less stressful because it involves intuition and imagination.

One of the most remarkable aspects of human communication is that everybody speechreads to some extent, even those with perfectly normal hearing. It is an intuitive process, sort of like learning to run. And, as with running, training can help improve your skills significantly. The key to the global approach to speechreading is to get lots of practice.

And practice is what we hope to inspire you to do with ReadMyQuips. A unique aspect of this training program is that it is entertaining. Your task is to solve a puzzle similar to a crossword puzzle except that each blank box represents a word instead of a letter. The boxes go together across or down to form witty or wise quotations (quips). The clue for each item is a video recording of the quip spoken in a noisy environment, and you have to speechread the answer. While you are having fun solving the puzzle, you are also exercising and improving your speechreading skills.

ReadMyQuips is also unique in that it is adaptive. As you work through the puzzles, the difficulty level changes to match your growing proficiency. As a result, each puzzle continues to be challenging but solvable, even as your skills improve.

The first few puzzles may be relatively easy for you to comprehend, but as you go on the noise level will increase and you will be forced to depend upon speechreading cues more and more. This is as it should be. In real-life, varying levels of background noise are a ubiquitous presence, and the information gained through speechreading becomes more and more important as the noise increases.

Each time you play one of the video clips, fill in as many words of the sentence as you can, guessing when you are not exactly sure (the program will inform you whether or not you’re correct). As in real-life, the more of a sentence you guess correctly, the easier (generally) the rest of the sentence should be for you. This is because the more you know the context of a sentence - any type of context (e.g., the situation, topic, speaker, etc.) – the more likely it is that you will comprehend the rest of the utterance. Remember: your goal is to comprehend the sentence, and you should use whatever cues you can to accomplish this purpose. You will find that the blank response boxes (where you type your answer) are usually framed by preceding and/or following visible words; these are part of the sentence and thus are also cues, much as you would find in real life (don’t you often get just part of a sentence, but not all of it?). Therefore, before you click on the video image to play the sentence, first read these framing words and then try to fill in the remaining words in the response boxes.

If there is one key element to speechreading, it is that you must see the lips in order to do it. Now this may sound like a facetious statement, but it is not. Many people with hearing loss seem to focus their eyes everywhere but where they should. The fact of the matter is that we have often been conditioned to look our conversational partners “right in the eye.” Now that’s well and good in most situations, but it’s not conducive to maximizing the information you can get from a person’s lip movements. So, in going through these lessons, lower your eyes a bit; some people focus somewhere around the nose and some directly on the lips. As it happens, your ability to perceive the tiny and rapid movements of the moving lips is better at the center point of your eye focus than at positions even slightly off. And even when you look directly at the lips, you should still be able to appreciate the broader facial expressions. After some practice, you’ll soon determine which focus point is best for you.

ReadMyQuips also allows you to display the speaker’s face in full-screen mode. Think of this as comparable to the real-life situation of first being some distance from a speaker (the usual screen display) and then being only a few feet away (for more personal conversations).

Seeing the lips as best you can implies that your corrected vision (if you wear eyeglasses) is accurate and up to date. We have often seen people with uncorrected or improperly corrected vision struggle to speechread when they could barely see a person’s lips six or eight feet away. So before you begin ReadMyQuips, be sure that your eyeglass prescription is up to date; you’re not going to do very well if the lip movements are simply a blur.

In real-life, it sometimes takes a bit of assertiveness in order for you to see a person’s lips as well as possible. For example, the person who is talking to you while eating, smiling, or otherwise distorting their lips during the conversation is going to be much harder to understand. It’s up to you to inform such people what they have to do in order for you to understand them (and presumably, they do want to be understood or else why talk to you at all?). As for the surgeons in the operating room taking out your appendix: forget it! Just be sure they know you’re not going to be able to understand them very well when they have their mouth covered with a mask (though you should depend upon your hearing as much as you can in this situation).

We emphasize that ReadMyQuips is not a typical speechreading program, but that it targets background noise as a primary training factor. This is how it is in real life. We expect that most people using this program wear hearing aids or cochlear implants. These are marvelous devices and there is no question that they help most people with hearing loss hear better. But though they are undoubtedly necessary, they are often insufficient, at least in noisy places. This is where vision and speechreading come in. It turns out that precisely those speech sounds that are the most difficult to hear (like /f/ and /th/) are the ones easiest to see. The reverse is true as well; those sounds that can easily be confused visually (try to see the difference between a /p/, /b/, and /m/ - there is none!) can be differentiated through hearing. So with hearing and vision working together, the person with a hearing loss has a much better chance of comprehending speech than with either alone.

What this program is designed to do is to give you practice in comprehending speech under increasingly noisy conditions. Your mission (and you’ve decided to undertake it!) is to tolerate the loudest noise you can while still being able to completely understand an utterance. Not all of the speakers are equally intelligible; some are easier to understand than others. This, too, is what is normally found in real life. Some people, like ventriloquists, hardly move their lips at all. Others over-exaggerate each sound in trying to be “helpful” to you. Neither is very desirable, but both types are commonly found. You will not find these extremes in any of our four speakers, but you will (and likely already have) in real-life.

The ultimate goal of any type of any audio/visual training program is to enhance your overall communication skills. Sometimes, in spite of your best use of the visual and auditory cues available to you, you still don’t understand what someone is saying. You can simply say “what?” but then the person is likely to repeat the sentence exactly as they said if before. Sometimes this is enough (though it is better for you to ask the person “can you say that again?”). When communication breaks down, it is often helpful if you can inform the person you’re talking to what he/she has to do to make it easier for you to understand. That is, if they’re talking too quickly or too softly, ask the person to “slow down a bit” or to “say that again just a little louder.” Think of this as grandma’s scolding you and telling you to “speak more clearly” (which really means for you to pronounce your words a bit more precisely). This is called “clear speech” (repeating, rephrasing, slowing down, more precise pronunciation). Years ago, at MIT, researchers found that clear speech was a very effective way of improving speech perception, compared to the way a person normally spoke. Fortunately, you won’t have to scold any of the speakers in this program!

Don’t get discouraged as you go through the exercises in the ReadMyQuips program, and don’t give up. You should have difficulty; if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be undertaking the training in the first place. It is necessary for you to keep at it, keep practicing, trying to tolerate the loudest background sounds you can while still understanding the utterances. We suggest that you devote about 30 minutes for each lesson four or five times a week. You don’t have to finish a lesson in one day; it will be there waiting for you when you’re ready to continue. By the time you finish the last puzzle, you should be able to tolerate louder levels of noise while still understanding the sentence. And this improvement will carry over to the noisy situations you confront in real-life.