Sunday, December 29, 2013

Time to change your (pronunciation) teaching system?

Yes. Well . . . maybe. Systems change theory as it relates to pronunciation teaching and body-based training methods has always intrigued me. (See several previous posts on that and related topics.) One of the delights (and basics) of graduate instruction is helping practitioners articulate explicit models of how they, themselves, do things--before they encounter or are forced to work with new frameworks.

Not surprisingly, most who have a coherent method that they have either developed or adopted/adapted and have substantial experience using it in the classroom--prove to be reasonably good at evaluating, modifying and/or dumping it. (Definition of coherent method: internally consistent and held together by a simple, transparent theory of some kind.)

Photo credit: Mens
There was recently a nice article posted on the Men's Health website by Dan John, a popular trainer. I have not linked to that piece directly because of "adjacent" material in the margins that might be distracting . . . but it ends with this note: "Dive into a new program every so often and immerse yourself in it. Then, after you finish it, go ahead and critique it. Mine the gems, and then adapt and adopt them into your normal training. But, first, finish what you started." You can, by the way, find  Dan's awesome kettlebell program --which I am dying to try in its entirety, of course, sometime--here!)

Bottom here. Pronunciation teaching is in a very important sense a "physical (as well as cognitive) practice." Haptic pronunciation teaching balances brain and body engagement better than most anything else around. If you are happy with your pronunciation method now--and can fairly assess its results based on experiencing it as a "coherent system," . . . good! If not, try out AH-EPS v2.0 from Dan's experiential perspective: Do it, then critique it. It'll at least ring your "kettlebell." Promise. (Email me at if you want more information before it rolls out next week.)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Exciting pronunciation improvement: the "Harvard way," so to speak!

Note: Decide whether to process "exciting" as a gerund or adjective--or both (preferred) before reading this post. 

Photo credit:
After decades of trying to dial down anxiety in pronunciation teaching, having students calm down, relax or get in the zone affectively, leave it to Harvard researchers to "discover" that getting excited is actually a better state of mind to be in when preparing for what would normally be some anxiety-provoking activities or challenges. The results of the experiments, reported by  Brooks of the Harvard School of Business, and reported by Science Daily, demonstrated, "that simple statements about excitement could improve performance during activities that triggered anxiety."

That is big. The basic premise of the studies was the value of having subjects practice saying things out loud like "I'm excited about X," or, alternatively, "I'm calm about X . . . "  Those using the positive approach turned out to be consistently better at performing the task ahead.  Furthermore, Brooks notes that, "  . . . It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don't believe it at first, saying 'I'm excited' out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement." What the "excited talk" subjects experienced was both more excitement up front and lower anxiety during the performance task itself (measured in part by heart rate.)

Such applications of "Positive"psychology" have been around for a long time. The mechanism behind such results is clear: professed motivation, even if somewhat "insincere" and artificial, in some, relatively limited contexts works well. The Harvard studies appear to have focused primarily on public oral performance, such as giving a speech. Speaking. See the connection? The subjects were already speaking more confidently before they had began . . . speaking.

In haptic pronunciation teaching (and probably every good public speaking training system), in part because of the"full body" engagement, we see the same phenomenon: learners do, indeed, get "excited" (or maybe even a bit agitated?) up front, but then demonstrate less anxiety in responding to modelling and during oral practice and error correction. Exciting, eh?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The "kitchen sink" of pronunciation teaching and research

Have a little quiz for you. Before you read the rest of this post below the "bottom line," look over the list of activities from the description of a pronunciation/accent improvement course in a 2012 study by Mirtoska of South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia. It is reported to have included, (a) awareness raising activities, (b) pronunciation coaching by native speakers, and (c) authentic language exposure activities, including:

  • a semester-long course, "Phonetics and phonology," prior to the study
  • peer presentations
  • role plays
  • series quizzes (based on watching "Desperate Housewives" as homework)
  • segmental and suprasegmental teaching and activities using the book “Pronounce it perfectly in English,” among other books 
  • (oral) reading activities
  • Smith/Beckman (2005) Noticing-Reformulation task work

Question: Assuming that the activities were reasonably appropriate for the (college student) English BA student population in Albania, does that not sound like a great set of procedures?
Of course, it does. The problem in this case--as in almost all class-room based pronunciation teaching research--is that the report in the article gives us not a clue as to how much of any of those procedures were done or how effectively they were done. In fairness, the focus of the research was not specifically on what works but does anything work in that context to improve pronunciation.

The results of the study are fascinating. With all of that great looking, "theoretically state of the art" instruction, the control group did about as well as the experimental group. "Both groups were pre- and post recorded over a period of one semester which is approximately 4 months at this university. The participants were recorded before (and after) the semester . . . using a test consisting of three parts; spontaneous speech, for which they answered three questions, reading a paragraph out loud and reading tongue twisters." Both groups demonstrated about equal, yet statistically significant improvement in "accent" by those measures. 

Why? What may have helped improve pronunciation (or why the control group did so well) could not be factored out or even speculated on. That is actually not a bad picture of the "State of the art" today in the field. In controlled experiments, it is now well established that pronunciation teaching can make a difference. (What a relief, that "science" has at least confirmed that!)

Once pronunciation work goes into the classroom, however, the dynamic nature of that setting makes evaluating the effectiveness of any one or several procedures simultaneously exceedingly difficult. Fair enough.

So what is a practitioner to do? For the time being: Either throw in everything (that is theoretically or methodologically acceptable/correct at the problem) but the kitchen sink, as was apparently done here--or use a coherent system that embodies only essential, scaffolded, haptic-integrated procedures. I can even recommend one in fact . . . (AH-EPS, v2.0 will be available soon.)

Next post will look at how to evaluate a pronunciation teaching system--and how not to. Keep in touch.

Monday, December 23, 2013

(Haptic pronunciation) movement training: mouse to mouth?

Clip art:
New study by Kording of Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, summarized by Science Daily, purports to show that " . . . computer use not only changes our lifestyle but also fundamentally affects the neural representation of our movements . . . " Really? The research compared the "movement generalizability" ability of heavy computer users with those who were not. Those proficient "mousers" were, not surprisingly, able to more quickly learn new mouse patterns.

What is of particular interest to haptic pronunciation teaching, however, was that after about two weeks of specifically designed mouse-based computer game playing, the former "non-mousers" had, in effect, caught up. Their brains and hands had achieved what appeared to be the same "broad movement generalization" capability. This helps explain a key phase or problem in haptic pronunciation learning--and suggests something of a solution. 

For some learners, being able to follow along with the pedagogical movement patterns (hand and arm movements across the visual field accompanied by speaking a word or phrase, concluding in hands touching on a stressed syllable) used by instructors can be initially difficult. In our experience it may take up to a month for them to be able to begin easily generalizing a movement pattern of a vowel, for example, in practicing pronunciation of new words.

There are any number of studies reported here earlier considering why that may be the case, from pedagogical to psycho-social to neurological. The concept of training learners to be better at learning movement first, in a low key, maybe even "fun" set of procedures, however, is intriguing. Whatever the cause, if "simple" movement training, rather than more radical intervention--or giving up in despair, can enhance haptic pronunciation learning and teaching up front, that is indeed big. 

Will try designing some kind of analogous "Mini-Mouse Module," or perhaps just require a few minutes of iPhone game work before or during class regularly to keep everybody up to speed!

 Keep in touch!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Haptic pronunciation teaching as theatre, Part Two: EXPRESSIVE

This is Part Two of two that explores how to understand EHIEP and AH-EPS training, based on the Association of Theatre Movement Educators (ATME) characterization of both the physical and expressive dimensions of movement training.

I have excerpted out the basic focus of the four features of theatre movement related to "expressiveness" that follow and have inserted in italics after each one the relevance to haptic pronunciation teaching (HPT): 
  • . . . use of the body as an instrument of perception and expression . . . (In addition to enhancing general expressiveness, HPT creates in the learner the ability to "record" and recall words, phrases and sentences based on what it feels like to articulate them and what body movement accompanies each, what is often termed, kinaesthetic memory) 
  • . . . externalize and communicate . . . inner state through movement . . . (Any sound or group of sounds can be represented using speech-synchronized gesture systematically in the visual field, terminating in hands touching on the focal or stressed syllable)
  • . . . concentration, observation, and sensitivity to others . . . (Perhaps the most striking effect of haptic pronunciation training is the management of attention, if only for brief periods of time, to concentrate on the target sound or word.)
  • AMPISys, Inc.
  • . . . skill, confidence and freedom of expression . . . (Public speaking instructors are generally good at using movement and body-based techniques to promote a feeling of confidence and greater expressiveness. Learners doing EHIEP consistently report increased confidence in speaking and ability to express their feelings more effectively.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Haptic pronunciation teaching as theatre, Part One: PHYSICAL

Probably the best source on the web for connecting up to the wide range of disciplines that work systematically with body movement is the Association of Theatre Movement Educators (ATME). This is Part One of two that explores how to understand EHIEP and AH-EPS training, based on the ATME characterization of both the physical and expressive dimensions of movement training. 

The description of a movement specialist could, with a little (haptic) lexical substitution describe an
Clip art: Ckler
EHIEP "haptician" as well:

" . . . the movement specialist/teacher works with the development of the intuitive and kinaesthetic understanding of the performer. . . . devise(s) a process for creating an articulate body that demonstrates technical proficiency, full physical commitment and ease, along with the integration of physical skills." 

Among the (9) specifics are: (Italics are mine!)
  • Teaching of movement skills . . . to increase strength, flexibility, control . . . and as elements of improvisation (Haptic work is especially valuable in integrating new pronunciation and vocabulary into spontaneous speech.) 
  • . . . training the body to be emotionally and physically connected to the specifics of the text (This is done in EHIEP with movement, vocal resonance and touch of hands in the visual field, as the text, word or phrase is articulated.) 
  • . . . (developing) the ability to inhabit a physical and experiential reality other than one’s own . . . (Although the 3rd parameter, becoming an "actor" in the L2 physical culture, is not an explicit goal of EHIEP work, it is reported consistently by those who work through the complete system. The connection of body representation to identity is foundational in many fields.)
Does that sound like fun? Keep in touch. (AH-EPS v2.0 will be "center stage" shortly!)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why "Out of body" haptic pronunciation teaching!

This post is a bit long, but also long overdue. Short answer: "Haptic Video Bill," is at least better than you are!
Clip art: Clker

As we get ready to launch AH-EPS v2.0 (Acton Haptic English Pronunciation System), I was reminded of one of the most important FAQs: Why use video (of me in v2.0!) to train students to do the pedagogical movement patterns initially, rather than do it yourself, in front of the class?

If there are a couple of generally unspoken reasons why instructors may resist converting to haptic (or more kinaesthetic) pronunciation teaching, it may be these: either the assumption that (a) "I can do it better than video!"; or (b) "I just do not like drawing attention to my body when I'm teaching--or anytime." I used to think it was more (Western) cultural. See nice 1997 summary of research on body image by Fox that establishes that as a more universal phenomenon.

As we have seen in decades of experience with using kinaesthetic techniques in this field, the latter is unquestionably the case, even with just requiring a discrete tapping out of rhythm or word stress on the desk. For some, that simply demands too much coordination, brain integration--or risk taking. All I have to do is ask one question of a trainee: Do you like to dance? From that I can predict at least how quickly, he or she will "get" kinaesthetic and haptic work. Finding a successful (technology-based) approach to that obstacle has been key to the effectiveness of the AH-EPS project.

In a highly publicized 2011 study of 'Out of body experience," it was observed that, although we all may experience such momentary sensations, those who have serious, recurrent episodes have particular difficulty in adopting " . . . the perspective of a figure shown on the computer screen." (That is performing the movement or posture mirror image to the model on the screen.)

One early discovery in AH-EPS work was that the video model had to be presented in mirror image, so that when the model moved to the learner's right, for example, the learner would move in the same direction, simultaneously. Doing that, alone, modelling the gestures in person in class, at least in training is--to put it mildly-- very "cognitively complex!" I now rarely, if ever, attempt to train students in person, face to face; I am SO much better on haptic video! (With apologies to Brad Paisley!)

The research and clinical reports on why that should the case in "body training" and body-based therapeutic systems is extensive. (If interested, be glad to share that with you. It is pretty well unpacked in the v2.0 AH-EPS Instructor's Guide.)

AMPISys, Inc. 
Once students are "trained by the video," however, a process taking perhaps 15 minutes, an instructor or peer can easily then use the pattern for anchoring presentation or correction. For example, the training for the vowel system includes 15 vowels of English.

A correction of a mispronunciation, on the other hand,  involves using the pedagogical movement pattern (PMP) for just one vowel typically--a quick "interdiction," as we call it, lasting maybe a minute, at most. In that case, the PMP is performed as the model is spoken or as the learner practices the new or enhanced pronunciation of the word or phrase, 3 or 4 times.

That was . . . quick!

Keep in touch!