Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Temporary Mind-FILL-ness in (pronunciation) teaching: Weil's 4-7-8 technique

A few months ago I sat through a good presentation on a technique for "fixing" the English rhythm of adult Japanese learners--in relatively big classes. At the time I was very interested in research on the role of attention in learning. Later, over coffee I asked the presenter something to the effect of "How do you know that the students were paying attention?" (I had earlier taught for over a decade in a seemingly very similar context in Japan, myself.) His response was: "Good question . . . Almost everybody was looking at me and more than half of the lips were moving at the appropriate time . . . "

How do you establish, maintain and manage attention in your teaching? (Anybody looking for a great MA or PhD topic, take note!) Based on my recent survey of the research literature, I'm preparing a conference proposal on the subject now. This is a follow up to the earlier post on how pronunciation should be taught "separately", in effect partitioned off from the lesson of the day and the distractions of the room and surroundings.

One problem with efficient attention management  is often in the transitions between activities or just the initial set up. Some tasks require learners to be very much "up"; others, decidedly "down" and relaxed. 

The popularity of Mindfulness training today speaks to the relevance of managing attention in class and the potential benefits from many perspectives. Most of the basic techniques of Haptic Pronunciation Teaching are designed to require or at least strongly encourage at least momentary whole body engagement in learning and correcting articulation of sound in various ways. I have experimented with a number of Mindfulness-based techniques to, in effect, short-circuit mental multitasking and get learners (sort of) calmed down and ready to go . . .

Powerful, effective stuff, but it is not something that most teachers can just pick up and begin using in their classes without at least a few hours of training, themselves, especially in how to "talk" it through with students and monitor "compliance" (manage attention.) I'd recommend it, nonetheless.

I recently "rediscovered" an amazing focus technique, suggested by Dr Andrew Weil (Hat tip, this month's issue of Men's Health magazine!), that works to create very effective boundaries without requiring any special training to administer. One of the best I have ever used. Simple. "Mechanical" (not overly cognitive or "hypnosis"-like) and quick. Takes maximum of 90 seconds. Anybody can do it, even without having seen it done:

A. Breath in with mouth closed, a slow count of 4
B. Hold the breath for a slow count of 7
C. Blow out through the mouth softly for a slow count of 8

*Do that four times. It basically lowers the heart rate and helps one focus. May take a two or three times for 4-7-8 to get to full effectiveness, but it does quickly, almost without fail. You can use 4-7-8 two or three times per class period. If you don't have a warm up that gets everybody on board consistently, try this one. I'd especially recommend it before and after pronunciation mini-lessons.

Pronunciation, and especially haptic techniques, are very sensitive to distraction, especially excessive conscious analysis and commentary. 4-7-8 is not necessarily the answer, but it will at least temporarily get everybody's attention. After that . . . you're on!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Why pronunciation should be taught "separately" (and the 15 second rule)!
The pendulum is swinging back, my friends. A central concern among pronunciation teachers is that what is "taught" in class, in whatever form, is so often not integrated well (or at all) into spontaneous speaking. One reason for that, I am convinced, is the general reluctance to correct spontaneous speech today.

This one is for all of you who teach a successful, stand-alone pronunciation course in the face of current theory that seems argue that pronunciation should generally be integrated in instruction, any skill concentration--not taught in isolation.

When a pronunciation problem just "pops up" in class, what do you do? Correction of pronunciation is again an important focus of research in the field. In fact, it is coming to be seen as more and more central to effective instruction. (From a haptic perspective, as developed in this blog and elsewhere, correction, especially during spontaneous speaking activities, is key to successful pronunciation work.) The other option, I suppose, is still that instruction is done so well early on that few errors in spontaneous speech occur . . . That was the dream of some early structuralist and behavioral approaches. They just forgot to factor in sufficient boredom and fear.

In-class instruction and practice is not sufficient in many contexts. Ongoing, effective feedback is essential. Research, however, has consistently revealed a strong reluctance on the part of instructors to correct learner pronunciation in any instructional context, in part a legacy of communicative language teaching and the current de-emphasis on pronunciation teaching in general (Baker, 2014; Saito, 2016).

Some of the most recent research on spontaneous correction of pronunciation in the classroom (See my blogpost focusing on delaMorandiere, 2016) has begun to point to two key features of effective correction (a) a link back to earlier instruction is "remembered." and (b) that link is used by the instructor in various ways, including a quick reference to the concept or explanation or reminder (or a question to the learner). In other words, correction works best when it is anchored back to an earlier consciously constructed schema, not just by a simple prompt, such as repeating the "correct" pronunciation.

So what does that mean in the classroom? Effective, corrective feedback on pronunciation generally depends upon good "prior knowledge" of the correct form that can be reactivated or reinforced . . . That does not suggest that rhythm, intonation and stress should not be attended to in other areas of language instruction; they should, if only to reinforce learning of meaning, structure and vocabulary. But to CORRECT some aspect of any of those, something other than or in addition to simply "repeat after me" has to be employed. In the case of adults, that should generally refer back to well-conceived explanation and focused practice, both controlled and meaning-based.

Now that can, for example, be accomplished by teaching one chapter of a student pronunciation text occasionally as part of a speaking or conversation course, but the experience of more and more intensive English programs, particularly, is that a designated pronunciation class that is used as a point of reference for all other instructors in the program to refer back to in in-class correction is far and away the best approach. In that context as well, research has identified the types of classroom interaction where such intervention by both instructor and other students is most appropriate (small group discussions, prepared oral readings, impromptu speeches, etc.)

To be in a position to intervene, interrupting the flow of conversation, generally requires an expectation that important errors will be addressed continually in an atmosphere of confidence and trust--and even collegial fun and support. Spontaneous error correction in pronunciation should be received with genuine appreciation and "uptake". The conditions for that to happen consistently are not that complicated but require for some a rethinking of the form of pronunciation instruction and its place in (virtually) every class. I think most would agree, however, that it is often exceedingly challenging to temporarily switch on and off that "safe" classroom mode or milieu in any setting other than one focused only on pronunciation. (Pronunciation classes are generally rated as the most useful and enjoyable by students.)

What research is suggesting is that effective "spontaneous" correction is very important to helping learners integrate changed forms--and that it is actually not all that spontaneous, in the sense that it relies on rapid recall of not just previously taught forms, structures, phonemes and specific words, but a concise, explicit understanding of the issue as well. That level of clarity can require more than just a brief note or simply drawing attention to a feature of pronunciation in class: a previously completed,  designated pronunciation class session or something analogous, such as complete modules, either online or f2f. 

That is a fundamental principle of most public speaking systems and, from our perspective, the Lessac method, upon which much of my work is based: explanation and practice must be carefully partitioned off from performance, so that errors in performance can be efficiently recognized at least post hoc (after the fact) and effectively recast by the learner in real time. For many pronunciation issues--and especially integration of change into spontaneous speaking-- that is best facilitated by a team approach as well, where the instructor briefly refers the learner back to not just the correct sound but also its structure and rationale (SSR), and the learner momentarily "holds that thought" and physically experiences what it feels like to produce words or phrases to be used more appropriately the next time they occur.

It is not necessary to do all three SRR components every time, of course, but the intervention used must in some sense reconnect to the in-class instructional experience in toto. Just repeating a word or phrase might accomplish that on some occasions, but the research suggests that more cognitive involvement accompanying a verbal recast is essential. I could not agree more, only adding that more somatic (body-based) engagement is essential as well.

The best option, I think, despite its limitations, is still something like the "traditional" pronunciation class taught by a well-trained and experienced instructor, where correction of all kinds, done right, is seen as immensely valuable and productive--and relatively speaking, stress-free!

Haptic work attempts to create the experience of that classroom by linking earlier training in systematic gesture to the pronunciation of the word or expression, which could also have been done in a separate class or class meeting or online, independently. The key is that it be conceptually partitioned off, by itself, without demanding thorough content and context integration, and also not requiring a  "seasoned" instructor to do the presentation, instruction and practice. (More later on the importance of such seemingly counter-intuitive conceptual partitioning to subsequent recall and utilization. In the meantime, consult your local neuroscientist or hypnotist!)

Try the 15-second rule: During spontaneous speaking and interaction with students, only pause to correct what can be effectively reconnected to previous (brilliant) instruction--which may include a bit of SSR--and practiced three times in 15 seconds. That will get you a better sense of how well your initial teaching of pronunciation "bits" is going, too.

However you approach correction and facilitating integration of pronunciation change, it should at the very least be more than just "spontaneous."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why research on (pronunciation) teaching is often irrelevant to my method and my classroom

In 1994 Kumaravadivelu sounded what has turned out to be something of the death knell for the usefulness of much research on English language teaching for the individual classroom entitled: The Postmethod Condition: (E)merging Strategies for Second and Foreign Language Teaching. At the time, it seemed liberating from many perspectives, but the intervening two decades have often proven otherwise. A recent, very revealing article in Education Week by Tucker goes a long way toward explaining why: Why Education Research Has So Little Impact on Practice: The System Effect.
In essence, what Tucker argues, based on a piece by Kane in Education Next, is that a technique (or variable) generally cannot be judged in terms of effectiveness outside of the system in which it functions. And, most importantly, research that attempts to isolate one procedure and then generalize to multiple learner populations is epistemologically invalid (the wrong question!) For a range reasons which Tucker outlines, such as time, resources, tenure and culture, especially North American researchers do not (or cannot) evaluate a variable, such as ability in the context of the method or system in which it is embedded--or compare that system, with its isolated variable to another nearly identical system with only that variable affected. That is especially true when it comes to studying change over time.

Kumaravadivelu identified the last "system" in language teaching, the last prevailing method where internal changes could be judged in terms of effectiveness: the structuralist "Audio-lingual" paradigm. It has (thankfully) nearly disappeared today. Its problems with generalizability were legend, but something also was lost: a common method where individual variables and techniques could be credibly assessed for effectiveness. Tucker's argument speaks clearly to our problem today.

Problem? Well, maybe it is also an opportunity for individual instructors to maintain perspective when reading research studies focusing on one variable or technique before trying it out on students--and more importantly trying to figure out whether something worked or not. ("Research" has overwhelmingly established that it is always far more difficult to learn from our successes than our failures.)

What is the solution? My guess is that a new paradigm, a more iconoclastic method--for teaching pronunciation in this case--will emerge from the chaos. What would that look like? Like ALM, it will at least initially show promise to provide a highly systematic model, a more comprehensive and complete set of tools for a wide range of learning populations and classrooms.

At the moment I can (not surprisingly) only think of one . . .

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Gesticulate your way to better pronunciation teaching?

If you have never seen Howard Keel do "Gesticulate" from the 1953 musical, Kismet--especially if you are an aspiring "Haptician"-- it is a must. I'm going to kick off an upcoming half-day Haptic Pronunciation Teaching workshop September 30 at the BC TEAL Interior Regional Conference at Thompson Rivers University, here in British Columbia with it!

In haptic pronunciation teaching the focus is first on hand position and movement across the visual field, not on what the arm, head, voice and torso are doing. The idea is that the hand in some sense becomes the "conductor" of what the rest of  the body is doing. It is, of course, far more than just "gesticulating" but Keel's performance does certainly make the point!

Enjoy! And if you are in the Kamloops area at the end of September, please join us!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Are you an "upstanding" pronunciation teacher?

If not, you should be, but take your time . . .  (We'll give you 4 weeks, in fact!) More evidence as to why, when doing pronunciation work, you should at least get your students on their feet as much as possible (or, of course, just switch to haptic pronunciation teaching (HPT) where almost all training is done standing, regardless!)

I have reported on this topic and the work of the researchers at Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health previously. Here is a quick summary of their latest study, summarized by Science Daily (full citation below).

They looked at call center employees who either used a desk where they could stand while working or didn't. Not surprisingly, those who could stand up performed better. After about a month the effect kicked in, making them about 46% more productive! Earlier studies looked at cognitive function, gluteus maximus.
attention, health benefits, etc., coming to pretty much the same conclusion: we are not design to work best parked too long on our

What is interesting in that study for us is that it apparently took a while, about a month for the subjects to become "acclimated" to the new desk structure. Their evidence for that explanation is purely speculative, however. How the "full body" process of speaking and thinking and problem solving is enhanced just by standing is a fascinating question that is not really addressed. (I work on my feet for at least an hour every morning with coffee. Not sure it is always my best stuff, but in terms of organization and clarity, it often seems so.)

We have seen something analogous in HPT. Assuming the typical pacing of a course, one 30-minute module plus about 90 minutes of homework per week, it is typically after Module 4 that it all "clicks", when generally everybody "gets it", and begins to see tangible progress. Look at the sequence:

Week 1 - Introduction to haptic learning (50% done while standing)
Week 2 - Short vowels and word stress (about 75% standing)
Week 3 - Long vowels and word stress (about 75% standing)
Week 4 - Rhythm and phrase stress (almost entirely done while standing)
Week 5 - "Aha, I get it!"

I have always assumed that it, the "Aha! I get it!" point, was primarily because of the path of the syllabus or that the patterns and techniques had become more second nature. But there may be more going on there, perhaps much more.

If you think that you got the answer . . . stand up!

Full citation:
Texas A&M University. (2016, May 25). Boosting productivity at work may be simple: Stand up: Research shows 46 percent increase in workplace productivity with use of standing desks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 5, 2016 from