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)