Saturday, December 22, 2018

The feeling before it happens: Anticipated touch and executive function--in (haptic) pronunciation teaching

Tigger warning*: This post is (about) touching!

Another in our continuing, but much "anticipated", series of reasons why haptic pronunciation teaching works or not, based on studies that at first glance (or just before) may appear to be totally unrelated to pronunciation work.

Fascinating piece of research by Weiss, Meltzoff, and Marshall of  University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, and Temple University entitled, Neural measures of anticipatory bodily attention in children: Relations with executive function", summarized by In that study they looked at what goes on in the (child's) brain prior to an anticipated touch of something. What they observed (from the summary) is that: 

"Inside the brain, the act of anticipating is an exercise in focus, a neural preparation that conveys important visual, auditory or tactile information about what's to come  . . . in children's brains when they anticipate a touch to the hand, [this process] . . . relates this brain activity to the executive functions the child demonstrates on other mental tasks. [in other words] The ability to anticipate, researchers found, also indicates an ability to focus."

Why is that important? It suggests that those areas of the brain responsible for "executive" functions, such as attention, focus and planning, engage much earlier in the process of perception than is generally understood. For the child or adult who does not have the general, multi-sensory ability to focus effectively, the consequences can be far reaching.

In haptic pronunciation work, for example, we have encountered what appeared to be a whole range of random effects that can occur in the visual, auditory, tactile and conceptual worlds of the learner that may interfere with paying quality attention to pronunciation and memory. In some sense we have had it backwards.

What the study implies is that executive function mediates all sensory experience as we must efficiently anticipate what is to come--to the extent that any individual "simply" may or may not be able to attend long enough or deeply enough to "get" enough of the target of instruction. The brain is set up to avoid unnecessary surprise at all costs. The better and more accurate the anticipation, of course, the better.

If the conclusions of the study are on the right track, that the "problem" is as much or more in executive function, then how can that (executive functioning) be enhanced systematically, as opposed to just attempting to limit random "input" and distraction surrounding the learner? We'll return to that question in subsequent blog posts but  one obvious answer is through development of highly disciplined practice regimens and careful, principled planning.

Sound rather like something of a return to more method- or instructor-centered instruction, as opposed to this passing era of overemphasis on learner autonomy and personal responsibility for managing learning? That's right. One of the great "cop outs" of contemporary instruction has been to pass off blame for failure on the learner, her genes and her motivation. That will soon be over, thankfully.

I can't wait . . .

University of Washington. (2018, December 12). Attention, please! Anticipation of touch takes focus, executive skills. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2018 from

*Used on this blog to alert readers to the fact that the post contains reference to feelings and possibly "paper tigers" (cf., Tigger of Winnie the Pooh)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Killing Pronunciation 10: Clear habits of successful (pronunciation) teaching and change

Next installment in our "Killing pronunciation" series: Bad habits or how to overcome them. (If you are not in the habit of following the blog or have missed any of them, go here!)

I'm doing a new graduate course in the spring where I'll be interviewing experienced "master teachers" in second language work. Some questions they'll all get:
  • How important or effective is homework?
  • Do you assign it? 
  • Do your students do it?'
  • If so, how do you get them to?
Pronunciation homework is one of my favorite topics, in part because it is near critical to real success in haptic pronunciation teaching. There have been a series of blog posts, research studies and conference presentations on that, too. The issue that always arises is: How can I change my own habits, let alone those of my students? Whose fault is it that they don't study outside of class or learn much from what they do work on? Can that be improved?

I have a "Clear" answer for you: Check out this new 2-hour video interview of James Clear by Rich Roll, two of my go-to sources on the inner game of change. It is occasioned by Clear's new book, Atomic Habits, reviewed the NY Times, which I just finished reading. Could be a game changer for you . . .

I'd recommend doing this in at least two, one-hour bites and then getting the book so you can follow Clear's simple but elegant game plan. He is a very straight shooter, one whose blog I have been following for some time. If you have too much psychology or not quite enough, this is highly recommended, especially in how you think about the connection between your teaching objectives and what part student follow up and uptake should involve.

"Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going" (Jim Ryan)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

When "clear speech" is not clear . . . or meaningful, but still instructive.
Once in a while you stumble on a study that seems, at least at first, to fly in the face of contemporary theory and methodology. This is one does: "How clear speech equates to clear memory: Researchers find that a speaker's clearly articulated style can improve a listener's memory of what was said." by  researchers Keerstock and Smiljanic of the University of Texas at Austin.

Actually, the title, when read correctly does get at the reality behind oral comprehension work: the type of "clear speech" used in the study SHOULD result in "clear" memory, that is nothing much of substance or meaning being recalled later. The results seem to confirm that, in fact.

Let me summarize it for you so you don't have to read it yourself. There is an (ironically) useful piece to the study, albeit not what the researchers intended. They head in the right direction initially but land someplace else:
  • Subjects, natives and nonnatives, heard 6 sets of 12 sentences read either in " . . . "clear" speech, in which the speaker talked slowly, articulating with great precision, and (or) a more casual and speedily delivered "conversational" manner." (Can't wait to see what controls they had in place in terms of every variable related to content and delivery!)
  • After hearing the 12 sentences they were given some "clues" for each sentence and then asked to write down verbatim the rest of the words in each sentence. (Since no data or protocols are provided, we must assume that the sentences were of reasonable length and vocabulary level, and as a group were probably not thematically related.) 
  • Everybody remembered more words in the "clear speak" condition. (Did the natives or nonnative speakers understand the meaning better? Are the results based just on how many words were recalled? Hard to tell from the brief description of the study.)
Their conclusion (from the summary):

"That appears to be an efficient way of conveying information, not only because we can hear the words better but also because we can retain them better."

Wow. I don't even know where to begin on that . . . so I won't, but if you are not up to speed on current thinking in L2 aural comprehension work, check out Conti's blog on that topic.  I will just note that the practice of doing a precise word-by-word oral reading--and then doing the same PASSAGE of say 200 words or more a second time in a highly expressive frame of voice and mind has long standing in both public speaking and "Lectio Divina" traditions. It is a proven technique, a way to both prepare for an expressive oral reading and dig into the meaning of the text. In haptic work, that practice is fundamental as well.

But the methodology of this study has to be one of the best ways to "clear memory" of meaning and motivation imaginable!

So . . . try . . . that . . . out . . . with . . . your . . . class . . . tomorrow . . . morning . . . and . . . see . . . how . . . it . . . works! And report back.


Don't forget to sign up for the upcoming Haptic Pronunciation Training Webinars!!!


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Beyond gesture: when visual-auditory-kinesthetic is not enough in pronunciation teaching!

Haptic engagement (adding touch to gesture) in pronunciation teaching began in 2005, in response to a number of potential problem(s) of using "simple" gesture in the classroom:
  • Inconsistency of results! 
    • Sometimes gesture seems to work well in learning and recalling pronunciation:
      • As a motivator or generator of enthusiasm and releasing inhibitions, it can be terrific . . . sometimes!
      • But sometimes not, depending on a number of factors. Research on efficacy of general gesture use in teaching has been consistently inconclusive, at best. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that the phonological distinctions, themselves, may be perceptually relatively ambiguous as well, such as that between [i], as in "seat" and [I] as in "sit" in English for learners of many other L1s.
  • Some individuals and cultures are more "gesticular" than others.
    •  Some of us are just better performers and more comfortable with having others mirror our movement in public. We found the teachers in Costa Rica to be some of most naturally "haptic" in that regard!
    • Some of us are just not wired for it. In a few cases, such as the ambidextrous or highly visually eidetic (have photographic visual memory) may find this kind of teaching unsettling, to put it mildly. (But with careful control and use of pre-recorded video models, most can successfully work with the haptic system.)  
  • Teacher training
    • It has turned out, not surprisingly, to be exceedingly difficult to train teachers to use a common set of pedagogical gestures, especially when training is done online and not f2f. Our haptic pronunciation training here on campus has been very successful, but it goes on for 12 weeks, 2 or 3 hours per week. (But see note and links at the bottom for a new option next month!)
The intuitive "solution" turned out to be relatively straightforward:
  • Anchor gesture with touch on stressed syllables or prominent words in phrases and sentences.
  • Create instructional videos (of me, for the most part) that did the teaching, instead of requiring individual teachers to do it themselves, at least initially. 
The underlying reason or research justification for why that approach "worked" only emerged gradually . . . and recently, in fact! A new study by Fairhurst, M., Travers, E., Hayward, V. and Deroy, O. of Ludwig Maximilians-Universitat-Munchen, Confidence is higher in touch than in vision in cases of perceptual ambiguity, provides a striking piece of the puzzle.

In the experiment, subjects basically had to judge the relative length of two sticks. When the difference was more obvious, they relied solely on vision. When the difference was visually very close or ambiguous, however, they turned to touch to determine which was longer--even though the actual difference in length was actually insignificant. In other words, with touch their judgments were significantly more confident. In effect, "Seeing, as the expression goes, may be believing, but feeling is truth."

The main effect addresses the problem of movement and gesture being potentially difficult to locate consistently in the visual field of the learner and instructor. Although a pattern itself may look "the same" when performed at different locations in front of the learner, it may well not be recognized or remembered as such. (That has always been our experience.)  Unless you apply the magic . . . touch!

Touch as linked to gestural patterns such as those for  tense vowels with off-glides, where the touch occurs on the stressed vowel in a word or phrase, not only consolidates the voice and hand/arm movement and helps identify more consistent locations for the pedagogical gestures, but also gives learners confidence in finding them in the first place. That is especially the case where two sounds or patterns are both conceptually and phonologically in very close proximity, such as the space/distinction between [iy] and [ey] in English in this demonstration video from haptic pronunciation training, version 2.0. 

Now I realize this may all be a bit hard to "grasp" at first, but after you have had just a "touch" of haptic work, it makes perfect sense!

Need to know more and be trained in Haptic Pronunciation Training? Go here and then sign up here!

Confidence is higher in touch than in vision in cases of perceptual ambiguity, Scientific Reports, volume 8, Article number: 15604 (2018)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Haptic Pronunciation Training Rides Again! (at TESOL 2019)

The first haptic workshop, (Acton, W., Baker, A. and M. Burri. 2008). Haptic approaches to Intonation Instruction, was conducted 10 years ago at the 2008 TESOL Convention in New York.

Credit: Linda Liu
This coming March in Atlanta at TESOL 2019 will be the official roll out of v5.0  (v4.5 is still available) and a new workshop, Basics of haptic pronunciation training -- Acton, W., Baker, A. Hong, S. and M. Burri presenting. 

Even if you have attended haptic presentations before, join us for a serious upgrade of your haptic tool kit, both at the workshop and at our annual moving and touching "Haptic-o-logue" over-adult- beverages-get-together of hapticians and friends. (If you have a recommendation for a truly "haptic"  venue in Atlanta, please let us know!)

Keep in touch!


Friday, October 19, 2018

Haptic pronunciation training webinars coming UpDownUnder!

The first training webinars for Haptic Pronunciation Training - English, Version 5.0, were held on December 7th and 8th, staged from Wollongong, Australia. So, why from Wollongong? Other than being there to connect with Aussie Hapticians and meet the penguins, the webinars are follow ups to the two conferences (3rd Annual Pronunciation Symposium and ALAA conference) reported on in the previous post.

You'll be able to sign up for them again in February, 2019.

Webinar I
  • Introduction to Haptic Pronuciation Teaching
  • North American English vowels
  • Syllables and phrase grouping
  • Intonation 
  • Select consonants
Webinar II
  • Aussie English vowels and intonation
  • Fluency
  • Conversation rhythm
  • Advanced intonation and secondary stress
  • Classroom correction, feedback integration techniques
  • Consonants on demand (from participants) 
 Note: To do Webinar II you need to also sign up for Webinar I

Keep in touch!

Monday, October 15, 2018

Haptic pronunciation teaching goes "Down Under" (to Wollongong)!

Photo credit: ALAA
No, we hapticians are not just doing more work with the rhythmic feet of Aussie English--although that is actually a very good idea (and you don't necessarily have to be a dancer or haptician to appreciate or use them! See this description of rhythmic feet from a DownUnder university!)

Some of us will be at the 2018 Applied Linguistics Association of Australia conference in Wollongong, November 26-28th and the 3rd Pronunciation Symposium the preceding day.

Although there are a couple of presentations at the Symposium that sound haptic (at least metaphorically) such as
  • Punching through the Barrier to Activate Productive Oral Vocabulary (Billie Beljanski)
  • Teaching the Pronunciation of -Ed Endings with an Articulatory Approach (Arizio Sweeting)
I'll be doing one that definitely is:
  • A Haptic Technique for Teaching Reduced and Secondarily Stressed Vowels
 At the ALAA conference, I am doing the opening plenary:
  •  Embodied (and Disembodied) Methodology in English Language Teaching: From Drill to Virtual Reality
And a 20-minute quick session:

  • Haptic pronunciation correction and feedback
If you are going to be at either conference, please get "in touch" ( so we can gather round the barbie and do a little "Haptic dance!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Got the perfect personality style for teaching pronunciation? Probably!

Have often heard it said (and even remarked, myself) that some people are just natural pronunciation teachers and others are not. There was a time when that might have been true or have actually made a more significant difference in the classroom. It should not be today, for a number of reasons.

One of the "problems" with referring to, or overgeneralizing about, personality in such contexts is that the so-called "classic 5 personality traits" (neuroticism, extraversion, openess, agreeableness and conscientiousness) have long since been supplanted or greatly elaborated by a myriad of more complex and individualized theories, models--and products. In other words, unless you are paying somebody to tell you about yourself, you, as an individual really have no chance of genuine or useful insight.

New study by Gerlach, Farb, Revelle and Amaral, reported by, A robust data-driven approach identifies four personality types across four large data sets. offers a different, and I think very useful, perspective. Taking those 5 classic traits and applying a number of statistical "clustering" procedures, they discovered what appear to be four basic personality clusters derived from the relationship between each of the 5 for that type of individual. Here they are. (The teaching-oriented commentary in the boxes is my rough--but accurate--interpretation of their findings.) Find yourself there?

Classic Personality Traits

New (Pronunciation teaching) Personality Clusters/Types



and Conscientiousness

1. Average (Most of us!)

Good teacher,  maybe great

Outgoing, relatively emotional; responsive, relates well, (more likely to be female)



2. Reserved

Librarian-ish/ Ed tech-ish?

Emotionally stable but may be a bit boring, reliable; (more likely to be male.)




3. Role model

 Team leader, developer, owner?

Dependable, in-charge, take-charge type. (More likely to be women than men . . .)

4. Self-centered 

Show off, new MA?

Very high in extra-version; not always fun to be w/ but can sing (cluster style often decreases w/age and experience.)




So, which of those styles probably DON'T fit pronunciation teaching as well? Which are you?

My perspective would be that
  • Styles 2 and 3 certainly have valuable niches in our schools. 
  • Style 4 is always a wild card and can wind up most anyplace. In the past many of them, trained in drama and the arts, wound up in the pronunciation class. Their unique styles and personas are often a great mix and very successfully conducted, but their methodologies and techniques are often well beyond the reach of the "average" rest of us. 
  • Style 1 with perhaps a little more "Openness" looks almost ideal--which is most teachers anyway. More importantly, that "cluster" of skills and dispositions is much easier to enhance, as opposed to attempting to "fix" the other 3 styles. 
And what is it that makes Style 1 pretty much ideal today? Ability to comfortably engage in class, work from a consistent empathetic perspective and be relatively animated and "cheerleader-ish", at times. That general skill set is especially important in providing spontaneous feedback on speaking, including the ability to model.

Just did a quick look at the teacher trainees in our program who will be taking applied phonology with me in the spring: about 80% Style 1; 10% Style 2; 5% Style 3; 5% Style 4! (May have them take some kind of inventory questionnaire that provides similar cluster data.) Haptic pronunciation training is very much a Style 1 method--with some required, additional conscientiousness drilled in. Our experience has been that about 5% do find the training very demanding, at best. Will report back in April if our hypothesis was correct!


Clip Art credit:

Northwestern University. (2018, September 17). Scientists determine four personality types based on new data: Comprehensive data analysis dispels established paradigms in psychology. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 24, 2018 from