Saturday, May 27, 2017

The "wrong" way to get pronunciation teaching right!
If you don't get the James Clear newsletter already, go sign up for it, or at least read his latest piece on "inversion": Inversion: The Crucial Thinking Skill Nobody Ever Taught You.  Inversion, or "envisioning the negative things that could happen in life" is not a popular strategy today for any number reasons. People who dwell on the downside may not be all that welcome in any social or professional context, but, as Clear demonstrates, used appropriately such "thinking out of the box" processes such as "If we wanted to kill the company or the program, how might we do that?" often reveal unique and innovative solutions. He gives a number of famous examples. 

I recently experimented with that heuristic on my own model, method and business plan with some striking results and . . . revelations. I had earlier worked with an executive coach for about 6 months  and "inversion" would have been absolutely anathema to that process: Think positive; visualize positive goals and outcomes; consider effective strategies and moves going forward. But what if I, instead, had focused in on the consequences of NOT staying  goal-oriented and upbeat? Actually, I might be further along than I am now . . .

Just for a fun thought experiment, try out questions such as these on your own program, course, system or method:

How could I . . .  
  • Provide useless or pointless advice on self correction or self-instruction of pronunciation?
  • Disconnect student's from their bodies in pronunciation work?
  • Undermine students' development of intelligibility or accuracy?
  • Help students develop a deep distrust and aversion to an English or English dialect spoken by any other group? 
  • Establish impossible targets of perfection for learners?
  • Create enough emotional tension or distraction in the room to seriously interfere with students "uptaking" pronunciation instruction?
  • Make sure that students don't do pronunciation homework? 
  • Arrange student groups to discourage constructive collaborative work? 
  • Use correction to badger, berate or bully students? 
  • Seriously mess with learners' identities in teaching pronunciation? 
  • Make pronunciation instruction as boring as possible? 
  • Make students think their pronunciation is better than it is? 
  • Successfully ignore attention to pronunciation entirely? 
  • Talk more about pronunciation than actually do anything with it? 
  • Be an awful model for my students?
  • Teach pronunciation without any training in it?
  • Teach pronunciation without using phonetic symbols? 
  • Encourage students to go to some "Miracle Accent Reduction" website instead of working with me?. 
  • Make students think their accent is bad or could not use a little enhancement
 Based on that exercise, I have made some important changes in how v5.0 of the haptic pronunciation system will look when it rolls out. Now I just have to work through what will happen if that doesn't work, of course!

 Please feel free to add to the list in the comment section!



Monday, May 22, 2017

Metacognitive competence: Know thy L1, L1C and inner parts to better acquire L2 and L2C
As reported in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (and summarized by, Böckler of the Max Planck Institute and Maxmilians of the University of Würzburg seem to have established empirically yet again--or maybe for the first time--what the ancient Egyptians had observed: "Man, know thyself, and you are going to know the gods". Well, their study is a bit more modest. You should at least be capable of gaining a better understanding of the "mental state" of others.

In the 3-month study that focused on "perspective taking" skills, including their "superpersonalities" and (I like this) their "inner parts" subjects developed enhanced ability to understand the position of the Other--which should result in improved engagement and learning. Psychologically healthy empathy operationalized, not just the ability to "sync" with others but beginning from a realistic and grounded understanding of who we are.

Have been unable to find any recent research or even reports on current practice where learners first go through a systematic "pre-language learning" program, gaining formal metacognitive and experiential knowledge of their L1 and L1 culture before actually getting to the L2. (My only first hand experience with that was the 3-months or so of military basic training that I went through in the US Air Force prior to beginning a one-year ALM experience in Russian language. Near perfect preparation!)

There are, of course, hundreds of studies looking at learner readiness and aptitude. In addition, most of us would contend that we continually do things and set up conditions that work toward enhancing learning, in effect accomplishing the same thing, in some sense like the B&M study. Culture and pragmatics are now thoroughly integrated (in theory) in instruction; L1 usage and reference are now much more widely accepted as well.

Many programs and courses place importance on general cultural awareness; some use the structure and sound system of the L1 as a point of departure as well. In haptic pronunciation teaching (EHIEP), for example, it is recommended, whenever possible, to train learners in the basics of the L1 sound system before introducing them to English or at least early on in the process. 

In our MATESOL program we are now using for the first time a "know thyself" instrument, the Strength Deployment Inventory, that shows promise in developing some of the same kind of "metacognitive competence". Tell us how you get at the same target in your pronunciation (or any other kind of) teaching! That is if you are aware of it . . .

Anne Böckler of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science and Julius Maximilians University Würzburg in Germany

Read more at:
nne Böckler et al, Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others, Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s41465-017-0023-6

Read more at:
nne Böckler et al, Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others, Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s41465-017-0023-6

Read more at:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Empir(esists and Millenials) strike back: Micro-learning in pronunciation teaching and elsewhere!
Talk about a flash from the past . . . If there are any survivors from the Behaviorist/Audio-lingual teaching era still with us, this report may just make their day.

Micro training/teaching/learning is back, but in some ways new and improved, I think. We've known for sometime now that the optimal attention span length for today's "video-media-phytes" is shrinking, down to somewhere around 3 or 4 minutes. Our overall attention span as a culture has been shrinking rapidly in the last 3 decades, in fact. But if that is the case, what do we do with the other 47 minutes of the 50 minute class? Micro-learning, or the shift from courses to resources, to the rescue.

Here is a nice definition and suggestions for using micro-learning from Steve Penfield at

"Microlearning is sometimes defined as simply providing learners with tiny bites of learning material, rather than longer-form modules or courses. These tiny bites could be interactive videos, podcasts, quizzes, and more. But it’s their length that is key. We’re talking two to three minutes max. And learners should have some choice about what they use and when." 

 He then provides 5 tips to keep in mind when micro-ing it:
  • Start with challenges
  • Create a scale
  • Use sources and rules to personalize the learning curve
  • Reward learners for their progress
  • Include milestones to highlight progress
And 3 key questions:
  • How can we create pathways that are personalized for our learners?
  • In what ways can we work in spaced practice?
  • In what ways can we use live data to motivate and encourage learners, while making the learning experience more social for them?
Several important notions there, other than your basic behaviorist recipe: (a) milestones of progress, (b) spaced (systematic) practice, (c) more engaging social learning and practice experience, and (d) use of "live" data. Any of those will add substantially to the effectiveness of your teaching, in general, but they are especially relevant to pronunciation work. Please let us know how you utilize any of those effectively in your method. Subsequent blog posts will focus especially on (b) and (c).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Killing pronunciation 6: Eliminating distraction (and episodic memory) with gesture!
Have wondered for years why at times even the most ingenious use of gesture itself may not enhance memory for a sound or word. I assumed that it had something to do with what the learner was paying attention to at the time but had never seen any study that seemed to unpack that problem all that well. We know, for example, that visual distraction can effectively all but cancel out the impact of a haptic (movement + gesture) stimulus or haptic-anchored gesture. But why doesn't gesture generally just reinforce whatever is the focus of instruction or repetition? Turns out that it may be our Achilles Heel. Here's a clue.

A fascinating study by Laurent, Ensslin and Mari-Beffa (2015) entitled, An action to an object does not improve its episodic encoding, but removes distraction, illustrates the potentially double-edged nature of gesture. Without getting into the somewhat complex but innovative research design, what they discovered is that gesture accompanying focus on an object did not enhance episodic memory for the object and the context or surroundings but did strongly curtail distraction. evident in the diminished memory for other elements of the event. (Think of episodic memory as basically potential recall of emotional setting plus the 5 "W"s: who, what, where, why and when of a happening.) 

In other words, gesture accompanying a phrase, for example, should at least cut back on distracting features of the moment or context . . . but, other than that, it may not be adding much to the mix. It may be actually working against you.

At first glance, that may appear to at least to some extent undermine use of gesture in teaching. It does, in fact. Haptic pronunciation teaching, which uses gesture anchored by touch on stressed elements, is based on the principle that gesture that is not carefully controlled and focused with touch is "a wash" . . . it may or may not work. Over enthusiastic gesture use, for example, may not only turn off many of the students, compounded by cultural differences, but, in effect, it can be so distracting in itself that the language focus is lost entirely. 

It took me a couple of decades of working with kinesthetic pronunciation teaching techniques to figure that out. That insight came basically in the form of wildly divergent reports and feedback on gesture effectiveness by classroom teachers. Pronunciation teachers are generally by nature more "gesticular", often highly energetic and "moving" speakers. Perhaps you have to be in many contexts just to motivate students and maintain their attention, but it can, indeed, be our Achilles Heel. Is it yours? 

If so, get in touch (either with us or your local yoga, Alexander Technique, Lessac practitioner or Tai Chi shop!)

Laurent, X.; Ensslin, A. and  Mari-Beffa, P. (2015) An action to an object does not improve its episodic encoding, but removes distraction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 44(1), 244.