Saturday, January 31, 2015

Touching teaching of expressiveness!

Photo credit:
On February 21st, at the 2015 BCTEAL - Island ConferenceProfessor Aihua Liu of Harbin Institute of Technology, a visiting professor here at Trinity Western University, and myself, will be doing a workshop entitled, "A touching and moving approach to teaching expressiveness."

Here is the program abstract: 

In this practical, “hands on” workshop, a haptic-integrated (using movement and touch) classroom-tested system for teaching conversational intonation and expressiveness will be demonstrated and practiced by participants. The 8 basic techniques include 5 for intonation and 3 others for adding on changes in pitch, pace, volume and discourse foregrounding.

And the detailed summary:

Teaching English intonation can be challenging for any language teacher, due in part to the unique uses of intonation patterns at the discourse level.  Although pronunciation textbooks for students generally present basic intonation patterns with practice activities, that is, of course, only the beginning. It is one thing to be able to imitate or use a simple rising intonation contour on a type of yes/no question or a falling pattern on a simple statement, but it is still quite a leap to expressing a wider range of emotion in speaking.

The haptic model presented has students initially speak along with a model or instructor when working on a new or unusual stretch of expressive speech. Rather than just speaking the sentences, however, learners gesture along with the model to enhance their ability to not just produce but recall more accurately the “extra” features of pitch, pace, volume and discourse focus (or foregrounding).

The workshop is based on principles of “Essential haptic-integrated English Pronunciation,” developed by Acton and colleagues. Participants are provided with guidelines for using the framework in classes with teenage and adult learners and given access to video models on the web of the techniques presented.

Join us, if you can!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A new angle on (kinaesthetic geometry or haptic pronunciation) teaching

"Embodied cognition" is, or should be, the point of departure for pronunciation teaching--and for elementary math-geometry, according to a "moving" study by Smith, King, and Hoyte, University of Vermont (Summarized by Science Daily). "Learning angles through movement: Critical actions for developing understanding in an embodied activity." (Full citation below.)

Here is one researcher's take on embodied cognition: ". . . the brain alone does not generate behavior, but that it actually works in concert with physical movements and other environmental and neural processes such as perception, action and emotion."

In the study, elementary school-age subjects who formed geometric shapes or angles with their bodies " . . . made significant gains in the understanding of angles and angle measurements . . . while interacting with a Kinect for Windows mathematics program." 

The function of body movement (and gesture) in learning has been established and understood in many disciplines or fields of research. This study adds a more direct connection to abstract concepts, not just communicative intentions or emotions. In pronunciation teaching there are several dozen "concepts" that can be used pedagogically (such as symbols for vowels), all of them, or at least most of them can be represented in visual schema, or (in haptic work) in pedagogical movement patterns (gesture plus touch on a focal element in the word or phrase). 

What is also nice about this study is that to create those angles with the body requires a requisite degree of accuracy and dimensionality--kinaesthetically for the learner and visually (for feedback) for the instructor. That is also the key to haptic pronunciation work--and what makes it particularly effective; precision of body position and gesture in the visual field. ( One of the chief criticisms of gestural work, in general, is the inconsistent presentation of patterns in the visual field and variability of emotional expressiveness.)

The future of pronunciation teaching lies in such embodied technology.  May be time to connect with Kinect . . . 

University of Vermont. (2015, January 26). Students master math through movement using Kinect for Windows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 28, 2015 from

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Clear advice: Love your (pronunciation teaching) method!

Have recently "discovered" the popular blog of James Clear who, to quote his self description:  . . . writes about science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick.

I was, of course, immediately hooked when I got to the last word there--and great haptic metaphor! Full disclosure: He is also a weight lifter. Sports and exercise coaches are simply the best when it comes to developing systems that involve movement and discipline--like pronunciation teaching.

He concludes an intriguing post entitled "Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead" with the striking line: "Fall in love with systems!" (Required reading!)

Clear is not referring to "Aims and aspirations" that provide motivation and passion, as described by Wells (2003) :

"What are the student’s personal aims and aspirations in language learning? . . . Some just want enough English to communicate at a basic level, or indeed just enough to pass some examination. Others aim to achieve the best they possibly can. We must cater for both types and for those who fall somewhere between. Speaking personally, I must say that my own aspiration in learning languages is NS-like proficiency. I acknowledge that I may be unlikely to attain it. But that doesn’t stop me aiming for it. I try to inspire my students with the same high ideal. If it were suggested that I should not even aim so high, I should feel short-changed. "

Many describe today's language teaching as "post method," meaning that there are no longer any generally applicable systems that work in a broad range of contexts. Very true. That does not mean, however,  that a "local" method is not necessary. On the contrary . . .

Balancing "high ideals" and feasible process is the trick. For example, the "wrong" kind of goals for learners working on pronunciation are often simply unrealistic, given the time, talent and resources available. Nothing wrong with aiming at NS-like level, unless you are an intermediate-level student with only three months to get there, etc. Even a goal such as "fixing" use of "th" or a particular vowel in a week or two by the same intermediate student can be at best counter-productive. That is especially true without a very rigorous practice regimen handy to direct energy and effort.

Do your students "fall in love" with your system or one that they have adapted from yours? Do you provide them with a "clear" framework detailing their part in the process, understanding of what is behind it and how it facilitates progress? Do you follow up with them consistently on how they are doing and how they working in it?

Clear's point is that making change "stick," which demands discipline and limiting attention and focus, also requires commitment to a set of principles and consistent scheduling--along with having confidence and trust in both the system and the provider of it. Once a learner's general, realistic goal has been articulated and locked in, attention (and passion) must shift to the systematic "heavy lifting" of the day-to-day training process and stay there. Trust, love (and obey) the method, the system! (See his framework for getting started in that direction.) What an absolutely radical, "retro" notion today!

Do you have a "clear" one-page description of your system that students can easily understand, follow--and love? A quick review of published pronunciation textbooks didn't turn up anything close to that. I am working on one now (for haptic pronunciation teaching) that will serve as a model for my graduate students in applied phonology this semester to follow as they develop their own.

I'll share that shortly here, too,  a "loveable" system of sorts. If you have a good one now, please pass it on. I'll create a "Love-my-methods" page off the blog to display them.

Love to see yours . . .

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Don't look now: Recall, rapport and (haptic) pronunciation teaching

Nice study by Nash, Nash, Morris and Smith. (summarized by Science Daily) titled, " Does rapport-building boost the eyewitness eyeclosure effect in closed questioning?" (See full citation below.) 
Photo credit:

Many appear to close their eyes to help remember. Research in several fields has looked at the impact of eye closure. One of the persistent puzzles has been why there should be such variability in subject response, whether in hypnosis or, as in this study, witness recall of events. One hypothesis has been that rapport with the interviewer or researcher is critical. Here is the bottom line from the authors: 

"It is clear from our research that closing the eyes and building rapport help with witness recall . . . Although closing your eyes to remember seems to work whether or not rapport has been built beforehand, our results show that building rapport makes witnesses more at ease with closing their eyes. That in itself is vital if we are to encourage witnesses to use this helpful technique during interviews."

I have for decades ( more or less randomly) asked students to use eye closure when trying to "anchor" or recall pronunciation. By anchoring I mean using a gesture culminating in touch of both hands on the stressed syllable of a word or phrase. When doing that, in general, the eyes tend to follow the hands, to some degree controlling attention in the visual field. There are, occasionally, learners who seem to be better at anchoring with eyes closed as well. (I have worked with a few blind students and, once guided through the gestures of the system, they do at least as well as the sighted, if not better.) 

Another aspect of the process that I have not always attended to well is what I'd call "daily rapport," something closer to what is used in the study, working quickly to get relaxed, comfortable attention in the class before getting back to the heavy lifting.

Going to begin taking a second look at eye closure during directed recall in our work and the requisite level of rapport to enhance it. 

An "eye opening" piece of research, eh! 

Full citation:
University of Surrey. (2015, January 16). Closing your eyes boosts memory recall, new study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 20, 2015 from

Monday, January 19, 2015

When a nod is nod enough: Coconut Cheeseburger

Clip art:
On the way to the TESOL convention in 1987, at the Greenville-Spartenburg airport, there also was a “mass” of tanned, wacky (hungover?) college students on their way back from spring break in Florida. Next to where I was sitting there was a group of about a dozen who were laughing uproariously.

The story went that one of the young women had intended to order a coke and a cheeseburger at a restaurant, but was served, instead, a Coconut Cheeseburger. As the recipient of the exotic sandwich continued to deny having ordered it, another insisted that he had, in fact, observed her do just that.

What was fascinating was that both were using energetic upper torso nods with simultaneous "thigh slaps"—which created and emphasized either one or two tone/rhythm groups: (“I’d like a Coke / and a Cheeseburger.”) or what he said she said: (“I’d like a Coconut Cheeseburger.”)

It was easy to “see" how in a noisy restaurant--where there was, apparently, a coconut cheeseburger on the menu--that the waiter could get it wrong. Had she used one obvious upper torso nod or two? (Nod, if you guessed right, that the protagonist was a male, English major, almost certainly a significant other of the recipient of the burger--or trying desperately to become one!)

It would take me another two decades to figure out how to make that principle work systematically-- in haptic pronunciation teaching..

Thursday, January 15, 2015

No (pronunciation teaching) experience . . . REQUIRED!

Got a comment on a recent YouTube video clip: "I'll admit that I am a doubter . . . I have never tried Bill Acton's method, but in my experience . . . "

Normally, I prefer doing teacher training with those who have not had too much phonetics or have not been teaching pronunciation using an "orthodox" method for too long. (I suspect that the commenter meets neither criteria!)

I try to avoid retreating to the post-modernist's ultimate cliche of "If you aren't an X then you can't possibly know or understand an X's method"--but in this instance, I think I will. Too often, criticism of this (experiential) system is from those who have never, will not or cannot try it. There are several posts that consider valid psychological, pedagogical and neurological grounds for those responses.

Admittedly, haptic pronunciation teaching (EHIEP) is for some experiential learning in the extreme. Buy in to the system is unquestionably so. Typically, if we can get a teacher to attend a workshop--or students to do the first three modules of the system, they're sold.

We are always working on ways to truncate that process, but so far it is inescapable: You have got to do some of this stuff to get it. For "Newbees," it should be a piece of cake; others should just try to tone down "fossilized" pre-frontal chatter and let their bodies figure it out for them--first.

"Train the body first." (Arthur Lessac)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mastering new movement (and pronunciation!): Follow through, follow up or foul up?

Mastery learning has gotten an undeservedly bad rap in many areas of education--but not fo
Clip art:
r those of us engaged in the "somatic" or bodily arts, where systematic control of movement in training is critical. In athletic or music training it is a given; in contemporary pronunciation work and elsewhere it is a decidedly mixed bag. Articulatory work with learners, for example, can be incredibly difficult. What level of mastery of a sound, for example, is adequate in a given context? More importantly, how can you get there?

A new study by Howard, Wolpert and Franklin (Summarized by Science Daily -  See complete reference below), looked at the function of follow through in learning new movement. Subjects were trained in a new hand movement (grasping and turning a handle of sorts) and a "path" to a resting state for the hand to take after the targeted movement execution. 

What they discovered was that the more inconsistent the movement on the follow-through path, the more the mastery of the targeted movement was compromised: " . . . this research suggests that this variability . . . reduces the speed of learning of the skill that is being practiced . . . "

Keep in mind that this is training in movement, although the parallel to learning in general seems striking. There are analogous practices in various disciplines. In hypnotherapy, for example, what immediately follows the focused training will always be some kind of dis-associative technique to "protect" what has been anchored from distraction and conscious "doubt" or negation.

Following up on a recent post on "distraction," after reading the study, I did a quick review of the pedagogical movement patterns (movement, or controlled gesture, plus touch on stressed vowel) that we use in haptic pronunciation teaching. About half have a prescribed follow through back to a resting posture or state. Interestingly, the ones that do NOT tend to be the more problematic. Definitely requires follow up on my part!

How well  or consistently do you "conduct" the physical side of your teaching, especially pronunciation?  

Full citation:
Ian S. Howard, Daniel M. Wolpert, David W. Franklin. The Value of the Follow-Through Derives from Motor Learning Depending on Future Actions. Current Biology, 2015 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.037

Monday, January 5, 2015

Revenge of the multi-taskers: Distracted during motor (or pronunciation) learning or practice? No problem!

This is the second in a series of posts on creating and managing effective language or pronunciation practice, (analogically) based on Glyde's guitar practice framework. (See earlier post.) His
Clip art:
principle #5 was common-sensical: Failing to avoid distraction.

Earlier posts have looked at the interplay between haptic (movement and touch) and visual and auditory modalities. One general finding of research has been that visual stimuli or input tend to override auditory and haptic. In part for that reason, we have worked to restrict extraneous visual auditory distraction during haptic pronunciation work. In therapy, on the contrary, many times distraction is used quite strategically to draw the patient's attention away from a problematic experience or emotion.

Now comes a fascinating study by Song and Bedard of Boston University (summarized by Science Daily - See full citation below) demonstrating how visual distraction during motor learning may at least not be problematic. As long as subjects were subjected to relatively similar distraction on the recall task, the fact that they had been systematically distracted during the learning task seemed to have little or no effect. Furthermore, if the "distracted" subjects were later tested in the "non-distracting" condition, they did not perform as well as their "distracted" fellow subjects.

In other words, the visual context of motor learning was not a factor in recall--as long as it was reasonably consistent with the original learning milieu.

So, what does all that mean for effective pronunciation practice? Quite a bit, perhaps. Context, from many perspectives is critical. Establishing linguistic context has been a given for decades; managing the classroom environment (or the homework practice venue) so that new or changed sounds are recalled in a "relatively similar setting" to how they were learned is another question.

One of the principles of haptic pronunciation teaching is to use systematic gesture + touch across the visual field to anchor sound change--maintaining as much of learner attention as possible for at least 3 seconds. In practice, the same pedagogical movement patterns (PMP) are used--and, according to learners, even in spontaneous later recall of new material the PMPs often figure prominently in visual/auditory recall as well.

So, to paraphrase Glyde's 5th principle: Avoid inconsistent distraction (in pronunciation teaching), at least in those more motor-based work or phases. Or better yet, embrace it!

Brown University. (2014, December 9). Distraction, if consistent, does not hinder learning. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 18, 2014 from