Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Schrödinger's Cat(ch) of Pronunciation Teaching
Bottom line: It’s almost impossible to LOVE pronunciation teaching unless you have seen or heard or had it done to you. And if you love it, much of your best work will be spontaneous or at least seem to be. And for the most part, up until now, there has been no “virtually” useful research or methods stuff that can take you there

Until now. . . Introducing a new podcast (working title): Teachable Moments in Pronunciation Teaching (TMPT)

Once a week or so I'll be chatting with a real, practicing master pronunciation teacher/lover, not a “non-practicing” theorist or methodologist—to learn from. Our conversations will take place as soon as possible after a good class they have just taught, where we talk about what actually happened, moment by moment . . . how and why it worked, based in part on an audio recording of the session. 

Here is what inspired it:

One of the most striking thought problems of all time, “Schrödinger's Cat”, revealed a potentially fatal flaw in a school of quantum physics. in effect it exposed a “black box” in the theory where two contradictory states had to be present, where it was logically impossible to know which condition was in effect (whether a cat in a box was dead or alive).

In pronunciation teaching, just like the (in)famous "black box" in Chomsky's early work, we have our own enigmatic box as well: What actually goes on in the classroom, the quality of the moment by moment engagement that underlies every research study but is practically never mentioned or analyzed. There were good reasons for that, a broad range of (quickly) researchable variables, cognitions, techniques and features of students' L1s to be explored and understood. 

Almost without exception, research on pronunciation teaching effectiveness that looks at classroom work reports only at the activity-level, noting which techniques were used generally, something like: presentation and then various kinds of controlled and freer practice. The data is there, however, in any number of studies where transcripts of actual class sessions were analyzed for specific features, but we do not have publicly accessible studies of the messy, thick instructional discourse itself. That is the window that the podcast will look through: recent replays of pronunciation teaching as rich conversational engagement between students and instructor.

Know somebody we should talk to? Let me know!

Sunday, September 1, 2019

To gesture or not to gesture (to provide spontaneous correction in language teaching) Part 1

A new study by Nakatsukasa (2019) demonstrates that using simple gesture to correct grammar (use of the 'ed' past tense) may not work. Amen to that. Signalling with a deictic/metaphorical gesture as the instructor recasts (repeats) the piece of language correctly when there is a error--and not requiring any kind of response from the learner--and furthermore still expecting some kind of meaningful uptake or noticing is . . .well . . . silly, but good to see that proved conclusively.

From the study:

"When the participants did not use the past tense in the obligatory context in two tasks, the researcher consistently provided recasts with or without gestures (pointing back over shoulder with thumb) immediately following the participants’ utterances, depending on learners’ assigned conditions."
Now that, in principle, sounds like a pretty good signalling technique, one which I have seen used "repeatedly" over the years by teachers (Hudson, 2011). But . . .

"For the VR condition (verbal recast w/o gesture), the researcher provided recast only verbally, putting her hands down next to the side of her body to avoid gesturing."

Now, does that (standing motionless w/hands at sides) sound like anything close to natural teacher behavior/gesture? Really? I have got to see a video of that!  In fact, I’d really have to see a video of everything that went on, to make sense of the study.

"In addition, the researcher tried not to stress any part of the recast in either condition to keep consistency."

Wow. How could you provide anything close to effective, meaningful feedback without stressing the part of the defective sentence or phrase that is being corrected?

"In all the instances, learners had the opportunity to modify their output; however, production of modified output was not enforced in the present study, to keep the flow of interaction and the saliency of feedback as equal as possible across conditions."

Not requiring at least some minimal "embodied" verbal response to such a gesture seems about as disembodying as you can get! Apparently, it was.

The research on the use of simple recasts, as Nakatsukasa points out, is pretty clear that they are, for the most part, not worth wasting your time on. So, "pointing out" a basically ineffectual recast with a disembodied gesture is supposed to make it more effective? It didn't. Surprise.

This is an important study, however, in that it represents quite accurately, I think, the way in which many researchers and practitioners view the place of gesture in language teaching, or even human communication for that matter: "add ons" that can be understood out of context and disembodied (not demanding a corresponding physical response in the body and mind of the other--the learner, as if gesture can be understood independent of the meaningful interaction in which it occurs.)

Something of a “How not to” guide of sorts.

What then is the "right" embodied and contextualized way to use gesture in teaching? Thought you were never going to ask! See Part 2, The right (haptic) way to use gesture in (at least) pronunciation teaching. Forthcoming, shortly!

Nakatsukasa, K. (2019). Gesture-enhanced recasts have limited effects: A case of the regular past tense, Language Teaching Research (11)1-29.