Cued speech: a benefit to deaf and hard of hearing
individuals and society


Brigham Young University Department of Linguistics

December 10, 2001


There are many avenues the hearing family of a deaf child can take to come to terms with their situation and help their child to develop to his or her greatest potential.  What is best for one child is not necessarily best for all, though.  Depending on how this type of situation is approached, there are a myriad of possibilities to deal with it.  The options available include: hearing implants, hearing aids, Total Communication (integrated use of a sign language with other communication methods such as cued speech, signed English, etc.), ASL (or signed languages in other countries), signed English, lip reading, and cued speech.  This paper focuses on the pros and cons of one of these methods, cued speech, as a supplement to other methods adopted to help deaf and hard of hearing individuals communicate with and understand society.   

Many members of the Deaf community think of cued speech as another futile attempt of the hearing community to deny the deafness of their children. Others see cued speech as not denying a deaf person their identity, but rather expanding it to include the hearing world.  Cued speech gets at least some disapproving feelings from both manualists (supporters of sign language as the primary language) and oralists (supporters of a purely oral/spoken method of communication for deaf people), since it uses both mouthed words and signs simultaneously to approximate real speech.

Cued speech can enhance communication in a child’s early years, as well as speed up the acquisition of verbal language.  It also allows the individual to think in the target language (be it English or Swahili), and greatly improves reading skills because of clarification of the patterns of spoken language.  Another benefit is cued speech is not too difficult to learn, taking only about 8 to 15 hours to understand the basics.  Because of all of these benefits, cued speech is able to enhance the experience of the deaf individual (when used in connection with other means of communication) when interacting with both deaf and hearing society.

Cued speech: a benefit to deaf and hard of hearing
individuals and society


Jennifer Andersen


Many options face the hearing parents of a deaf child today when choosing what method of communication they will teach their children.  What communication method parents should use to teach their children is a very important question, because the language a child learns not only decides how they are educated, but also influences all their interaction with everyone they meet.  ‘Language is not simply a means of communicating information, it is also a very important means of establishing relationships with other people’ (as quoted in Densham 1995:37).  While this is usually a simple question for most parents (the child is simply educated in their parents language), for the hearing parents of a deaf child this situation can be very daunting.  What is best for one is not necessarily best for all.  Parents can choose from options including: cochlear implants, hearing aids, Total Communication (a mixture of several different forms of communication including both sign language and oral methods), ASL (or other signed languages in other countries), signed English, lip reading, and cued speech.  This paper focuses on the pros and cons of one of these methods—cued speech—as a supplement to another form of communication that can aid deaf and hard of hearing individuals in society.   

1.  A brief history of deaf education.  There was no real use of sign language to educate deaf people before the sixteenth century (Densham 1995:64).  Many thought that it was useless to try to educate deaf people at all.  The Aristotelian idea that ‘the deaf could not learn to speak because their tongues were tied, and “those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason”’, had lasted for over 2,000 years, and the deaf were usually ill-treated and seen as outcasts.  Because of laws forbidding deaf mutes to inherit, noble families with large estates would attempt to have their deaf sons taught to speak (Densham 1995:63-66).

            Since deaf education began, a hot debate between the “oralists” and the “manualists” as to what method should be used to educate deaf children has existed.  In this paper, oralism specifically refers to “the theory or practice of teaching hearing-impaired or deaf persons to communicate by means of spoken language”, and manualism refers to primarily using hands to communicate with and teach the deaf (1998).  This issue of which theory is correct or more effective for the education of and communication with the Deaf and what has actually been practiced in schools and homes of deaf people has swayed back and forth between oralists and manualists for hundreds of years, from deaf schools being taught mostly in sign by the Abbe de l’Epee in France in 1755, to the strict oralism (no use of sign employed in teaching, or even allowed among the students) enforced in almost all schools and many homes following the Milan Conference of 1880, to a “controlled acceptance” of Total Communication (including sign language) by the National Executive Council of the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf in 1984 (Densham 1995:65-67). 


2.  cued speech 


2.1. the basics.  Cued speech was invented by Dr. R. Orin Cornett, Ph.D. in 1966 as a method of communication that could be used with the aurally handicapped.  It consists of eight handshapes and four hand-positions of either hand, which give the “reader” clearly different signals for all of the different sounds in speech, thus clearing up the confusion of lip reading (Cornett 1-4). 

Cued speech consists of two parts: the speech part (which is simply normal speech), and the manual cues with which the speaker accompanies his or her words.  The cues are made with one hand, using eight different handshapes (which represent consonant sounds) and four different hand positions (which represent vowel sounds) near the mouth (Turner 1998:204).


Vowel sounds: The four hand positions (10 cm to the side of the point of the chin, at the throat, at the point of the chin and at the corner of the mouth) indicate the 11 vowel sounds given by the representative words below each diagram (father is used to represent only the first vowel of that word).


Diphthongs: These are given by hand movements from side to throat (my, cow) and from chin to throat (pay, boy). Again representative words are listed below each diagram.



Figure 1.  Cued speech uses eight handshapes at four locations combined with natural mouth/lip movements to differentiate all the sounds of the spoken language (Osmond 1997).  In other words, sounds that use the same handshape look different on the lips, and sounds that look the same on the lips are differentiated by handshape and placement.


Consonant sounds: The twenty-five consonant sounds are represented by eight hand shapes as diagramed.


The five-fingered handshape is used to represent vowel sounds not preceded by a consonant



Figure 2. This table how all the English consonants are cued.  Notice that sounds that look the same on the lips (i.e. /p/, /b/) use different handshapes (Osmond 1997).

There is some debate as to whether cued speech is meant to be used singly and as the primary language of the individual, or just as a supplement to other language skills possessed by the learner (such as sign language). ‘Cued speech was developed as an aid to teach English to deaf children, and not as an exclusive signing system . . .’ (Densham 1995:40).  Another linguist defined cued speech this way:

Cued speech is a manual form of complementing lip reading. Sounds which can easily be discriminated by lip reading share a cue (gesture); those which are visually alike have different gestures. The gestures are not elements of a sign language but are related to the phonological structure of speech. One gesture covers more than one speech sound, so one is forced to look at the lips too.  There are many systems that are bases upon this principle; they differ in place and form of gesture, in categorizing speech sound and in some other aspects (Kuyper 1988:206).


Still, its application as an aid to learning the phonetics of a spoken language cannot be overlooked.  ‘A hearing-impaired person thoroughly familiar with the system can get 100% of the message, even nonsense syllables, which are the acid test.’ (Turner 1998:204).


2.2.  Interesting facts about cued speech. 

1.      Cued Speech is primarily a tool for developing spoken language in hearing-impaired children. It is a communication mode; it is not a language in and of itself.

2.      Through a Cued Speech interpreter, the mainstreamed child who is deaf can have full access to spoken English subject matter, as well as peer communication and environmental sound effects.

3.      Because it is based on the phonemes of spoken language, Cued Speech is a system adaptable to any spoken language.

4.      For hearing-impaired students taking a foreign language, a Cued Speech interpreter allows access to that language’s exact spoken form.

5.      Cued Speech allows the development of reading skills in hearing-impaired children comparable to their hearing peers.

6.      Cued Speech is also useful in the continuous training of speech and auditory development. It serves as a helpful reminder of acquired speech targets.

7.      Cued Speech allows a person who is deaf to see all the sounds that hearing people hear.

8.      Very young deaf children can understand cues at a normal speech rate. A three-year-old child (deaf or hearing, with adequate exposure to Cued Speech) can cue expressively and be understood.

9.      Cued Speech can be a useful language/speech tool for hearing children, too.

10.  Cued Speech is capable of accurately expressing colloquial language.

11.  Cued Speech is useful with children having other problems in addition to hearing-impairment, such as learning disabilities or some vision impairment.

12.  Children and adults with acquired hearing loss can benefit from Cued Speech.

13.  Cued Speech can be an independent education program, as well as a supplement to Aural/Oral or Total Communication programs.

14.  Cued Speech was invented in 1966 by Dr. R. Orin Cornett, while at Gallaudet University, as a solution to the reading barriers that, historically, persons who are deaf have had to face.

15.  Cued Speech is a finite system, which can be learned within 20 hours of direct instruction. Proficiency can be gained within 6 months to one year. (Osmond 1997)


3. the oralist road. 


3.1 the basics.  This approach basically discourages and in some cases works to forcibly prevent deaf children from using any signs whatsoever on the assumption that their speech development will be inhibited.  Children are educated with speech and lip reading only.  Drawbacks of lip reading include the difficulty (in some cases, impossibility) of distinguishing different letters and sounds, as well as different secondary distractions such as people with protruding teeth, moustaches, and so on (Densham 1995:39). 


3.2. pros of including cued speech.  As far as an aid to learning lip reading, cued speech can be invaluable.  Consider the following about the difficulty of relying on lip reading alone in conversation and as a method of educating deaf children:

Much lip reading is guesswork . . . [it has been] claimed that the best lip readers in a one-to one situation only understand about 26 per cent of what is said. (Densham 1995:40)


A deaf child in a hearing class may only get 5-20 per cent of information through lip reading, which means that learning is extremely difficult, and discussion is impossible (Densham 1995:40).


A particularly difficult aspect of lip reading is distinguishing between the different consonants by the shape of the mouth.  Reed suggests ‘the deaf are expected to learn a linguistic code when they see only three consonants: PBM as one, FV as a second, and Th as a third’ he then continues on with the comment that ‘it is no wonder the majority of deaf people develop a bizarre language system’ (Densham 1995:40).  By learning cued speech and having constant repetition of the spoken language in a visual form, deaf and hard-of-hearing children can start to pick up a more accurate understanding of the grammar of that language.

            Cued speech helps tremendously in clearing up the confusion between sounds that are very different but share the same lip shape.  ‘Cued speech . . . uses eight different handshapes in four different positions close to the speaker’s mouth to enable the child to discriminate the lip movement . . .’ (Densham 1995:40).  (See Figures 1 and 2 for examples).


3.3. cons of including cued speech.  Sign language of any kind is often seen as destroying a child’s ability to learn to speak well.  On one end of the spectrum, oralism submits that if sign language and/or gesture is used by a deaf child, he or she will tend to want to use that method of communication and they will never really learn to use speech well (Densham 1995:67).

4. the manualist road.


4.1 the basics.  ‘Sign Language is a method of communication used by the deaf which is now beginning to be regarded as the indigenous language of the deaf… it is a language in its own right, with it’s own grammar and vocabulary, which involves a combination of signs, fingerspelling and non-manual signals, such as facial expression and body movement.  It is a completely separate language with it’s own structure that does not correspond to English language with its own structure that does not correspond to English grammar, therefore it is not a code for spoken language, but is a language that uses a visual channel rather than an auditory one.’ (Densham 1995:41) ‘Unless a severely or profoundly prelingually deaf child is given some alternative means of communication, he or she is in grave danger of growing up deprived linguistically, culturally and socially’ (Densham 1995:45).  Ample evidence has been found that shows the improved performance of deaf children who use sign language compared with those who do not. (Densham 1995:69)


4.2. pros of using cued speech.  Most deaf children are not born to deaf parents, and so find themselves in the situation of either a lonely childhood, or a bilingual one.  In fact, fully 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents (Osmond 1997).  ‘The National Cued Speech Association (NCSA) recognizes advantages in bilingualism in American Sign Language and written/spoken English as an option for most children in the United States who have a prelingual, severe-to-profound hearing impairment’ (Osmond 1997).  If the hearing parents of a deaf child choose to have their child learn sign language and encourage his or her interaction with other deaf people, then their child must often learn two different languages to interact with the two different cultures.  Unfortunately, this is not as easily done for a deaf child as it is for a hearing one.  Being unable to learn the language through auditory means, the deaf child tends to learn only the written forms of the language.  In many cases, a wide difference exists between the written and spoken forms of the language, and there are many situations in which the sound of a word plays an important part in the understanding of that word.  Without some visual cues as to the phonological representation of the word, much information is lost or misunderstood.  ‘Cued Speech helps a child deaf from birth to “break the code” of language (whether one’s spoken thoughts are encoded in French, German, Spanish, Japanese or English) and then the child can learn language patterns in the normal way, but by vision instead of by hearing’ (Turner 1998:203). 


4.3. cons of using cued speech.  One of the problems manualists have with using methods of communication other than Sign Language is they believe sign language is the natural language a deaf person learns and is part of who they are and should not be suppressed or supplanted.

Signing is a natural way for people with hearing losses to communicate. Hearing-impaired children often create their own form of sign language in which a certain gesture has a very specific meaning without instruction. They should be encouraged and taught a standard sign language, preferably American Sign Language. Manualists believe that if students want to speak, it should be secondary to signing and at the student’s pace (Myers 1999).


There is also the issue of the Deaf Community identity—that is to say, deaf children not learning sign language early on and being mainstreamed into regular public schools (instead of deaf residential schools) are less likely to become immersed in the Deaf Community.  Many people in the Deaf Community believe that a deaf child in this situation will never be able to fully integrate into either the Deaf or the hearing world.  Not having fully joined the Deaf Community, and not being able to participate fully in the hearing world, they may have difficulty finding true acceptance (Clements 2001).


5. other pros and cons of cued speech.  Cues support a child’s ability to learn the English Language.  Using this support, the child can learn any spoken language through visual means instead of being left out because of a hearing loss, or confined to only a slightly warped version of a written language.  Professor Kyuper presented his findings at the 3rd International Congress of the Hard of Hearing showing how cued speech can help with a wide variety of problems ranging from speech therapy for the hearing impaired (or a simply phonologically inhibited child) to vocabulary problems because of a poor memory.  ‘The success of Cued Speech for the hard of hearing is mainly caused by two factors: 1. It’s relation to lip reading and 2. It’s possibility to add a motorical factor to memory’ (Kuyper 1988:206)  ‘Cued speech has been successfully used as a tool in speech therapy for hearing children as well as for the hearing impaired.  It has helped overcome misarticulation in hearing children.  It has also been used as a phonic tool in teaching children with reading difficulties, and in teaching English as a second language’ (Turner 1998:205).  Even for those with no hearing problems at all, cued speech can provide a way to pick up on the sounds of other languages not found in an individual’s own language!  ‘It has already been adapted for use with 43 languages and dialects.  Since it is based on a phonemic analysis of speech sounds, it can be adapted for use with any spoken language’ (Turner 1998:205). 

For hearing parents wishing to raise their deaf child with their parents tongue being his or her primary language, successful experiments have shown a trend after using sign language in conjunction with cued speech in which the child eventually prefers the ‘spoken’ message over the signed one once they have gained a sufficient mastery of the target language (Turner 1998:204).


6. conclusion.  Using cued speech to enhance language learning is beneficial to learning the language spoken in the home.  Not only does it allow a deaf child full access to the language of their parents, it also gives them the opportunity to learn the reading and writing skills necessary for them to succeed in public schools and in dealing with the hearing world outside of their home.  Of course, cued speech should not be forced on the child as the only method of communication, any more than other hearing children should be forced to learn only one language.


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Clements, Aine, Drew Freilich, Silvia Hartmann, Felicia Kuo, and Nils Reuter. 2001. Controversy Over Cochlear Implants. (Accessed on November 12, 2001).

Cornett, R. Orin. Cued Speech: What and Why? BYU Linguistics College Colloquim. October 11, 2001.

Densham, Jennifer. 1995. Deafness, Children and the Family: A Guide to Professional Practice. Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Kuyper, Pavl. 1988. VisiC (“Cued Speech”) in the Netherlands. Congress Report: 3rd International Congress of the Hard of Hearing:206-207.

Myers, Johanna. 1999. To Sign or Not to Sign: The Oralist/Manualist Debate in Deaf. Education. (Accessed on December 6, 2001)

Osmond, Crosby. 1997. What is Cued Speech: Some Facts about Cued Speech. (Accessed on November 12, 2001).

Turner, Alison. 1988. Coping – With the Aid of Cued Speech. Congress Report: 3rd International Congress of the Hard of Hearing:203-205.