Saturday, October 15, 2016

(Really) great body-enhanced pronunciation teaching

If you are interested in using gesture more effectively in your teaching, a new 2016 study by Nguyen, A micro-analysis of embodiments and speech in the pronunciation instruction of one ESL teacher, is well worth reading. The study is, by design, wisely focused more on what the instructor does with her voice and body during instruction, not on student learning, uptake or in-class engagement.

The literature review establishes reasonably well the connection between the gesture described in the study and enhanced student learning of language and pronunciation. I can almost not imagine a better model of integrated gestural use in pronunciation teaching . . . The instructor is a superb performer, as are many who love teaching pronunciation. (Full disclosure: From the photos in the article I recognize the instructor, a master teacher with decades of experience in the field teaching speaking and pronunciation.)

From decades of work with gesture, myself, one of the most consistent predictors of effective use of gesture in teaching is how comfortable the instructor feels with "dancing" in front of the students and getting them to move along with her. The research on body image and identity and embodiment are unequivocal on that: to move others, literally and figuratively, you must be comfortable with your own body and its representation in public.

Knowing this instructor I do not need to see the video data to understand how her personal presence could command learner attention and (sympathetic, non-conscious) body movement, or her ability to establish and maintain rapport in the classroom. Likewise, I have not the slightest doubt that the students' experience and learning in that milieu are excellent, if not extraordinary.

The report is a fascinating read, illustrating use of various gestures and techniques, including body synchronization with rhythm and stress, and beat gesture associated with stress patterning. If you can "move" like that model, you got it. When it comes to this kind of instruction, however, the "klutzes" are clearly in the majority, probably for a number of reasons.

The one popular technique described, using stretching of rubber bands to identify stressed or lengthened vowels is often effective--for at least presenting the concept. It is marginally haptic, in fact, using both movement and some tactile anchoring in the process (the feeling of the rubber band pressing differentially on the inside of the thumbs.) In teacher training I sometimes use that technique to visually illustrate what happens to stressed vowels or those occurring before voiced consonants, in general. There is no study that I am aware of, however, that demonstrates carry over of "rubber banding" to changes in spontaneous speech or even better memory for the specific stressed syllables in the words presented in class. I'd be surprised to find one in fact.

In part the reason for that, again well established in research on touch, is that the brain is not very good at remembering degrees of pressure of touch. Likewise, clapping hands on all syllables of a word or tapping on a desk but a bit harder on the stressed syllable should not, in principle, be all that effective. That observation was, in fact, one of the early motivations for developing the haptic pronunciation teaching system.  By contrast, isolated touch, usually at a different locations on the body, seems to work much better to create differentiated memory for stress assignment. (All haptic techniques are based on that assumption.)

I, myself, taught like the model in the research for decades, basically using primarily visual-kinesthetic modeling and some student body engagement to teach pronunciation. The problem was trying to train new teachers on how to do that effectively. For a while I tried turning trainees into (somewhat) flamboyant performers like myself. I gave up on that project about 15 years ago and began figuring out how to use gesture effectively even if you, yourself, are not all that comfortable with doing it, a functional . . . klutz.

The key to effective gesture work is ultimately that the learner's body must be brought to move both in response to the instructor's presentation and in independent practice, perhaps as homework.(Lessac's dictum: Train the body first!)  Great performers accomplish that naturally, at least in presenting the concepts. The haptic video teaching system is there for those who are near totally averse to drawing attention to their body up front, but, in general, managed gesture is very doable. There are a number of (competing) systems today that do that. See the new haptic pronunciation teaching certificate, if interested in the most "moving and touching" approach.

Nguyen, Mai-Han. (2016). A micro-analysis of embodiments and speech in the pronunciation instruction of one ESL teacher. Issues in Applied Linguistics. appling_ial_24274. Retrieved from:


Winnie YoungPang said...

Yup. I agree. But body image may not be the only reason, since I find most of my colleagues feeling shy about using their body and even their voice in a more dramatic way to teach.

Bill Acton said...

Absolutely. The concept of "body image" is also sometimes associated with voice. There is a lot going on here, why gestural work in teaching can encounter very strong resistance, cultural, psychological and pedagogical. In pronunciation teaching gestural anchoring or reinforcement may not be valued, in part, because neither is extended practice nor independent follow up are seen as critical as well.

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