Communication Barriers: Reading Lips 9-12

In this lesson, high school students will explore a form of self-portraiture based around autobiography. Students will be introduced to a self-portrait by Linda Nishio where she mouths Ki-ko-e-ma-su Ka? (Can You Hear Me?). Her self-portrait tells a personal story about her struggle to communicate with the people in her community when she felt misunderstood. Student will make visually similar self-portraits, and explore the idea of communication barriers. Students will write an autobiographical text and study what shape their lips, teeth, and tongue makes when mouthing different words and syllables.

To teach this lesson, you will need: pencils and erasers, black ballpoint pens, black watercolors, watercolor paper (or any heavy weight cardstock), water and containers, rulers, glue, and mirrors.


Big Idea: Communication

Essential Questions: What is a communication barrier? What circumstances could literally prevent communication between two people? What circumstances could cause a person to be unwilling to listen to what others have to say?

Vocabulary: Communication Barrier, Syllable, Iconoclast, Rhetoric

Skills: Observational Drawing, Watercolor Technique, Using a Grid



Linda Nishio is a contemporary artist working in California. In this lesson, focus on a single piece of Nishio’s – Kikoemasu Ka? (Can You Hear Me?):

My name is Linda Nishio. I am 28 years old. I am a third generation (sansei) Japanese/American. I grew up in L.A. in a household where very little Japanese was spoken, except of course by my grandmother, who spoke very little English. During those early years I picked up some Japanese phrases, a few of which I still remember today. Then I went to Art School on the East coast. I attended classes in an environment where very little art was taught but where iconoclastic rhetoric (intellectualism) replaced “normal” art education. Before long I realized I, too, was communicating more and more in this fashion. Ho hum. Upon returning to L.A. I found myself misunderstood by family and friends. So this is the story: A young artist of Japanese descent from Los Angeles who doesn’t talk normal. KI-KO-E-MA-SU KA?

This is what Linda Nishio had to say about the piece:

“Kikoemasu ka? (Can you hear me?)” was originally created for a kiosk in Little Tokyo in 1982. It faced the street so both pedestrians and motorists would see the piece as they passed by…. In the photographs, with exaggerated gestures, I am mouthing out the syllables of “ki-ko-e-ma-su-ka?” with my face smashed against glass. Accompanying these photographs is text that reads like a brief bio that comments on a state of alienation…. All I remember was feeling very invisible then, and wanting to break that sense of obscurity.


When you are introducing this piece to your students, it is best to reveal it in steps, to critically question each element. (Download a powerpoint which does that here).



Students will need to be familiar with the fact that our mouths change positions when we say different words and syllables. They may already be aware of this if they can silently mouth sentences to friends and read each others’ lips:

If not, this is an easy discovery to make after students choose a title sentence and look in a mirror while they say it. Below, students of different skill levels practice saying and painting the same syllable. You can tell they are closely observing their lips, teeth, and tongues in the mirrors because they do not look like stereotypical mouths:



There are many types of communication barriers (something that prevents two people from communicating). Maybe two people literally speak different languages, are in a noisy public space and are having trouble hearing each other, or cannot reach the other on their cell phone. Or maybe the other person has the ability and opportunity to hear the other, but refuses to listen. For example, maybe someone received a text message, but is annoyed and won’t write back, ceasing communication. Maybe someone thinks that they are better than the other person and won’t consider their opinion. Maybe one of those people is a child and the other an adult, one is a boss and the other an employee, one Hispanic and the other white, one male and the other female. You can give examples from your own life, common examples that you think students may have experienced, and even reference local news stories or historical power barriers, etc.

Use this worksheet to help students think of the communication barriers that they have experienced and to structure their stories:



Length: Five 40-minute periods

After writing their story, have students decide what the title of their piece should be. This step is important, because they will draw each syllable of their title in their final piece. (For example, Nishio mouthed “Can You Hear Me?” in Japanese, creating six panels for the six Japanese syllables: Ki-Ko-E-Ma-Su-Ka). You may want to suggest that students keep the title short (4-6 syllables). If students cannot think of a title, make suggestions that are relevant to their story, or use a title similar to Nishio’s: Can You Hear Me?, Are you Listening?, or Listen to Me!, etc.


Student Work:



An honors class could take this project further and be more creative with the media (paint on canvas? photography? video?), color, having the story not as a written statement but as an audio recording, turning it into a (silent) spoken word performance that the audience must lip-read, pressing themselves against glass like Nishio, etc.




Elements and Principles: Value & Repetition

Objectives: Students Will: 1. Write an autobiographical, true story about a time when they felt like they could not communicate or were misunderstood. 2. Draw their lips from observation using mirrors, sharpies, and watercolors. 3. Assemble a self portrait using the drawings of their lips and their story with a measured grid.

State Standards: 25.A.4 Analyze and evaluate the effective use of elements, principles and expressive qualities in a composition/performance in dance, drama, music and visual arts. 27.A.4b Analyze how the arts are used to inform and persuade through traditional and contemporary art forms. 26.B.4d Demonstrate knowledge and skills that communicate clear and focused ideas based on planning, research and problem solving.

Literacy: Along with written worksheets, this lesson focuses on an artist who uses language in her work. Students write autobiographical stories to include in their art.

Adaptations: The number of requirements and steps can be lessened for exceptional students. Additionally, students can choose to write their autobiographical story in any language they choose.



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If you have any questions, suggestions, or comments, please leave a reply.

2 Responses to “Communication Barriers: Reading Lips 9-12”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed seeing your students works. Linda Nishio

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