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Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School offers cued speech as a way for deaf and hard of hearing students to increase their literacy skills.

Right on cue: Cued speech helps deaf children improve communications

by Jade Kolker
Jun 4, 2014


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Katie Lachman cues to her husband Ben Lachman, enabling him to better understand questions during a press conference. Katie is hearing and Ben says they cue almost everyday.


Jade Kolker/MEDILL

Sandy Mosetick thanks the rapper Twista for his participation with Cue Cognatio, an organization that creates visual media to inform the public about Cued Speech.  "I'm very excited to be apart of it." Twista said. "I realized cued speech can actually make people more involved in music. They're able to communicate in a more emotional way, and it gives people an extra edge they didn't necessarily have with sign language," Twista said.


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Elaine Dunn Engel has advocated for cued speech since learning about it in the 1970s, and even went to learn how to cue to its inventor, Dr. Orin Cornett.


National Cued Speech Association, Jacqueline Leybaert, Ph.D. and Carol J. LaSasso, Ph.D.

Cued speech, founded in 1966, is still in its infancy but has an interesting history. Click to enlarge.


Centers for Disease Control, Census Bureau.

Hearing loss affects many Americans from birth, and improving technology allows doctors to diagnose children sooner. Click to enlarge.

Related Links

National Cued Speech Association'Go' by Twista with cued speech

An advocate for cueing

One of Cued Speech's pioneering supporters, Elaine Dunn Engel, 90, has connected with the deaf community her entire life.

Her aunt could lip-read and speak, despite losing her hearing when she was three years old. Engel's experience with her aunt led her to receive a degree in speech correction at the University of Wisconsin. Little did she know that she would devote her career and life to helping those who had hearing or speech difficulties and have such an impact on the use of cued speech.

Shortly after the birth of Engel's first son Jeffrey Liebman in 1946, she found out he was deaf. "I didn't expect to have a deaf child. While I was able to make the best of it, I knew this was a very serious problem," Engel said.

Then with a second child and a divorce, knew she needed to figure out her next move.

"I thought, I'll play my strengths. What was my strength? My strength was academics, I knew that, so I thought okay I’ll go ahead with that, so I'll learn more about speech language pathology and be able to do a better job," Engel said.

While she taught her son lip-reading, she earned her doctoral degree from Northwestern University in communicative disorders and opened up her own private practice in Evanston.

Dr. Orin Cornett, inventor of Cued Speech in 1965-1966, was giving a lecture that Engel heard in the 1970s. She found out that while Cornett was working for Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., he discovered that deaf people were reading at a much lower reading level than expected.

"He thought they should be able to learn the language visually. So he developed this cued speech system of clarifying lip reading," Engel said.

She was so amazed with his presentation that she decided to fly to Washington, D.C. to learn from Dr. Cornett. While she did not keep up with cued speech, she recommended it to the people who came to her practice and continues to support it. She also suggested it to Ron and Mary Ann Lachman, (parents to Ben Lachman, co-founder of Cue Everything) who later became a part of the original founders of the Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School in Wheeling and AEHI (Alternatives in Education for the Hearing Impaired). Engel even served on AEHI's board as president and donated money toward their first location in Mt. Prospect for a new roof.

"I wanted to be there because I thought it was important that parents who were stuck as I was, with a young deaf baby, to have a chance to get a way to have that child become a speaking, lip-reading person," Engel said. Her son never learned cued speech, but he did learn how to lip read and speak, eventually becoming a scientist who is now living in New Jersey.

Engel also dealt with the resistance that surrounded cued speech. "There were just different ways of dealing with deaf children but it was hard to get enough support to get cued speech really on the road," Engel said.

However, she’s glad to see the efforts that have been made. The Illinois School for the Deaf was honored at a gala in April for the positive accomplishments they have seen since offering Cued Speech as well as American Sign Language. Engel served as the Guardian Angel sponsor at the event.

"I thought, wonderful. My baby has grown up, this is great! I'm still just really thrilled that AEHI has progressed as it has, that it's still available for parents with deaf children."
A promising form of communication is allowing more deaf children to improve literacy and visually understand spoken language. Advocates say that cued speech, offered in various schools around the country, enables deaf or hard of hearing children to converse better with their family and peers.

Dr. Orin Cornett invented cued speech in the 1960s as a visual communication system that uses eight basic hand shapes and four positions around the mouth to make phonemes – the smallest unit of sound – visible.

Ben Lachman, 32, has been deaf since birth and has used cued speech his entire life. He is on the board of directors of the National Cued Speech Association as well as on the advisory council for Alexander Graham Bell Montessori School in Wheeling. Lachman estimates that there are between 3,000 and 5,000 people in the U.S. cued speech community, either in schools learning cued speech, or learning it through workshops, seminars and camps around the country. Approximately 36 million U.S. adults report some form of hearing loss.

"A lot of times I think about cueing as the visual counterpart to the language that is being spoken. Not a language in and of itself, it's a system or a tool, which is an important distinction," said Adena Dacy, associate director for clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Unlike traditional sign language, cued speech is "not just to teach deaf people to speak, but rather to give them the ability to see the building blocks of spoken language," Lachman said.

The increase in efforts and research cited by cued speech advocates reveals how the method helps deaf children to have a better grasp of literacy. Dr. Daniel Koo, a psychology professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was raised using cued speech and has researched it as an adult.

"The rich primary language environment they [children] are immersed in via cued speech allows them to achieve reading levels on or above grade level and gain phonemically-based reading strategies similar to their hearing peers. My research on native deaf cuers who grew up with cued speech showed they have similar phonological decoding skills as their hearing peers which support previous findings from other studies," Koo said.

Increased reading literacy and communication skills are the main goals in using cued speech since deaf students may read with less proficiency than their hearing peers, according to Dacy.

Sarina Roffe, executive director of the National Cued Speech Association, recognizes that sign language is still necessary for the socialization of deaf children. But "cued speech should be used in the educational setting and for communication in the home with hearing parents," Roffe said. "It provides inclusivity for child in the home so that the deaf child feels apart of the overall family, and doesn't feel isolated."

Sandy Mosetick, former board president at the Bell Montessori School in Wheeling, looked into learning options when her daughter (Rachel, 24) was born deaf. After joining the Illinois chapter of the Alexander Graham Bell National Association, Mosetick learned that cued speech could be an easier way to converse with her daughter. She has used the method for 22 years.

"The whole idea was to make lip reading into an exact science; to make every sound visually distinguishable on the mouth, so that a deaf person, or a deaf child, could have visual access to English. They could learn English the same as their hearing peers by repeated natural exposure to all the vocabulary and syntax of English,” Mosetick said.

According to Dacy, cued speech takes roughly 20 hours to learn from an instructor. Practicing it enables a person to become proficient in cued speech in less than a year. American Sign Language can be a difficult undertaking for parents of deaf or hard of heard children since they have to learn a whole new set of grammar, syntax and words, with rules separate from the English language, Dacy said.

"With sign language you're always constantly learning new signs, because sign language is conceptual," Karla Giese said, director of deaf services at the Bell Montessori School. The school uses cued speech for its students as well as American Sign Language.

"We encourage [students] to use sign language as well because there are lots of other people in the deaf community who communicate using it. We want the child here to also have that identity connection with other people who are deaf and hard of hearing to be able to communicate with them," Giese said.

But, there has been some resistance to using cued speech. Elaine Dunn Engel, a former speech language pathologist who learned about it in the 1970s and has supported bringing cued speech to schools in Illinois has seen the debates that have arisen over the years.

Engel explained that the deaf community did not want deaf children to be robbed of their traditional deaf culture. "There also were the people who believed in an auditory education, and you shouldn’t use hands at all," Engel said.

Dacy explained that many different camps have opinions on cued speech because it is often presented as an alternate form to sign language, which fails to acknowledge the language of the deaf community. Advocates say children should learn both.

"There's been a longstanding debate for years and years about how to best communicate with deaf children," Dacy said. As a speech pathologist, she explains to parents their options, especially since what is right for one child may not be good for another.

Mosetick said she has experienced resistance from parents as she has worked with the Bell Montessori School and AEHI board. She tries to encourage parents to look into it as a viable additional option. "The sign language community has thought it's too oral and that it's a language you’re trying to replace sign language with. But that’s starting to change, they're seeing it as a tool for empowering deaf kids and can work in tandem with signing," Mosetick said.

However, that transition into social situations has not been fully met, and Dacy thinks it may be because cued speech is still in its infancy in some respects. "There's a new generation of adults who can serve as models to children who cue because they grew up cueing whereas 20 years ago you didn’t necessarily have that," Dacy said.

Lachman co-founded an organization called Cue Everything and wanted to bring awareness to the applicability of cued speech. "With the development of social media, we are able to help more people than ever," Lachman said.

He partnered with Scott Emalfarb of The Scott Emo Show to create a music video featuring Twista, an artist who is known as being one of the fastest rappers. "I wanted to do something different to capture people’s attention. If we could keep up with Twista, that will underscore how cued speech allows deaf people to have access to language," Lachman said. The music video debuted on April 20, 2014.

A child's exposure to language has been pivotal in the learning process, according to Koo. "Research shows that deaf children who have full access to a complete language before reaching school-age demonstrate better language skills that often extends to stronger literacy skills than those exposed to language later," Koo said.

Both Lachman and Dacy also recognize that the earlier a child experiences communication, the better. "Children are being identified earlier through hearing screening. They are also receiving hearing technology at an earlier age," Dacy said. This technology, like cochlear implants, allows a child to pick up sound and begin to build the complex system of language necessary to be literate.

"You can implant a child around two years of age but if they’ve had some months of exposure to “verbal English” then at that point you’re letting them make the auditory connection to what they already know," Lachman said.

Dr. Miriam Redleaf, an otolaryngologist (a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat conditions and cochlear implants), learned about cued speech at a workshop and was struck by the system. "It's a great method of speaking if the whole school is on board. Cued speech is very interesting because you can show the listener, the watcher, all the things happening offstage," Redleaf said.

Illinois School for the Deaf decided to bring cued speech into their ASL curriculum four years ago. Kathryn Surbeck, Evaluation Center Director at ISD, said in a press release that "it was through an analysis of the reading program that we came to an understanding of the need for more English acquisition through a face-to-face method like cued ppeech. It is important for us to have both (ASL and English via cued speech), because we feel both languages serve important purposes in students' lives."

Mosetick said the children who have been in this trial period of cued speech have been making incredible gains. "The principal of the school told us that generally, the average kid who is deaf gains two to three months in an academic year. So this [the progress they are making] changes their lives," Mosetick said.