Friday, September 29, 2017

The "Magpie Effect" in pronunciation teaching: what you see is (not necessarily) what you get!

Wow! I knew there had to be a term for flashy, beautiful visual aids in pronunciation teaching, and education in general, that may (best case) contribute very little, if anything to the process: the Magpie Effect.

One of the fundamental assumptions of materials design is that visual salience--what stands out due to design, color, placement, etc.--is key to uptake. In general, the claims are far stronger than that. Brighter colors, striking photos and engaging layouts are the stuff of advertising and marketing. Marketing research has long established the potential impact of all of those, in addition to seduction of the other senses.

A new study by Henderson and Hayes of UC Davis, “Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps', as reported by, provides a striking alternative view into how visual processing and visual attention work. Quoting from the summary:

"Saliency is relatively easy to measure. You can map the amount of saliency in different areas of a picture by measuring relative contrast or brightness, for example. Henderson called this the “magpie theory” our attention is drawn to bright and shiny objects.“It becomes obvious, though, that it can’t be right,” he said, otherwise we would constantly be distracted."

What the Henderson and Hayes (2017) research suggests is that what we attend to in the visual field in front of us has more to do with the mental schema or map we bring to the experience than with the "bright and shiny" object there. Of course, that does not exclude being at least momentarily distracted by those features, or even more importantly the visual "clutter" undermining the connection to the learner's body or somatic experience of a sound or expression.

There have been literally dozens of blog posts here exploring the basic "competition" between visual and auditory modalities. Hint: Visual almost always trumps audio or haptic, except when audio and  haptic team up in some sense--as in haptic pronunciation teaching! The question is, if the impact of glitz and graphics may be a wash, or random at best, what do optimal "maps" in pronunciation teaching "look" like to the learner? The problem, in part, is in the way the question is stated, the visual metaphor itself: look.

Whenever I get stuck on a question of modalities in learning, I go back to Lessac (1967): Train the body first. Anchor sound in body movement and vocal resonance, and then use that mapping in connecting up words and speaking patterns in general. (If you are into mindfulness training, you get this!) The reference to the learner is always what it FEELS like in the entire body to pronounce a word or phrase, not it's visual/graphic representation or cognitive rationale or procedural protocol for doing it!

So, how can we describe the right map in pronunciation teaching? Gendlin's (1981) concept of "felt sense" probably captures it best, a combination of movement, touch and resonance generated by the sound, combined with cognitive insight/understanding of the process and place of the sound in the phonology of the L2. But always IN THAT ORDER, with that sense of priorities.The key is to be able to in effect "rate" or scale the intensity and boundaries of a sensation in the body, still a highly cognitive, conscious process. From there, the sensation can be recalled or moderated, or even associated to other concepts or symbols.

In other words, in pronunciation instruction the body is the territory; designated locations,  measured sensations and movements across it are the map that must be in place before words and meanngs are efficiently attached or reattached. Setting up the map still requires . . .  serious drill and practice. Once done, feel free to channel your "inner Magpie", glitz, color, song and dance!

Original source: 
“Meaning-based guidance of attention in scenes as revealed by meaning maps” by  Henderson. J. and Hayes, T.,  in Human Nature. Published online September 25 2017 doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0208-0

Monday, September 18, 2017

Killing Pronunciation 9: Reappraising negative attitudes toward pronunciation
 Maybe the most consistent finding of research on pronunciation teaching is that (at least from instructors who have yet to recover from structuralism, "communicative language teaching" or cognitive phonology) there are a lot of negatives associated with it (e.g., Baker, 2015 and many others). My approach has always been to stay calm and train teachers in how to do pronunciation well, figuring that success will eventually get them past all the noise out there.

I may have to reappraise that line of march, especially with my Chinese students. Maybe I could do more to attack those negative feelings and perceptions directly. But how?

New research by Wu, Guo, Tang, Shi, and Luo reported in Role of Creativity in the Effectiveness of Cognitive Reappraisal suggests a way to do just that: a little instructor-directed and controlled creativity, something I suspect that only a team from the Beijing Key Laboratory of Learning and Cognition, The Collaborative Innovation Center for Capital Education Development, Department of Psychology, Capital Normal University, Beijing, China and the Key Laboratory of Mental Health, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China--could possibly pull off!

In essence, they confirmed that subjects recognized creativity as a potentially powerful antidote to negative emotions, something that has been established empirically for some time. What was fascinating, however, was that subjects negative feelings about the targeted video scenes could only be "affected" substantially by being led through creative exercises. In other words, they couldn't get past the negatives by doing something creative on their own, themselves, without help. Wow.

Instructor-conducted / creativity-driven / negative attitudes /  toward pronunciation teaching repair/reappraisal (INPRR pronounced: In-P-RR). What a concept! Well, actually, much of what passes for creativity training is instructor-centered, not designed to provide you with the tools but to guide you in thinking outside of the box so  you know what it feels like when it happens. I was really into that for a couple of decades in pronunciation teacher training, in fact. There are still those in the field, like Marsha Chan, who do that well, the "there are all kinds of really creative, fun things you can do when teaching  pronunciation" shtick. Working with kids, that plays well; with adults, on the whole I have always thought it is at best counter productive.  (The reasons for that have been developed on the blog extensively.)

However, I may have it wrong. But rather than training teacher trainees in creative techniques to use in the classroom, I should be doing creative activities with them that address their underlying negative feelings (fear, self doubt, etc.) directly. Some suggestions, most of which I have seen over the years at conferences or on the web. I'll get things started with a few that are research-based (and reported on the blog recently) and then you help by adding to the list your best INPR:
  • Have them list all those negative pronunciation-induced emotions on the top of cookies or in chocolate and eat them.
  • Lead them in doing your basic OEI switching technique to defuse the emotion if it is really strong. (Done with only one student at a time, in private, however.)
  • Have them talk about themselves fearing pronunciation in the 3rd person (See Gollum Speak)
  •  Lead them in coming up with a list of all the ways they might overcome such emotions and then have select students read out each expressively and dramatically in their heaviest L1 accent (I like that one!)
  • Have them share with each other in pairs their negative feelings toward pronunciation holding a hot beverage. That one is incredibly powerful.
  • Then have them report back to the class in pantomime, having the rest of the class guess what it is. 
  • You stand up in front of the class and begin listing verbally the unrealistic fears your students may have about pronunciation or those that they may have now but will be "gone" at the end of the course. Also have a list on the board of epithets appropriate for shouting down goofy ideas which the students produce after you state each, possibly accompanied by gesture. 
  • Come to class dressed as Sigmund Freud or your neighborhood therapist. Sit in a comfortable chair and answer their questions chewing on a pipe, suggesting hilariously funny solutions to their fears. (I sat in on one of those in Japan that was priceless and exceedingly effective, I think.)
  • Have a "Love me, love my accent day" in class where students intentionally speak with stereo-typically heavy accent. (Have seen that recommended a number of times.)
Your turn! I'll award a set of the v4.5 AHEPS DVDs to the contributor of the best one!

Retrieved September 18, 2017 from

Thursday, September 14, 2017

To thrive (but not arrive) in a second language: socio-cultural capital
Yesterday morning I met an immigrant Chinese cashier at a Korean supermarket who had been here for a couple of years.  In her early 30's, she seemed quite positive, fashionably sport-dressed and looked very fit--she had just signed up for Orangetheory, in fact. As we talked she struck me as somebody who at least at first glance is thriving in her new culture. She seemed an almost perfect fit to the first half of the profile just produced in a meta-analysis of what it means to "thrive" by Brown of the University of Portsmouth,, reported by Sciencedaily. Brown defines "thriving" as

" . . . an individual experiencing a sense of development, of getting better at something, and succeeding at mastering something"

The list of qualities of a "thriver" are: 
  • optimistic,
  • spiritual or religious,
  • motivated,
  • proactive,
  • someone who enjoys learning,
  • flexible,
  • adaptable,
  • socially competent,
  • believes in self/has self-esteem.
That's her; fits her to a tee, but her English, both her general competence and pronunciation had stalled about a year in. She was engaging, had a wide range of conversational strategies to draw on, but she was at times very difficult to understand, especially when she became animated, which was often. She was very conscious of that and had a reason: her dead-end job. She suddenly shifted into her cashier persona, running through some of the very limited repertoire of phrases she uses every day at work. Her pronunciation and grammar became nearly impeccable!

What a demonstration!

What she seems to lack for her English to improve substantially is socio-cultural capital, the opportunity and network of resources to grow and practice more advanced and sophisticated in her L2. 
Again, according to Brown, (quoting the Sciencedaily report) the thriver has:
    • opportunity
    • employer/family/other support
    • challenges and difficulties are at manageable level,
    • environment is calm
    • is given a high degree of autonomy
    • is trusted as competent.
    Being here alone, as a single woman in this cultural context she has virtually none of those. She did comment half in jest that joining the Orangetheory community and all the beautiful, cut gym rats might be the answer. She may be right. Being a fan of TheoryOrange, myself, I encouraged her. She promised to get back in touch with me after a few months. And I'll report back to you, too.

    Sunday, September 10, 2017

    Killing pronuciation 8: Unproductive goals and their "goalees!"
    The goal (of this) post is to at least partially relieve you of the burden of meeting many of your pronunciation teaching goals--and suggest a better way to reach them! Or at least "Clear-ify" them!

    How would you describe your students' personal goals in terms of their English pronunciation, or their L2 learning in general? What would they tell you? Where did they come from? Do they work? Do they make sense? How do you work with them? Are they clear? Are you clear? Good questions. More research needed . . .

     One of the apparent "problems" with pronunciation teaching we are told is unrealistic or "utopian" goals (Derwing, 2010). There is certainly some of that, to be sure.

    The actual problem, however, based on a new piece by James Clear, Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead: Continuous Improvement, may be the practice of (unproductive) goal setting in the first place. (If you, personally, have defective goals, that is a great piece for sorting things out. Clear is good, very good.) Clear's basic point: progress is generally best achieved by following a method, not by simply "keeping your eye on the prize", not by ad libbing your way along with exercises and practice decisions. Good advice, but how do we do that? What's the method?

    I am always interested in what pronunciation teaching books recommend to students and instructors regarding goals. Here is a typical example from Learning  English VOA News that really doesn't say much but is actually about half right (The sentence in italics!):

    "Start by setting a reasonable goal. Choose one or two sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce. Then, work to improve those sounds. When you have improved, study other sounds. Progress might be slow for you, but don't give up!" There is no clue there or on the website as to HOW you work or practice, but the idea that you commit to an ongoing process of improvement is what Clear is referring to. 

    That VOA prescription is still at least as helpful as the typical, high-level, intelligibility-centered goal approach:
    • "Aim for intelligibility, not accuracy"
    • "Model yourself on an articulate educated L2 speaker of English from your L1"
     Or the more entertaining accent reduction approach:
    What Clear is talking about, based on research in physical training, motivation and discipline development, is that what works is commitment to a method, in effect letting the method take over and (get ready!) . . . following it consistently. Hence, the conundrum in contemporary teaching, in general.

    On the one hand we want students to take responsibility and control over their learning; on the other, we want them to do what we know is best for them. Short of handing it off to the computer, which is on the horizon to be sure, what do you do? The answer is "clear", a method. Here is a little check list, based on Clear's general framework, of what that method should probably include. You don't need all the pieces but probably most of them, depending on your available "tool kit!"
    • Clear sense of what needs to be done.
    • Clear, relatively complete procedures for working on the problem sound/sound process, including recommended time-on-task instructions.
    • Clear feedback from something/body periodically
    • Clear guidelines for out-of class or independent practice and exploration
    • Clear reporting or journaling on work/progress.
    • Clear signs of progress becoming evident.  
    • Clear criteria as to when the goal is achieved.
    • Clear understanding and trust between the learner and the instructor.
    • And, of course, clear commitment to ongoing progress as "the goal", not just some unattainable model. 
    Are we clear on that? If not, ask your local haptician (instructor trained in haptic pronunciation teaching) or personal trainer at the gym about her method.

    Derwing, T. M. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference,