Friday, November 24, 2017

NEW book chapter: A haptic pronunciation course for Freshman ESL college students

John Murphy's excellent new book, Teaching the Pronunciation of English: Focus on whole courses, has just been published! It is in many ways a celebration of pronunciation teaching.

Unapologetic haptic disclaimer: Of the 12 chapters, done by 17 contributors, our favorite (understandably) is by Nate Kielstra (with William Acton): "A haptic pronunciation course for Freshman ESL college students!"

From the forward:

"This volume fills a gap by introducing readers to whole courses focused on teaching the pronunciation of English as a second, foreign, or international language. This collection is designed to support more effective pronunciation teaching in as many language classrooms in as many different parts of the world as possible and to serve as a core text in an ESOL teacher development course dedicated to preparing pronunciation teachers."

It certainly delivers on that.

This volume is based on some of the same principles as Murphy and Byrd's earlier (2001) Understanding the courses we teach: Local perspectives on English language teaching. (Which we still use in our graduate program as a template for course development/description.)

One striking feature of the volume which we endorse enthusiastically is the idea that the courses described are more or less "stand alone". Talk about revolutionary (or Back-to-the-future-ish!) In other words, they are seen as effective even without much subsequent follow up by other classroom instructors teaching other skill areas--although all recommend (implicitly or explicitly) application of what is learned elsewhere in the curriculum.

Just imagine what it would be like should the inspired work of one of these "master classes" in your school go spilling off into the rest of program, either in just improved student pronunciation or instructors who take the process and run with it . . .

Murphy's first two chapters do a nice job of laying out the basics of what such courses need to cover or contain. Nate's chapter will give you a good picture of what a haptic-based course can look like.

Required reading!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

OMG! Hand2hand combat in the classroom: Facing problems in (pronunciation) teaching

OMG! (other-managed gesture) is fundamental to effective, systematic use of gesture in any classroom, especially pronunciation teaching. And exactly how you "face" that issue may be critical. Two fascinating new studies may suggest how.

As Sumo fan, haptician (practitioner of haptic pronunciation teaching) and veteran, one of my favorite metaphors for ongoing interaction in the (pronunciation) classroom has always been "H2H" (hand2hand combat.) Research by Mojtahedi, Fu and Santello, of Arizona State University - Tempe highlights an important variable in such engagement, evident in the title: On the role of physical interaction on performance of object manipulation by dyads.
Two of their key findings: (a) those subjects whose solo performance on a "physical" task was initially relatively low benefited from H2H training in dyads. Those of higher skill coming in, did not,  and (b) for those who do benefit, standing side-by-side, enabling dyadic work was superior to working F2F The "assistive" task was manipulating a horse-shoe like object in space, following varied instructions, either together or separately, best done by "coming alongside" the other person.

Granted, there is a difference between two people holding on to a piece of metal and guiding it around together, cooperatively--and an instructor being mirrored in gesturing by students across the room, synchronized with speaking words and phrases. Research in mirror neurons in the brain, however, would suggest that the difference is far less than one might think. In a very real sense, if you are paying close attention, watching something being done is experienced and managed in the brain very much like doing it yourself.

Now hold that thought for a minute while we go on to the next, related study, How spatial navigation correlates with language by Vukovich and Shtyrov at the HSE Centre for Cognition and Decision Making. In this study, subjects were first identified as to whether they were more "egocentric" or "allocentric" in their ability to grasp the perspective of another person, somewhat independent of their own position in space or time. (A concept somewhat analogous to field dependence/independence.)

What they discovered was that subjects who were (spatially) allocentric were also better at understanding oral instructions that required differing responses, depending on whether the subject pronoun of the description was 1st person singular or 3rd person. And more importantly the same areas of the brain were "lighting up", meaning processing the problem, for both language and spatial navigation.

Now juxtapose that with the finding of the other research which demonstrated that side-by-side (SxS) rather than face-to-face (F2F) "help" on the H2H task was more effective. F2F assistive engagement requires, in part the transposing of the movement of the person facing you to the opposite side of your body, an operation that we discovered a decade ago in haptic pronunciation teaching was exceedingly difficult for some instructors and students.

So what we have is a complex of the factors affecting success in gesture work: (probably) inherited ego or allo-centric tendencies which will impact how well one can accommodate a model moving in front of you, taking on the same handedness, as opposed to mirror image, and fact that some, less skillful learners are assisted more effectively by a partner SxS instead of standing F2F.

In other words, both studies seem to be getting at the same underlying variable or issue for us: why some gestural work works and some doesn't. This is potentially an important finding for haptic pronunciation teaching or just use of gesture in teaching in general, one that should impact our "standing" in the classroom, where we locate ourselves relative to learners when we manage or conduct gesture.

Sometimes facing your problem is not the answer!


Mojtahedi K, Fu Q and Santello M (2017) On the Role of Physical Interaction on Performance of Object Manipulation by Dyads. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11:533. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00533

Nikola Vukovic et al, Cortical networks for reference-frame processing are shared by language and spatial navigation systems, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.08.041

Friday, November 3, 2017

Operant conditioning rides again in language teaching!
 "The major difference between rats and people is that rats learn from experience." B.F Skinner

Quick quiz: What is "operant conditioning" and of what value is it to you in understanding language learning and teaching? If you can't answer either part of that question, unfortunately, you're not alone. Your formal training may well have lacked any thoughtful consideration of the concept of "operant conditioning". Following Chomsky's devastating attack on it and behaviorism and the ascendancy of cognitive/constructivist theory, it has in most learning frameworks appeared to have been at least dismissed, at best. Not really, according to an excellent new piece by Sturdy and Nicoladis, "How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?" -- it has just gone underground.

Their basic argument: "Researchers have ended up inventing learning mechanisms that, in actual practice, not only resemble but also in fact are examples of operant conditioning (OC) by any other name they select."

According to the meta-analysis, the most persuasive cases or contexts discussed are (a) socialization, (b) ritualization and (c) early child language learning. At least for one whose "basic training" in psychology as an undergraduate happened in 1962, it is a breath of fresh (familiar) air, not exactly vindication, but pretty close. It applies especially to the more embodied dimensions of pronunciation instruction, such as physical work on articulation and the felt sense of sound production in the vocal mechanism--and, of course, haptic engagement.

But it also is fundamental to understanding and using context-based feedback that is critical to socialization or social constructivism, including the role of ritual, pragmatics and long-term reinforcement mechanisms.

If you don't get a full-body, warm fuzzy from this piece, read it again holding a cup of hot tea or coffee. 

Required reading.

Sturdy CB and Nicoladis E (2017) How Much of Language Acquisition Does Operant Conditioning Explain?. Front. Psychol. 8:1918. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01918