Monday, September 18, 2017

Killing Pronunciation 9: Reappraising negative attitudes toward pronunciation
 Maybe the most consistent finding of research on pronunciation teaching is that (at least from instructors who have yet to recover from structuralism, "communicative language teaching" or cognitive phonology) there are a lot of negatives associated with it (e.g., Baker, 2015 and many others). My approach has always been to stay calm and train teachers in how to do pronunciation well, figuring that success will eventually get them past all the noise out there.

I may have to reappraise that line of march, especially with my Chinese students. Maybe I could do more to attack those negative feelings and perceptions directly. But how?

New research by Wu, Guo, Tang, Shi, and Luo reported in Role of Creativity in the Effectiveness of Cognitive Reappraisal suggests a way to do just that: a little instructor-directed and controlled creativity, something I suspect that only a team from the Beijing Key Laboratory of Learning and Cognition, The Collaborative Innovation Center for Capital Education Development, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China and the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China--could possibly pull off!

In essence, they confirmed that subjects recognized creativity as a potentially powerful antidote to negative emotions, something that has been established empirically for some time. What was fascinating, however, was that subjects negative feelings about the targeted video scenes could only be "affected" substantially by being led through creative exercises. In other words, they couldn't get past the negatives by doing something creative on their own, themselves, without help. Wow.

Instructor-conducted / creativity-driven / negative attitudes /  toward pronunciation teaching repair/reappraisal (INPRR pronounced: In-P-RR). What a concept! Well, actually, much of what passes for creativity training is instructor-centered, not designed to provide you with the tools but to guide you in thinking outside of the box so  you know what it feels like when it happens. I was really into that for a couple of decades in pronunciation teacher training, in fact. There are still those in the field, like Marsha Chan, who do that well, the "there are all kinds of really creative, fun things you can do when teaching  pronunciation" shtick. Working with kids, that plays well; with adults, on the whole I have always thought it is at best counter productive.  (The reasons for that have been developed on the blog extensively.)

However, I may have it wrong. But rather than training teacher trainees in creative techniques to use in the classroom, I should be doing creative activities with them that address their underlying negative feelings (fear, self doubt, etc.) directly. Some suggestions, most of which I have seen over the years at conferences or on the web. I'll get things started with a few that are research-based (and reported on the blog recently) and then you help by adding to the list your best INPR:
  • Have them list all those negative pronunciation-induced emotions on the top of cookies or in chocolate and eat them.
  • Lead them in doing your basic OEI switching technique to defuse the emotion if it is really strong. (Done with only one student at a time, in private, however.)
  • Have them talk about themselves fearing pronunciation in the 3rd person (See Gollum Speak)
  •  Lead them in coming up with a list of all the ways they might overcome such emotions and then have select students read out each expressively and dramatically in their heaviest L1 accent (I like that one!)
  • Have them share with each other in pairs their negative feelings toward pronunciation holding a hot beverage. That one is incredibly powerful.
  • Then have them report back to the class in pantomime, having the rest of the class guess what it is. 
  • You stand up in front of the class and begin listing verbally the unrealistic fears your students may have about pronunciation or those that they may have now but will be "gone" at the end of the course. Also have a list on the board of epithets appropriate for shouting down goofy ideas which the students produce after you state each, possibly accompanied by gesture. 
  • Come to class dressed as Sigmund Freud or your neighborhood therapist. Sit in a comfortable chair and answer their questions chewing on a pipe, suggesting hilariously funny solutions to their fears. (I sat in on one of those in Japan that was priceless and exceedingly effective, I think.)
  • Have a "Love me, love my accent day" in class where students intentionally speak with stereo-typically heavy accent. (Have seen that recommended a number of times.)
Your turn! I'll award a set of the v4.5 AHEPS DVDs to the contributor of the best one!

Retrieved September 18, 2017 from

Thursday, September 14, 2017

To thrive (but not arrive) in a second language: socio-cultural capital
Yesterday morning I met an immigrant Chinese cashier at a Korean supermarket who had been here for a couple of years.  In her early 30's, she seemed quite positive, fashionably sport-dressed and looked very fit--she had just signed up for Orangetheory, in fact. As we talked she struck me as somebody who at least at first glance is thriving in her new culture. She seemed an almost perfect fit to the first half of the profile just produced in a meta-analysis of what it means to "thrive" by Brown of the University of Portsmouth,, reported by Sciencedaily. Brown defines "thriving" as

" . . . an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something"

The list of qualities of a "thriver" are: 
  • optimistic,
  • spiritual or religious,
  • motivated,
  • proactive,
  • someone who enjoys learning,
  • flexible,
  • adaptable,
  • socially competent,
  • believes in self/has self-esteem.
That's her; fits her to a tee, but her English, both her general competence and pronunciation had stalled about a year in. She was engaging, had a wide range of conversational strategies to draw on, but she was at times very difficult to understand, especially when she became animated, which was often. She was very conscious of that and had a reason: her dead-end job. She suddenly shifted into her cashier persona, running through some of the very limited repertoire of phrases she uses every day at work. Her pronunciation and grammar became nearly impeccable!

What a demonstration!

What she seems to lack for her English to improve substantially is socio-cultural capital, the opportunity and network of resources to grow and practice more advanced and sophisticated in her L2. 
Again, according to Brown, (quoting the Sciencedaily report) the thriver has:
    • opportunity
    • employer/family/other support
    • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
    • environment is calm
    • is given a high degree of autonomy
    • is trusted as competent.
    Being here alone, as a single woman in this cultural context she has virtually none of those. She did comment half in jest that joining the Orangetheory community and all the beautiful, cut gym rats might be the answer. She may be right. Being a fan of TheoryOrange, myself, I encouraged her. She promised to get back in touch with me after a few months. And I'll report back to you, too.

    Sunday, September 10, 2017

    Killing pronuciation 8: Unproductive goals and their "goalees!"
    The goal (of this) post is to at least partially relieve you of the burden of meeting many of your pronunciation teaching goals--and suggest a better way to reach them! Or at least "Clear-ify" them!

    How would you describe your students' personal goals in terms of their English pronunciation, or their L2 learning in general? What would they tell you? Where did they come from? Do they work? Do they make sense? How do you work with them? Are they clear? Are you clear? Good questions. More research needed . . .

     One of the apparent "problems" with pronunciation teaching we are told is unrealistic or "utopian" goals (Derwing, 2010). There is certainly some of that, to be sure.

    The actual problem, however, based on a new piece by James Clear, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead: Continuous Improvement, may be the practice of (unproductive) goal setting in the first place. (If you, personally, have defective goals, that is a great piece for sorting things out. Clear is good, very good.) Clear's basic point: progress is generally best achieved by following a method, not by simply "keeping your eye on the prize", not by ad libbing your way along with exercises and practice decisions. Good advice, but how do we do that? What's the method?

    I am always interested in what pronunciation teaching books recommend to students and instructors regarding goals. Here is a typical example from Learning  English VOA News that really doesn't say much but is actually about half right (The sentence in italics!):

    "Start by setting a reasonable goal. Choose one or two sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce. Then, work to improve those sounds. When you have improved, study other sounds. Progress might be slow for you, but don't give up!" There is no clue there or on the website as to HOW you work or practice, but the idea that you commit to an ongoing process of improvement is what Clear is referring to. 

    That VOA prescription is still at least as helpful as the typical, high-level, intelligibility-centered goal approach:
    • "Aim for intelligibility, not accuracy"
    • "Model yourself on an articulate educated L2 speaker of English from your L1"
     Or the more entertaining accent reduction approach:
    What Clear is talking about, based on research in physical training, motivation and discipline development, is that what works is commitment to a method, in effect letting the method take over and (get ready!) . . . following it consistently. Hence, the conundrum in contemporary teaching, in general.

    On the one hand we want students to take responsibility and control over their learning; on the other, we want them to do what we know is best for them. Short of handing it off to the computer, which is on the horizon to be sure, what do you do? The answer is "clear", a method. Here is a little check list, based on Clear's general framework, of what that method should probably include. You don't need all the pieces but probably most of them, depending on your available "tool kit!"
    • Clear sense of what needs to be done.
    • Clear, relatively complete procedures for working on the problem sound/sound process, including recommended time-on-task instructions.
    • Clear feedback from something/body periodically
    • Clear guidelines for out-of class or independent practice and exploration
    • Clear reporting or journaling on work/progress.
    • Clear signs of progress becoming evident.  
    • Clear criteria as to when the goal is achieved.
    • Clear understanding and trust between the learner and the instructor.
    • And, of course, clear commitment to ongoing progress as "the goal", not just some unattainable model. 
    Are we clear on that? If not, ask your local haptician (instructor trained in haptic pronunciation teaching) or personal trainer at the gym about her method.

    Derwing, T. M. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference,

    Sunday, August 20, 2017

    Good listening (and pronunciation teaching) is in the EYE of the beholder (not just the ear)!
    Here is some research well worth gazing at and listening to by Pomper and Chait of University College London: The impact of visual gaze direction on auditory object tracking, summarized by

    In the study, subjects "sat facing three loudspeakers arranged in front of them in a darkened, soundproof room. They were instructed to follow sounds from one of the loudspeakers while ignoring sounds from the other two loudspeakers. . . . instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker" in an aural comprehension task. What they found was that " . . . participants’ reaction times were slower when they were instructed to look away from the attended loudspeaker . . .  this was also accompanied by an increase in oscillatory neural activity . . .

     Look . .  I realize that the connection to (haptic) pronunciation teaching may not be immediately obvious, but it is potentially significant. For example, we know from several research studies (e.g., Molloy et al. 2015) that visual tends to override or "trump" audio--in "head to head" competition in the brain. In addition, auditory generally trumps kinesthetic, but the two together may override visual in some contexts. Touch seems to be able to complement the strength or impact of the other three or serve to unite them or integrate them in various ways. (See the two or three dozen earlier blog posts on those and related issues.)

    In this study, you have three competing auditory sources with the eyes tracking to one as opposed to the others. Being done in a dark room probably helped to mitigate the effect of other possible visual distraction. It is not uncommon at all for a student to chose to close her eyes when listening or look away from a speaker (a person, not an audio loudspeaker as in the study). So this is not about simply paying attention visually. It has more to do with eyes either being focused or NOT. 

    Had the researchers asked subjects to gaze at their navels--or any other specific object--the results might have been very different. In my view the study is not valid just on those grounds alone, but still interesting in that subjects' gaze was fixed at all.) Likewise, there should have been a control group that did the same protocols with the lights on, etc. In effect, to tell subjects to look away was equivalent to having them try to ignore the target sound and attend to it at the same time. No wonder there was " . . .  an increase in oscillatory neural activity"! Really!

    In other words, the EYEs have it--the ability to radically focus attention, in this case to sound, but to images as well. That is, in effect, the basis of most hypnosis and good public speaking, and well-established in brain research. In haptic pronunciation teaching, the pedagogical movement patterns by the instructor alone should capture the eyes of the students temporarily, linking back to earlier student experience or orientation to those patterns. 

    So try this: Have students fix their eyes on something reasonable or relevant, like a picture or neutral, like an area on the wall in front of them--and not look away--during a listening task. Their eyes should not wander, at least not much. Don't do it for a very long period of time , maybe 30 seconds, max at the start. You should explain to them this research so they understand why you are doing it. (As often as I hammer popular "Near-ol'-science", this is one case where I think the general findings of the research are useful and help to explain a very common sense experience.)

     I have been using some form of this technique for years; it is basic to haptic work except we do not specifically call attention to the eye tracking since the gestural work naturally accomplishes that to some degree. (If you have, too, let us know!)

    This is particularly effective if you work in a teaching environment that has a lot of ambient noise in the background. You can also, of course, add music or white noise to help cancel out competing noise or maybe even turn down the lights, too, as in the research. See what I mean?

    Good listening to you!

    UCL (2017, July 5). Gaze Direction Affects Sound Sensitivity. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved July 5, 2017 from
    Molloy, K, Griffiths, D.,  Chait, Lavie, N. Inattentional Deafness: Visual Load Leads to Time-Specific Suppression of Auditory Evoked Responses. Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (49): 16046 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2931-15.2015

    Sunday, August 13, 2017

    Motor-mouth language (and pronunciation): learning through "sleep napnia"

    "Give me a break!" (This is your brain talking after a hard day of learning.) One of the fundamental
    principles of hypnotherapy, and many similar frameworks, is that at critical points in the process, conscious attention to learning must be suspended. Unless it is, little or nothing will be retained or integrated. One of the ways we do that, of course, is sleep. (In hypnosis that is done very intentionally.)
    A fascinating "rat" study, summarized by Neuroscience News, “Neural reactivations during sleep determine network credit assignment” by Gulati, Guo, Ramanathan, Bodepudi and Ganguly of University of California - San Francisco, explored how the brain consolidates motor learning during sleep. Let me translate the conclusion hidden in that title for you. 

    They found that deep sleep was required for the brain to, in effect, sort out what was relevant and functionally important in learning a complex motor task, separating out and discarding all the false starts and exploratory moves required to finally get it "right." They could actually watch the motor area of the brain "playing" with the new pattern repeatedly in sleep. Upon waking, if the rats who were allowed to "sleep it through", their performance was correct. If the deep sleep activity was, in effect, injected with a little static that did not let the extraneous "moves" be backgrounded efficiently, the pattern was not readily available to the rat when conscious again. 

    Hope that long "unpack" did not put you to sleep! The research on the function and necessity of sleep for learning is long established. Here is one takeaway for pronunciation teaching, or the use of gesture in language teaching in general

    In our highly physical, "motorized" experiential work in haptic pronunciation teaching, we long ago recognized that learning how to use the pedagogical movement patterns (specifically created gestures tied to sound patterns) took time--and time off. In other words, you work on the movements for a few minutes and then set it aside, without even THINKING about mastery. That comes later, days later, pretty much without you even thinking about it. For the perfectionist and control freak, the haptic system can be quite a challenge initially.

    We can't require that students get a good night's sleep or even a nap occasionally. There is also probably no feasible way right now to research that, but the principle is important. At least efficient, simple motor learning requires sleep to sort things out. In addition, the learning experience has to be relatively free of extraneous static being encoded or absorbed along with it as it is happening.

    One of the primary contributions of touch in the haptic system is strong, temporary focusing of attention on the coordinated sound and gesture being learned. That should include enhanced body awareness and decluttering of the visual field. When the brain then works on the pattern that evening in the sack, it should have even a little less interference to play with and work through.

    Pronunciation, as motor-based as it is,  is certainly nothing to lose sleep over!

    Definitions of motor-mouth!

    "Napnia" (a neologism) defined: Taking a nap to learn in or by!

    Original source:
    UCSF (2017, August 11). Deep Sleep Reinforces the Learning of New Motor Skills. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved August 11, 2017 from Sleep Reinforces the Learning of New Motor Skills/

    Monday, August 7, 2017

    Gollum Speak: Making language improvement less stressful by talking about me

    Bill is impressed with a new study by Moser et al at Michigan State University, reported by Science Daily, entitled Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI. In fact, he finds himself talking about himself thinking about it in the 3rd person constantly . . . He has even given it a name: Gollum Speak. If you are not a fan of Tolkien, you might want to go here, to get a sense of what that sounds like! One implication of the study is that you can use Gollum-like grammar to control emotion--without interfering with "cognitive" functioning. (Really?) The longer term effects of becoming gradually more "Gollum-like" by talking like that are not examined, however.

    Bill's local psychotherapist informs him that some form of that technique, making the patient temporarily distance themselves either verbally or visually is a long established trick in the field. Works well sometimes but should NOT be just tossed out as an option for those not supervised or not  up on how to "talk themselves out of it", too. In other words, do NOT try that at home!

    On the other hand, Gollum Speak used with language learners may have possibilities. It is, in effect, after all not all that far from role play and drama work, taking on not just the language of the character but the "voice" or perspective as well. Even in working metacognitively with learners on their progress or problems, being detached and "objective" has it merits--although that type of talk can easily devolve into deeper "Gollum": neurotic, uncontrolled self-reflection and . . . doubt. 

    Bill has tried a bit of that already and will do it again with a class in a couple of days. His current read on the use of Gollum in the classroom is that students so far have found it hysterically funny--and grammatically a great game-- but were also apparently able to talk with a little more ease about themselves, just as Moser et al would predict. See just how "Gollum-able" you and your students are!

    He looks forward to his follow up report--and yours!


    Michigan State University. (2017, July 26). Talking to yourself in the third person can help you control emotions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 7, 2017 from

    Thursday, July 27, 2017

    Killing pronunciation 7: Talking learners (and instructors) out of pronunciation change

    Credit: Anna Shaw
    How do you persuade students to work on their pronunciation--or sell them on it, especially pronunciation-related homework?  If you are using more "distal senses" such as sight and/or sound, according to a new study by Elder, Schlosser, Poor, Xu of Brigham Young University, summarized by Science Daily, you may not have the right approach. If, on the other "hand", your method evokes a more "proximal" sense experience (such as movement, touch and/or taste), you are probably on the right track. (I'm sure you can see where this is headed!)

    The BYU study dealt with the impact of advertising on what type of pitch and/sensory imagery seems to get you to make a commitment to buy sooner, rather than later. The actual journal title, So Close I Can Almost Sense It: The Interplay between Sensory Imagery and Psychological Distance, describes the research well. What they found, not surprisingly, is that imagery connecting to or evoking a "felt" somatic response from the body, in effect, draws you in faster, and more effectively.

    That does not mean that you DO something physical, only that the imagery on a screen in this case, may get the customer or learner's brain to respond AS IF actual touch or taste was involved, generating a very real feeling or taste-related memory. That mirroring effect, in part entertained by "mirror neurons" in the brain, is well established in brain research. To the brain under most circumstances the distinction between how we feel when we observe and do can be minimal. Turns out our metaphors are more than metaphors, in other words.

    Some of the variability here may have to do with our personal instructional style in bringing learners' attention to, in this case, what they need to do outside of class. How do you do that? A list somewhere in the syllabus? An oral announcement? Something written on the board? A brief oral run through of what is to be done? A brief rehearsal w/students of what is to be done? What is very important here is not the actual classroom activity but the imagery that it evokes. And the key to that is what prior schema the classroom event is linking back to--and how, in the moment, it is delivered and experienced.

    Pronunciation instruction done right is both an exceedingly physical and meta-cognitive process. What haptic work attempts to do is achieve that balance consistently. There are other ways to do that, of course, but most student textbooks, for example, either don't or can't, in part because the activities are presented and taught in a purely linear fashion. Haptic is ALWAYS simultaneous--sound, movement, and cognition (haptic) engagement, in effect, communicating more intentionally with learners in pronunciation change in and with somatic (body-based) imagery.

    Still not sold? Try rereading the blog in the hot tub or on an exercise ball . . .

    Full citation from
    Brigham Young University. (2017, June 28). Now or later: How taste and sound affect when you buy: The way ads play on our senses influences the timing of our purchases. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2017 from

    Thursday, July 20, 2017

    Students' pronunciation bad? It's important but not your fault!

    Hot off the presses. Large scale study relating to what teachers think about teaching "pronunciation".
    (The blog post was actually inspired by a comment from a neighborhood ESL practitioner recently.) Some conclusions, summarized by Science Daily:
    •  . . . it's important that students have strong PRONUNCIATION skills, and they (teachers) have a role to play in fostering them.
    • PRONUNCIATION learning supports need to be personalized to meet students' different needs. A formulaic approach may not benefit all students.
    • . . . many educators do not have support or know how to allocate time to helping students develop PRONUNCIATION skills
    • Professional development and resources for PRONUNCIATION learning should be available to educators who will be responsible for teaching these skills
    • Many factors outside the school's control influence students' PRONUNCIATION learning, and it is not clear which interventions have the greatest impact on students. Thus, schools and teachers should not be penalized for factors outside their control.
    • (Paraphrasing here) Teachers should not be judged or evaluated based on their students' PRONUNCIATION.
    I lied, sort of. Those conclusions come from a large study of emotional intelligence work in public schools in the US. I just substituted in PRONUNCIATION for SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT  OR INTELLIGENCE . . .

    But the connection between social and emotional development or intelligence and success in developing adequate pronunciation in an L2 is well established in research in this field. I find the last two bullets intriguing. Evading responsibility for bad student pronunciation seems to be a standard (or at least implicit) objective in many L2 teacher education programs--and for pretty much the reasons indicated above.

    Absolved of guilt and responsibility with lowered expectations, anything passing for individual intelligibility is fine. To paraphrase Gandhi's comment on Christianity: Pronunciation teaching has not been tried and found guilty (of messing with learners' identity,  social and emotional development, etc). It has just been found difficult and not tried.

    Or an even better analogy is the great scene between John Belushi and Carrie Fischer in "The Blues Brothers"  . . .

    I feel better already.

    Friday, July 14, 2017

    Why using music helps learning pronunciation even when it doesn't!
    How did we ever teach or solve problems before neuroscience--or as we occasionally refer to it here: "near-ol'-science"? It is axiomatic that even when an experiment or study goes no place, or worse, it is still scientifically valid as long as it was well designed. (Try telling that to your tenure and promotion committee, however, or try and get a "no results" report published sometime, although that is changing when it comes to replicating well-known studies.)

    Neuroscience has certainly added a new dimension to our work. Sometimes, for instance, it highlights a change in brain structure related to some experimental process, even if the treatment in the study didn't work as predicted.

    Here's an example with particular relevance for pronunciation teaching, a "no discernable difference in main effect but related changes in the brain anyway" study, relating sound and movement. To misquote one of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell: A difference that doesn't make a difference . . . DOES make a difference in this case. Perhaps significantly.

    In the study by Moore, Schaefer, Bastin, Roberts and Overy, summarized by Science Daily, Diffusion tensor MRI tractography reveals increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in arcuate fasciculus following music-cued motor training, subjects were trained in a pattern of finger movements either accompanied by music or not, and, of course, fMRI'd as well. The music treatment did not result in any significant difference in learning the skill but in the area of the brain connecting sound and movement, there was a striking increase in activity and activated "white matter". The music had still facilitated the learning in some sense, just not enough--but enough to suggest to researchers that the music-connection is indeed valuable in enhancing motor skill development.

    My guess (based on common sense and the experience of generations of teachers who use music for this purpose and others) is that had the experiment involved a more complex skill and possibly more time, the gain by the music group would have been more evident. Another possibility is that the way that the skill was measured did not get at some other aspect of the process or look at it over a long enough time period. Perhaps had a second, related skill been learned next, the enhanced sound-movement connectivity would have been more "pronounced" . . . The researchers suggest as much in their conclusion.

    The significance of the study, according the researchers was that: "The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning [sic] new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain." Again, that key difference was in the brain, not in the hands. But if they are right, and I'm certain they are, it points to five important principles:
    • Music facilitates (at least motor and sound connected) learning.
    • The effect may be more cumulative, rather then evident in controlled "one time" studies.
    • Pronunciation learning, especially early in the process is in many respects is a sound-motor problem for the learner.
    • Evidence that training is consonant with brain development should be understood as more systemic, affecting and supporting other analogous processes in language learning as well.
    • There is much we do now that we lack clear empirical evidence for but experience argues strongly for it. Before abandoning it, connect up fMRIs to students and see what is actually going on in the brain. You may be making all kinds of progress that will be evident soon, or a bit later. 
    Publish it, using this study as your model! It's a (no) brainer!
    University of Edinburgh. (2017, July 6). Learning with music can change brain structure: Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from

    Wednesday, July 5, 2017

    Easy pronunciation change? You'd better believe it!

    One of the most striking findings of research on teacher cognition about pronunciation teaching is that, especially those newer to field often believe it to be REALLY hard, difficult and intimidating (e.g., Burri 2017). There is less (much less) research on why that should be the case--or on how that can be best moderated, or prevented to any extent. We are talking here primarily about expectations.

    As usual, my "go to" source for understanding how to affect pronunciation change is . . . sport. Pronunciation change is a physical business, one that from my perspective is best approached from that perspective, at least initially. But here is a case where the right "metacognitive set" can be enormously important, such as in the case of a new study by Mothes, Leukel, Seelig and Fuchs titled, "Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?" summarized by

    On the surface of it, the research confirmed the common sense notion that expectations can dramatically influence performance. One feature of the study, for example, was that wearing great looking compression tights, and believing that they "work" makes exercise less strenuous or at least one's perception of effort. Being an enthusiastic wearing of that athletic placebo, I have been all in and a believer for years . . .

    But how can this make pronunciation teaching and change easier?  Easy. What students pick up from you about pronunciation change impacts more than just their perception of how difficult it is. In other words, it is at least as much the fault of the method and the instructor's personal, professional presence as it is the learner's ability and L1 meddling. To paraphrase the great Pogo observation: We have met the enemy (of pronunciation change) and it is . . . us!

    I'd recommend that you begin with some kind of compression top that gets the right message across, of course . . . probably not something like the message conveyed in the following from the forward to Orion, 1989 (quoted in Acton, 1992):

    "Acquiring good pronunciation is the most difficult part of learning a new language. As you improve your articulation you have to learn to listen and imitate all over again. As with any activity you wish to do well, you have to practice, practice, practice, and then practice some more . Remember that you cannot accomplish good pronunciation overnight; improvement takes time. Some students may find it more difficult than others and will need more time than others to improve ( pp. xxiii-iv)."

    It is "easier" from a haptic perspective, depending on the extent to which you Train the body first! (Lessac, 1967) in pronunciation teaching and project the right message both verbally and non-verbally. The key element here is the physical basis of change, not just pronunciation itself, the significance of the research to in our work. Conceptually, it is important that that distinction is kept in mind (and body)!

    So, what do your class expectations for ongoing pronunciation improvement feel like? How do you create and sustain that? I'm expecting some great comments/insights to follow here!

    You'd better believe it!

    Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Harald Seelig, Reinhard Fuchs. Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise? PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0180434 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180434

    University of Freiburg. (2017, June 30). Sport feels less strenuous if you believe it's doing you good. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 4, 2017 from

    Tuesday, June 27, 2017

    Distracting new research: Try some "strategic attention" or a millennial!
    This could be either a sign of things to come or at least a pleasant "distraction."

    I have done literally dozens of blogposts here (out of the roughly 1,000) that involve in some way the concept of "attention". Likewise, in our decade or so of experience with haptic pronunciation teaching, capturing the learner's attention--for at least 3 seconds--has been shown to be critical. Any number of factors may serve to seriously distract the student and undermine the process.

    Now comes a study, Selectively Distracted: Divided Attention and Memory for Important Information, by Middlebrooks, Kerr, and Castel of UCLA, summarized by, suggesting that background distraction can be overcome . . . by "strategic attention", characterized this way:

    "The ability to prioritize high-value information during study was consistently immune to the effects of divided attention, regardless of the extent of the distractions that participants faced . . . the current results intimate that divided attention did not incapacitate metacognitive mechanisms in either of the current experiments leaving participants capable of judging their memory capacity, performance, and methods by which they might compensate for additional demands on attention (p. 32)"

    Subjects were subjected to various distractions while learning sets of words, such music and having to attend to random numbers during the treatment phase. Although overall performance/recall was not quite as high among the "distracted", they were later equally successful in recalling key words in the post tests.

    This sounds like partial validation of the "hyper-cognitivist's" position that just by pointing out (pronunciation) errors or pointing to key (phonological) features in texts, for example, learners may "uptake" such focused input and effectively make use of that information later. Could be. We have all witnessed such potentially "teachable moments", but with so many other things going on in the classroom environment, what are the chances, really?

    According to the study, it all comes down to what has been prioritized by the learner, the instructor and the context. Wow. But wait . . . just who were the subjects? Any chance that they were just more naturally adept at dealing with distraction? 192 paid undergraduates, probably in introductory psychology courses, the usual guinea pigs in such studies. Interestingly, the researchers do not comment on the young millennials' social media competence.

    Any number of other recent studies have observed, seemingly to the contrary, that the "hyper-media generation" is in some respects less capable of keeping their eye on the ball. (Even the NBA has gotten the message, planning to shorten games!) Surprise . . . 

    The good news: Perhaps upcoming generations are in fact becoming more "immune" to distraction in learning and studying, especially in certain e-contexts.  If so, that has intriguing implications for instructional design and tolerance for random iPhone use in class.

    The bad news: Wonky studies like this one can easily distract us (or at least me!) from the more important work of creating classrooms where our priority, our attention is focused totally on effective teaching and learning. Just thought that I should point that out . . .

    Association for Psychological Science. (2017, June 21). Strategic studying limits the costs of divided attention. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from

    Saturday, June 24, 2017

    New Haptic Pronunciation Teaching "Work-inar"!

    If your organization would be interested in a 2-hour, highly interactive, experiential webinar on haptic pronunciation teaching (and you should be!), we have the answer! Our new haptic "work-inar" on English pronunciation!
    Dates are available beginning in mid-August. The format looks like this:
    • Introduction
    • Haptic learning
    • English vowels and word and phrasal stress
    • Rhythm groups and rhythm
    • Basic intonation
    • Fluency and feedback
    • Conversational speed and confidence
    • Advanced and discourse intonation
    • Integrating "haptic" into the classroom
    • Consonants galore (done haptically)
    • Q&A
    Like all haptic workshops and presentations, it involves a great deal of participant engagement, including mirroring of the pedagogical gestures of the presenter (Bill Acton or colleague) and occasional "dancing" to the various rhythms of the webinar.

    There is no charge for this basic v4.0 EHIEP (Essential Haptic-integrated English Pronunciation) webinar--other than the usual, tasteful, low key promotion of all things there may be some additional fee attached if it is extensively customized for a local population or if by agreement there is some structured follow up, etc. In late Spring 2018 v5.0 of the haptic pronunciation teaching system and webinar will be rolled out as well!

    The idea right now is just to further get out the "haptic word" to the profession.

    If that sounds like fun, let us know!


    Sunday, June 18, 2017

    Good vibrations: Why the kazoo works in teaching intonation!

    I frequently find reports of studies that have striking conclusions that I'd really love to believe are valid--but do not provide quite enough detail.  Here's one: Haptic learning system for learning Chinese by Jung, Hwang, and Kyung, Dept. of Digital Media, Ajou University, Korea. A neat little study, nonetheless, one that may suggest some interesting follow up.
    The experiment was seemingly straightforward. Subjects in the control group were presented with a  traditional audio/visual presentation of a set of target words and asked to memorize them. (Nothing was published as to exactly what the subjects did on their own from that point.) The treatment group, in addition to the same audio/visual presentation, simultaneously were touching a device that provided them with "feel" or vibrations of different frequencies of the different phonemic tones of the Chinese words as they heard them. Not surprisingly, the "haptic" group performed far better on the subsequent recall test, (p<.05).

    Have seen no previous study that used a similar procedure. The popular use of hand-held kazoos in teaching English intonation, however, provides something of the same varied tonal vibrations. Judy Gilbert has been a "Kazoo-enthusiast" for decades, using them in virtually every teacher training workshop. I have been skeptical of their use in the classroom, for a number of reasons, but in teacher training, they definitely have a place.

    In haptic pronunciation teaching we use a strong focus on vocal resonance, trying to create as much rich vibration in the bones and sinus cavities as possible to enhance memory for sounds and words, along with controlled gestures, what we term: pedagogical movement patterns. One could easily design an analogous hand-held device that would provide something of the same kind of haptic/tactile input as in the Jung et al. study.  Just need to figure out how to get a similar "buzz" on in our EHIEP haptic research!

    If you have an idea how to do that, let us know!

    Source: Asia -pacific Proceedings of Applied Science and Engineering for Better Human Life, Vo l.5 (2016) pp.55-59,

    Saturday, May 27, 2017

    The "wrong" way to get pronunciation teaching right!
    If you don't get the James Clear newsletter already, go sign up for it, or at least read his latest piece on "inversion": Inversion: The Crucial Thinking Skill Nobody Ever Taught You.  Inversion, or "envisioning the negative things that could happen in life" is not a popular strategy today for any number reasons. People who dwell on the downside may not be all that welcome in any social or professional context, but, as Clear demonstrates, used appropriately such "thinking out of the box" processes such as "If we wanted to kill the company or the program, how might we do that?" often reveal unique and innovative solutions. He gives a number of famous examples. 

    I recently experimented with that heuristic on my own model, method and business plan with some striking results and . . . revelations. I had earlier worked with an executive coach for about 6 months  and "inversion" would have been absolutely anathema to that process: Think positive; visualize positive goals and outcomes; consider effective strategies and moves going forward. But what if I, instead, had focused in on the consequences of NOT staying  goal-oriented and upbeat? Actually, I might be further along than I am now . . .

    Just for a fun thought experiment, try out questions such as these on your own program, course, system or method:

    How could I . . .  
    • Provide useless or pointless advice on self correction or self-instruction of pronunciation?
    • Disconnect student's from their bodies in pronunciation work?
    • Undermine students' development of intelligibility or accuracy?
    • Help students develop a deep distrust and aversion to an English or English dialect spoken by any other group? 
    • Establish impossible targets of perfection for learners?
    • Create enough emotional tension or distraction in the room to seriously interfere with students "uptaking" pronunciation instruction?
    • Make sure that students don't do pronunciation homework? 
    • Arrange student groups to discourage constructive collaborative work? 
    • Use correction to badger, berate or bully students? 
    • Seriously mess with learners' identities in teaching pronunciation? 
    • Make pronunciation instruction as boring as possible? 
    • Make students think their pronunciation is better than it is? 
    • Successfully ignore attention to pronunciation entirely? 
    • Talk more about pronunciation than actually do anything with it? 
    • Be an awful model for my students?
    • Teach pronunciation without any training in it?
    • Teach pronunciation without using phonetic symbols? 
    • Encourage students to go to some "Miracle Accent Reduction" website instead of working with me?. 
    • Make students think their accent is bad or could not use a little enhancement
     Based on that exercise, I have made some important changes in how v5.0 of the haptic pronunciation system will look when it rolls out. Now I just have to work through what will happen if that doesn't work, of course!

     Please feel free to add to the list in the comment section!



    Monday, May 22, 2017

    Metacognitive competence: Know thy L1, L1C and inner parts to better acquire L2 and L2C
    As reported in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (and summarized by, Böckler of the Max Planck Institute and Maxmilians of the University of Würzburg seem to have established empirically yet again--or maybe for the first time--what the ancient Egyptians had observed: "Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods". Well, their study is a bit more modest. You should at least be capable of gaining a better understanding of the "mental state" of others.

    In the 3-month study that focused on "perspective taking" skills, including their "superpersonalities" and (I like this) their "inner parts" subjects developed enhanced ability to understand the position of the Other--which should result in improved engagement and learning. Psychologically healthy empathy operationalized, not just the ability to "sync" with others but beginning from a realistic and grounded understanding of who we are.

    Have been unable to find any recent research or even reports on current practice where learners first go through a systematic "pre-language learning" program, gaining formal metacognitive and experiential knowledge of their L1 and L1 culture before actually getting to the L2. (My only first hand experience with that was the 3-months or so of military basic training that I went through in the US Air Force prior to beginning a one-year ALM experience in Russian language. Near perfect preparation!)

    There are, of course, hundreds of studies looking at learner readiness and aptitude. In addition, most of us would contend that we continually do things and set up conditions that work toward enhancing learning, in effect accomplishing the same thing, in some sense like the B&M study. Culture and pragmatics are now thoroughly integrated (in theory) in instruction; L1 usage and reference are now much more widely accepted as well.

    Many programs and courses place importance on general cultural awareness; some use the structure and sound system of the L1 as a point of departure as well. In haptic pronunciation teaching (EHIEP), for example, it is recommended, whenever possible, to train learners in the basics of the L1 sound system before introducing them to English or at least early on in the process. 

    In our MATESOL program we are now using for the first time a "know thyself" instrument, the Strength Deployment Inventory, that shows promise in developing some of the same kind of "metacognitive competence". Tell us how you get at the same target in your pronunciation (or any other kind of) teaching! That is if you are aware of it . . .

    Anne Böckler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science and Julius Maximilians University Würzburg in Germany

    Read more at:
    nne Böckler et al, Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others, Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s41465-017-0023-6

    Read more at:
    nne Böckler et al, Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others, Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s41465-017-0023-6

    Read more at:

    Sunday, May 14, 2017

    The Empir(esists and Millenials) strike back: Micro-learning in pronunciation teaching and elsewhere!
    Talk about a flash from the past . . . If there are any survivors from the Behaviorist/Audio-lingual teaching era still with us, this report may just make their day.

    Micro training/teaching/learning is back, but in some ways new and improved, I think. We've known for sometime now that the optimal attention span length for today's "video-media-phytes" is shrinking, down to somewhere around 3 or 4 minutes. Our overall attention span as a culture has been shrinking rapidly in the last 3 decades, in fact. But if that is the case, what do we do with the other 47 minutes of the 50 minute class? Micro-learning, or the shift from courses to resources, to the rescue.

    Here is a nice definition and suggestions for using micro-learning from Steve Penfield at

    "Microlearning is sometimes defined as simply providing learners with tiny bites of learning material, rather than longer-form modules or courses. These tiny bites could be interactive videos, podcasts, quizzes, and more. But it’s their length that is key. We’re talking two to three minutes max. And learners should have some choice about what they use and when." 

     He then provides 5 tips to keep in mind when micro-ing it:
    • Start with challenges
    • Create a scale
    • Use sources and rules to personalize the learning curve
    • Reward learners for their progress
    • Include milestones to highlight progress
    And 3 key questions:
    • How can we create pathways that are personalized for our learners?
    • In what ways can we work in spaced practice?
    • In what ways can we use live data to motivate and encourage learners, while making the learning experience more social for them?
    Several important notions there, other than your basic behaviorist recipe: (a) milestones of progress, (b) spaced (systematic) practice, (c) more engaging social learning and practice experience, and (d) use of "live" data. Any of those will add substantially to the effectiveness of your teaching, in general, but they are especially relevant to pronunciation work. Please let us know how you utilize any of those effectively in your method. Subsequent blog posts will focus especially on (b) and (c).

    Tuesday, May 9, 2017

    Killing pronunciation 6: Eliminating distraction (and episodic memory) with gesture!
    Have wondered for years why at times even the most ingenious use of gesture itself may not enhance memory for a sound or word. I assumed that it had something to do with what the learner was paying attention to at the time but had never seen any study that seemed to unpack that problem all that well. We know, for example, that visual distraction can effectively all but cancel out the impact of a haptic (movement + gesture) stimulus or haptic-anchored gesture. But why doesn't gesture generally just reinforce whatever is the focus of instruction or repetition? Turns out that it may be our Achilles Heel. Here's a clue.

    A fascinating study by Laurent, Ensslin and Mari-Beffa (2015) entitled, An action to an object does not improve its episodic encoding, but removes distraction, illustrates the potentially double-edged nature of gesture. Without getting into the somewhat complex but innovative research design, what they discovered is that gesture accompanying focus on an object did not enhance episodic memory for the object and the context or surroundings but did strongly curtail distraction. evident in the diminished memory for other elements of the event. (Think of episodic memory as basically potential recall of emotional setting plus the 5 "W"s: who, what, where, why and when of a happening.) 

    In other words, gesture accompanying a phrase, for example, should at least cut back on distracting features of the moment or context . . . but, other than that, it may not be adding much to the mix. It may be actually working against you.

    At first glance, that may appear to at least to some extent undermine use of gesture in teaching. It does, in fact. Haptic pronunciation teaching, which uses gesture anchored by touch on stressed elements, is based on the principle that gesture that is not carefully controlled and focused with touch is "a wash" . . . it may or may not work. Over enthusiastic gesture use, for example, may not only turn off many of the students, compounded by cultural differences, but, in effect, it can be so distracting in itself that the language focus is lost entirely. 

    It took me a couple of decades of working with kinesthetic pronunciation teaching techniques to figure that out. That insight came basically in the form of wildly divergent reports and feedback on gesture effectiveness by classroom teachers. Pronunciation teachers are generally by nature more "gesticular", often highly energetic and "moving" speakers. Perhaps you have to be in many contexts just to motivate students and maintain their attention, but it can, indeed, be our Achilles Heel. Is it yours? 

    If so, get in touch (either with us or your local yoga, Alexander Technique, Lessac practitioner or Tai Chi shop!)

    Laurent, X.; Ensslin, A. and  Mari-Beffa, P. (2015) An action to an object does not improve its episodic encoding, but removes distraction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 44(1), 244.

    Friday, April 28, 2017

    Gaby Cordero, 1983-2017

    We have lost a good friend and promising "Haptician" (an ESL or EFL instructor who is highly skilled and certified in haptic pronunciation teaching.) Earlier this week, Gaby (the one on the left in the picture) died tragically in a car accident near her home in Costa Rica.

    She had reported on her MA Thesis research with us in a research colloquium on haptic pronunciation teaching recently at the TESOL Convention in Seattle. She and her two colleagues, also pictured, had done their combined MA research through the University of Costa Rica on the application of haptic pronunciation teaching to L1 and L2 literacy instruction with 4th and 5th graders. It was a wonderful, action-research study, done by classroom instructors, themselves, demonstrating the potential of "haptic" in surprising and highly effective ways.

    Her commitment and enthusiasm were contagious, as was her joie de vivre. We had many recent conversations, exploring how we would bring more HaPT there.

    Gaby touched many lives. She will be greatly missed.