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)


  1. All right, Bill. But at the end of the day, what will you do differently in order to render instruction more effective?

  2. GOOOOD Question! For one, I'm going to be building in the next haptic pronunciation course, which begins in January, more "executive function" training and control. By that I mean that students will be led to manage their out of class practice better, including some new features such as being required to report more precisely on what they did when, including amounts of time on a required drill, for example, including some notation of the pace they did it at and how they were situated when they did it. A couple of decades ago I was doing more of that and for various reasons at the time backed off on it. For example, I found it easy for me to get students to practice effectively but other instructors doing haptic might not--and I couldn't figure out how to pass on that "enforcement and monitoring" skill set then. I think I can now, however.