Thursday, February 25, 2016

Body rhythm: the key to good pronunciation (teaching)

Gradually, neuroscience is catching up with great teachers of speech (e.g., Lessac, 1984, 1997) and pronunciation (e.g., Morley, 1979; Gilbert, 2010). It turns out that it is more than just a phonaesthetic accident that, in English, we list 'Rhythm, Stress and Intonation'--in that order. In Morley (1979) and Gilbert (2010) and most other student texts "stress" (at the word, phrase and sentence level) is dealt with first. Gilbert does not mention rhythm explicitly in the table of contents but slips it in systematically throughout; Morley does rhythm second. Lessac (1984) begins by training the body to move in new ways to the rhythms of speech and only comes back to making sounds later.

(Literally) any experienced teacher who does pronunciation well believes in the centrality of rhythm to fluency, and probably much more, including memory and perceptual processing. The "problem" has always been that the best arguments for rhythm-based practices have been experience or affect (motivating or promoting "flexibility" in some sense). The best evidence today still comes from parallel fields. For example:
A new study examining synchrony in pairs of musicians by Zamm, Wellman and Palmer at McGill University, "Endogenous Rhythms Influence Interpersonal Synchrony"--in a more intelligible press release and in a ScienceDaily summary, "Find a partner who marches to the beat of your own drum: Group coordination is optimized between people with similar movement rates"-- provides a nice perspective on the place of rhythm in language teaching, and learning in general for that matter. In short, what they found was that those who have similar rhythms of speech and movement work better together. (So much for the "opposites attract" hypothesis!) Quoting Palmer in the SD summary:

"We think this could extend to interpersonal synchrony in other fields, such as recreational activities like jogging, where health benefits may be greatest when partners are matched for rates; or in education, when teachers and students are matched in conversational speech rates; and especially in sports, such as tennis doubles, pairs skating or team rowing," (Emphasis, mine.) 

Previous studies reported here and elsewhere have established that ability to move to a beat and perceive rhythm (but not simply tapping it out or clapping hands to it) seem to enhance skill or language engagement and acquisition, especially in children. The question, of course, is if, how and when adult learners (in class) can arrive at that synchrony and whether or not such coordination is more "innate" to individuals or can be taught. Lessac clearly believed and demonstrated the latter. Morley  and Gilbert see L2 rhythm as developing alongside or conforming to the L2 more gradually, or implicitly.

Whichever approach you take--and haptic pronunciation teaching is very much on the Lessac end of the continuum, requiring synchrony of body movement and rhythm continuously in instruction--to quote one of my father's musical icons (Duke Ellington): It don't mean a thing, if you ain't got that swing . . .

Gilbert, J. (2010). Clear speech (4th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lessac, A. (1997). The use and training of the human voice: A bio-dynamic approach to vocal life (3rd ed.). New York: Drama Book Specialists.
Lessac, A. (1984). Body wisdom: The use and training of the human body, New York: Drama Book Specialists.
McGill University. (2016, February 9). Find a partner who marches to the beat of your own drum: Group coordination is optimized between people with similar movement rates. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2016 from
 Morley, J. (1997). Improving Spoken English: An intensive personalized program in perception, Pronunciation, Practice in Context. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

44 features of effective homework!

I'm doing a workshop this weekend, "Do your homework!" at the BCTEAL
Regional Conference in Victoria, British Columbi
a, that focuses on good homework practices in English Language Teaching. Although there is some obvious overlap in the 44 parameters that we pulled from research on homework in general, much of it from North America and Europe (See Reference Section), it is still a helpful inventory. Here is an adapted version of the workshop handout. Just for fun, go through it and see just how many features are evident in your courses (or at least your thinking!) If you can think of more, please add them as comments!
Some parameters of effective homework 

do it?
1. Differentiated (for individuals)

2  Can be done independently (with no help from parents or other students)

3. Get started on homework in class

4. Students understand the purpose and value

5. Developmentally appropriate

6. Allows students choice(s) in what to do

7. Students can stop when they believe they understand the  concept well enough

8. Graded (but not figuring in to course grade)

9. Comments requiring follow up

10. Subject matter differences evident.

11. Optimal hours per week? (max 2 per day/night)

12. Integration with lesson(s) recognizable and consistent

13. Student autonomy encouraged

14. Time management required or encouraged

15. Scaffolding implicit or explicit

16. Mentoring/coaching function evident

17. “embodied practice” (Do something other than sit and think and take notes.)

18. Data management system supplied

19. Multi-modality practice

20. Overlearning (especially for beginners)

21. Homework practice interviews done with instructors

22. Tasks that cannot be performed in class

23. Predicted time required indicated

24. Tracking actual homework task time

25. Homework counts toward grades

26. Homework packets provided

27. Recognized benefits to students & teacher presented and acknowledged

28. Effective in class follow up (i.e., checking homework orally; checking homework on the board; and collecting and grading homework)

29. Student “enjoyment” of homework

30. Online applications and storage

31. Cultural expectations met or moderated

32. Gains (8 ~ 31%) evident

33. Reflective practice required

34. Meta-cognitive (planned practice)

35. “learning lexicon” developed over time by students and/or instructor

36. Incidental study recognition

37. Portfolio review

38. Student recommendations, evaluations of homework effectiveness

39. “Filing” system required and reviewed

40. Homework ethnography (f2f interviews focusing on more than just practice)

41. Group homework proposals and review

43. Demonstrates competence

44. Is aesthetically pleasing

Selected references
Cooper, H., Robinson, J., & Patall, E. (2006). Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003 Review of Educational Research 76:1, 1-62.
Galloway, M., Conner, J., & Pope, D. (2013). Nonacademic Effects of Homework in Privileged, High-Performing High Schools, Journal of Experimental Education, 81:4, 490-510.
Ozkan E., & Henderson, D.  (2011). Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?, Economics of Education Review Economics of Education Review, 30:5, 950-961.
National Education Commission on Time and Learning (1994). Retrieved February 2, 2016,
The Hechinger report (2015). Retrieved from
Rosario, P., Nunez, J., Vallejo, G., Cunha, J., Nunes, T., Suarez, N., Fuentes, S., & Moreira, T. (2015) The effects of teachers' homework follow-up practices on students' EFL performance: a randomized-group design
ASCD (2007). The case for and against homework. Retrieved February 4, 2016,
Challenge Success (2012). Retrieved February 2, 2016,
Vatterott, C. (2016). Retrieved February 2, 2016,
Safakova, Z. (2015). Reasons for doing/not online homework: insights from EFL students, A. & Cubri, M. (Eds).  ECEL2015-14th European Conference on e-Learning, 510-518.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

(Haptic) Pronunciation in the classroom: the neglected essential!
Great new book edited by Tamara Jones, Pronunciation in the classroom: the neglected essential, published by, has just been released. Spoiler alert - before I get to describing it in more detail: We (Michael Burri, Amanda Baker and myself) contributed a chapter: Anchoring Academic Vocabulary With a “Hard-Hitting” Haptic Pronunciation Teaching Technique.

This is a very practical, useful book. I say "practical" because the book is filled with specific techniques for doing pronunciation that even novice teachers can adopt without a great deal of previous training in pronunciation teaching. The assumption is that pronunciation should be integrated into instruction--all over the place, everywhere, most any time. The "neglected" in the title applies not just to the fact that effective pronunciation teaching is often not a priority today but also where and when it is done. Even were we not in the book, it would be a required text in my graduate applied phonology course, along with Applied English Phonology, 3rd edition, by Yavaz.

The other sense of "neglected", of course, from our perspective is the happy inclusion of a haptic pronunciation teaching technique. In this case it is the most popular of the pedagogical movement patterns, the Rhythm Fight Club.

You should get a copy . Also, no worries that we, along with the 20 other authors, get a windfall from book sales. We each do get a PDF copy--and all the glory, of course!

 Keep in touch!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reconsolidation and accuracy: Drilling down into pronunciation teaching homework
At a recent conference a presenter was at pains to argue that repetition drill does not accomplish much, if anything in pronunciation teaching. In response I asked to what extent might it make a difference HOW such procedures are conducted. The answer: Probably not--but we have no empirical studies on "variability at that level of instruction that I'm aware of."

Researchers and professionals in any number of fields that work with motor skill development know better. To the extent that L2 pronunciation is a motor skill, two intriguing new studies suggest something of what is involved in effective drill and practice.

The first, by Wymbs, Bastian, and Celnik, "Motor skills are strengthened through (memory) reconsolidation", (Summarized by ScienceDaily) suggests that if you practice a slightly modified version of a skill that you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row.  The second, by Castellanos and colleagues at Drexel University, "Surgical trainees retain information, master skills better when honed beyond proficiency" (also summarized by ScienceDaily) looked at  how "overlearning" figures in to skill development.

Here's the fascinating parallel to pronunciation work. It is almost a given today that the goal of pronunciation instruction should be intelligibility--not accuracy. If students go further personally, good deal, but it is not our responsibility to help them or encourage them in that. Furthermore, "physical" work with pronunciation is generally not seen as being as essential as is metacognitive engagement. In other words, our first priority must be providing as much explanation and insight as possible. With that, a good percentage of learners will pretty much on their own get close to intelligibility. And I think is probably true, in fact.

But the research studies seem to tell us that to even get to "intelligibility" most need to go beyond it--and have to do that with at least varied physical practice. This is a great example of the "Product equals process" fallacy. In other words, how you get to, let's say an acceptable, functional spoken use of the consonant, th, for example, may not be theoretically consistent with the final goal, itself. In other words, "enlightened" drill, as disconnected from authentic interpersonal communication as it can be, is simply essential for most learners, if they are going to finally land on the high side of intelligibility.

One of the principles of the Lessac system is that pronunciation must be "drilled" extensively as homework--but not consciously integrated into spontaneous speaking. When done right, as I have seen literally hundreds of times over the years, the new, improved sounds just begin showing up in conversation. Learners are trained to recognize miscues and changes but not to emotionally react to them; just note them.

I am working on a presentation for the annual BCTEAL Island Regional Conference next week: Do your homework, which I will report on later. Those two studies, along with Lessac, suggest a great deal as to how we should structure and manage effective pronunciation homework.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2016, January 28). Want to learn a new skill? Faster? Change up your practice sessions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 5, 2016 from

American College of Surgeons. (2015, October 6). Surgical trainees retain information, master skills better when honed beyond proficiency: New study finds that overlearning can be a highly effective surgical training approach that shortens the learning curve. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 9, 2016 from