Sunday, March 19, 2017

Killing pronunciation 4: Dis-integrated vs prior schema-based pronunciation change
What does it mean to "integrate" pronunciation work into "regular" instruction? And if you do, how do you know if it "worked"--or why? : Caveat emptor: Without informed, systematic follow up, most pronunciation instruction is probably a crap shoot, dicey at best. 

That thought was again inspired, in part, by a recent article in the new Handbook of  Pronunciation Teaching by Sicola and Darcy entitled: Integrating Pronunciation into the Language Classroom.  

To access the chapter you have to buy the Handbook itself, prices ranging from about $125 to $195USD, plus tax and shipping, or just the online chapter itself for about $35USD--or from about 6 vente carmel frapps up to around 40!

In essence, Sicola and Darcy argue that since there is a range of pronunciation teaching techniques and strategies that have been shown to produce some gain or results in reported practice or quasi-experimental studies, then when integrated into general classroom instruction--as opposed to being taught in a separate class or individualized work online-- they should work in that integrated context, too. Really? I think they are maybe half right, but they have almost no "hard" evidence to support that claim.

An earlier post focused on why figuring out whether or not a method works can be so problematic in education today: basically, integrated instruction can mask the actual impact of individual techniques and procedures, such as homework--or pronunciation. Context of instruction trumps technique, almost always.

The near consensus among researchers investigating in-class feedback and correction, for example, as unpacked in a recent blogpost, is now that for genuine, effective uptake to occur in pronunciation work it must be predominantly in follow up that it occurs not in initial in-class presentation and practice -- or homework, but as it followed up on later and repeatedly (Rosario et al, 2015).

So, how do you best set up the key pronunciation schema that you need to use in everyday instruction, in little vignettes or mini-lessons inserted into speaking, listening, reading and writing courses, or . . . in something like the old reliable, stand alone "pronunciation class" that provided the basic training that was then followed up on or used spontaneously during incidental "teachable moments"  by any and all instructors in the program at large?

Where are we headed? My guess: back to good "out of class" experience and basic pronunciation  training, either in the form of specific pronunciation-designated classes or something analogous, such as web-based training,  that is then referred back to by instructors in integrated pronunciation work all over the place and curriculum. In other words, pronunciation techniques should be part of everybody's tool kit but ideally the basic training should occur someplace else, before the problem is addressed in class. Our colleagues who do public speaking and voice training have had this right for decades.

The sooner some of what passes for (one-shot-mini-lesson-in-the-middle-of-something-else-with-no-clear-follow-up-based) integrated instruction disintegrates, the better! (It already has in haptic pronunciation instruction, of course, should you need a great model of how to do it!)


Rosario, P., Nunez, J., Vallejo, G., Cunha, J., Nunes, T., Suarez, N., Fuentes, S. & Moreira, T. (2015). The effects of teachers' homework follow-up practices on students' EFL performance: a randomized-group design. Retrieved from:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Killing pronunciation 3: Grit
To the "gritty" student, there can be nothing more frustrating than pointless, unproductive pronunciation homework--or even worse, none at all.

If you are a follower of this blog, you know I am a big fan of James Clear. If you need to change something--most anything--and you still don't need a coach or therapist to help get you there, his website is worth a visit. His latest post on "building mental toughness" linked to an earlier piece: Grit: a complete guide on being mentally tough. (Embedded in that post is a TED talk by Duckworth, on "grit" which you should also watch if you haven't already.)

Grit is defined in a number of ways but, basically, it means having the strength of character to persevere to ones goals. 

Grit is a key variable in success in pronunciation, I'm sure, although I have been unable to find a good study to verify that. My own experience with accent reduction clients is that to fix their accent  they need just two thing: grit and money (and time, of course.)

Where that especially comes into play is in homework--my current area of research in preparation for a panel at the 2017 TESOL Convention later this month. If you have a student who has real grit, in terms of pronunciation homework, can you provide him or her with sufficient direction as to what to work on and practice outside of class? I have been asking that question repeatedly of late and the overwhelming response from instructors is . . . No!

In fact some instructors have replied that monitored and required practice outside of class, such as drill and repetition and oral reading is probably not worth the effort. And even if it is, "how am I to know whether it was done well or productively?"

There you have it. One of Clear's key principles, based on current research, is that in developing grit the learner must NOT rely on motivation but on habit, on discipline. But for a student to do that, there must be clear guidance and assignments.

How do your homework assignments and guidance to your students on how to improve their pronunciation stack up with that criteria? Probably not all that well, right? This is big, actually. We are just coming out of a period where focus on motivation and meta-cognition (thought and planning about pronunciation change) have been enormously influential.

One of Clear's other principles in developing it is to: Build grit with small physical wins. There are any number of ways to do that, of course, but it takes a consistent, coherent method at least. In pronunciation work, that is or should be a "gimme!"

EHIEP is based on the idea that embodied (gesture-based) homework/practice is key. The success of the system relies on establishing cognitive schema (haptic cognition) such that subsequent in class or incidental learning or correction of pronunciation will happen efficiently, as the learn relates back to the model or rule learned earlier. (That is one of the most important findings in research on incidental correction in class of pronunciation.) In general, homework is carefully prescribed to help create such schema and students need to "homework" at least 3 times a week for 30 minutes to facilitate that, preferably every day.

It takes "true grit" to do that -- and manage it. If that is not part of your current method and "growth mindset" (Dweck, 2016), "Clear" up your current pedagogical habits and grit back to us!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Haptic phonetics: bridging from L1 to L2 pronunciation!
Please join Eileen McWilliams and myself in our 90 minute workshop tomorrow at the annual 2017 BCTEAL Island Conference at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia. Here is the program summary:

"Some familiarity with phonetics is essential to pronunciation teaching, both for student and teacher. This workshop presents a basic haptic (gesture+touch) phonetic framework for helping students better understand and work with the relationship between key aspects of their L1 vowels and consonants and those of English. In addition to an introduction to haptic cognition and haptic pronunciation teaching, “bridging” techniques from 8 L1s are demonstrated. Participants are provided with basic materials for haptic bridging and access to web-based demonstration videos."

Saturday 25, 2017, 1~2:30

 See you there. We'll post the presentation to Slideshare and Research Gate next week.

Keep in touch!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Killing Pronunciation 2: "Over and under-learning"

You may have seen a report on this research on "overlearning" recently, Overlearning hyperstabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant, by Shibata, Sasaki, Bang, Walsh, Machizawa, Tamaki, Chang and Watanabe of Brown University. (There is a pretty readable summary on According to the abstract: "Overlearning in humans abruptly changes neurochemical processing, to hyperstabilize and protect trained perceptual learning from subsequent new learning."

Wow. Some useful terms there for you: Neurochemical processing . . . hyperstabilize  . . . inhibitory-dominant . . .
Basically, researchers examined the effect of overlearning of a visual mapping procedure on retention in one of three conditions: (a) another new learning procedure was introduced immediately, (b) a time period was inserted (3 hours) before the next procedure, or (c) the first procedure was carried out with overlearning (operationalized as going over the correct set of moves yet again, again), followed by a second new procedure.

In essence, both (b) and (c) resulted in better recall later. In other words, you can protect new learning by putting some space between that and the next piece of training--especially if the two procedures have some potential overlap of some kind, or . . . by hammering it in, so to speak.

Shibata et al. suggest that the findings probably apply to a wide range of learning contexts, while conceding that the focus on visual modality also limits applicability. More research needed, of course. But what might that imply for pronunciation teaching? A few things:
  • Some kinds of drill may work as well as we know they do. (Especially if it is anchored with gesture-plus-touch!)
  • Research has long established that just "pointing out" or simple recasting (repeating back the correct pronunciation without further comment) rarely are effective. 
  • As was reported in the previous blogpost, the role of visual stimuli and distraction in moderating integration of other modalities, can be problematic, at best. That is to say the applicability of this "visual" study to embodied pronunciation may be marginal. 
  • The concept of "spacing" various procedures in pronunciation training does make. The behaviorists had that one figured out 60 or 70 years ago. (In fact, this possible additional empirical validation of overlearning must put a bit of a smile on the face of any "hyper-senior" researchers of the period still with us.)
  • Good trainers in virtually all physical disciplines know and practice this idea. Again, as developed in several previous blogposts, the idea of partitioning off leaning has always been central to hypnosis, allowing the unconscious mind a role in the party. How you do that can vary enormously, simple waiting time being one. 
Two possible takeaways here: (a) However you accomplish it, pronunciation learning, being the highly modality-integrated process that it is, requires or should be followed by uncompromised attention, processing space around it of some kind and "full-body" armor. (b) If not an integral part of your method, don't be surprised if little sticks or is "uptaken"!

If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings

Read more at:
*With apologies, of course, to Bill O'Reilly for the use of his "killing" meme, as in his recent books on well known figures of the past, e.g., Killing Jesus, Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy. At least a couple of future posts will use the same "killer" title hook.

Nature Neuroscience (2017)doi:10.1038/nn.4490

  • To cement quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don't try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

  • Read more at:

  • To cement quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don't try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

  • Read more at:

  • To cement quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don't try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

  • Read more at:
    Overlearning hyper-stabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant, Nature Neuroscience,

    Read more at:
    Overlearning hyper-stabilizes a skill by rapidly making neurochemical processing inhibitory-dominant, Nature Neuroscience,

    Read more at:

  • To cement quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don't try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

  • Read more at:

  • To cement quickly, overlearning should help, but beware it might interfere with similar learning it that follow immediately.
  • Without overlearning, don't try to learn something similar in rapid succession because there is a risk that the second bout of will undermine the first.
  • If you have enough time, you can learn two tasks without interference by leaving a few hours between the two trainings.

  • Read more at:

    Saturday, January 28, 2017

    Killing pronunciation improvement: better heard (and felt) but not seen!
    Fascinating study, Visual Distractors Disrupt Audiovisual Integration Regardless of Stimulus Complexity, by Gibney, et al. Department of Neuroscience, Oberlin College.

    Tigger warning: This is a thick, technical read, but the conclusions of the study have potentially important implications for pronunciation teaching, especially attempts to enhance uptake of new and corrected sounds or patterns that rely on effective integration of sounds, images, movement and vocal resonance. 

    In essence, what the research examined was, as the title suggests, how distractions in the visual field affected subjects attention and ability to learn and recall audio-visual stimuli (images on a computer screen accompanied by sounds). What was striking (again as evident in the title) was that no matter how complex the task of associating the targeted sound with the visual image or object in focus, with even the slightest distraction created on the screen, e.g., a object briefly appearing in a corner, the subject's ability to integrate and recall the complex target later . . .was compromised.

    The implications for pronunciation teaching?  Not surprisingly, attention is critical in integrating sensory information. We know that, of course. What is more interesting is the idea that any visual distraction whatsoever that occurs when sound, movement and visual imagery (such as the orthography or phonetic representation of a word or phrase) are being "integrated" may seriously  undermine the process. In other words, visual attention and eye tracking during the process may have dramatic impact. That is a "variable" that can, in principle, be managed in the classroom, although most do not consider visual distraction to be potentially that disruptive of pronunciation instruction. But it certainly can be.

    We discovered early on that in haptic pronunciation work, where not only sound, visual imagery, movement and vocal resonance are involved--but touch as well, visual distraction can seriously derail the process. This research suggests, for example, that the same effect during general pronunciation work as well, especially oral work, may be a significant impediment in some contexts. 

    The sterile, featureless language laboratory booth of old may have had more going for it than we thought! In early haptic work we experimented with controlling eye tracking. Perhaps it is time we revisited that idea. It certainly deserves our undivided attention.

    Original research article: Front. Integr. Neurosci., 20 January 2017 |

    Sunday, January 15, 2017

    "Haptenings" at the TESOL 2017 Convention in Seattle!
    If you'll be in Seattle in March for the 2017 TESOL Convention, please join us at one of the "haptenings" (haptic pronunciation teaching happenings):
    • Haptic Pronunciation Teaching (workshop) (Kielstra, et al.) - Basics of the method. No prior training in phonetics or pronunciation teaching necessary. 
    • Teacher cognition about haptic pronunciation teaching (colloquium) (Acton, et al.) - Reports on 5 recent studies of haptic pronunciation teaching in the classroom
    • Rhythm and focal stress (poster session) (Teaman, et al.) - Haptic and other techniques for teaching rhythm and focal (sentence and discourse level) stress
    A few other convention asides:
    • As usual, we'll also set up some kind of networking session in the "networking" area late in the convention. 
    • We will also video those sessions and make them available on once we get home.  
    • I'll be tweeting (@WmActon) as will other hapticians, I'm sure. 
    • v4.5 of the Haptic Pronunciation Course will be out by then, with revised videos and coursebook additions.
    • I'm also on a panel on research in L2 homework in which at least some of my data comes from haptic homework as well. 
    Keep in touch! (So will we!)

    Monday, December 26, 2016

    Passionate about teaching pronunciation? Amygdala for your thoughts . . .

    Tigger warning*: The following contains neuro-science-related material that may be perceived by some as being mildly political . . . This research by Kaplan, Gimbel and Harris of USC, summarized by SciencDaily, is just too "target rich" a piece to pass up.

    The research question was something like: Why is it so difficult to get people to change their opinions on things like religion and politics? (The same problem is evident in changing attitudes toward pronunciation--and in many ways, perhaps, for the same reasons, I think.) In essence, here is what they did:
    • Found 40 self-identified, political liberals and then  . . .
    • Had them respond to statements that seemed to contradict either their political beliefs or their beliefs about non-political things such as who is smartest guy who ever lived, etc. 
    • Connected them up to fMRI technology to observe how their brains lit up in each condition
    What they found was that:
    • On nonpolitical challenges, most expressed some change in position, however slight--and the brain response was relatively unemotional.
    • On the political issues, however, there was virtually no change in position, accompanied, however, by a stronger emotional response in their collective amygdalas. 
    • And their conclusion (get ready): " . . . when we feel threatened, anxious or emotional, then we are less likely to change our minds." (In part because our core identity and "deep" thinking responses have been threatened or intruded upon.)
    Caveat emptor: The subjects were all political liberals, self-professed, no less--from Southern California. Why so? Why was it not a "balanced" design, say with political conservatives from the Napa Valley of California, or . . . Texas? Was it that that group tended to be more emotional in reacting to challenges to their beliefs? (Liberals, more reactive or conservatives, less, in general? Nah!) Was it that it was impossible to find 40 conservatives in Southern California? The researchers do not comment on that . . (I will leave that rabbit trail to the interested reader . . . ) But see earlier research on this topic!

    As research on teacher cognition has repeatedly demonstrated, beliefs about pronunciation tend also to be emotionally charged. Based on this research, I may have to go back and review the subject pools of that earlier research to check for political orientation of the teachers/subjects/researchers, too! Who knew?

    The study may, however, as the researchers suggest, give us some additional insight into how (carefully and circumspectively) we might go about persuading others to do more pronunciation work in class.

    But by allowing teachers to avoid pronunciation entirely for fear of triggering emotional reactions and violating safe identities, have we just been too "conservative" on this issue--or not conservative enough in interpreting the research in the first place?  As is evident now in most contemporary stress reduction systems, inoculation and gradual introduction of problematic stressors has been proven to be far more effective than either avoidance or relaxation/coping methods.

    So, Just do it, eh!

    Tigger warning (used on this blog in lieu of "trigger" warnings)
    Translation of "Amygdala for your thoughts . . ." in the title.

    Monday, December 19, 2016

    Tired of just "horsing around" with pronunciation? Key principles of equestrian training applied to pronunciation teaching
    If you have followed this blog for a bit, you know that some of my favorite models for understanding key aspects of body-biased/haptic pronunciation teaching come from golf (Hank Haney) and horse training (Griffin, University of Kentucky), two disciplines where "training the body first" (Lessac) are a given. Recently I spent a pleasant evening with trainers of "cutting" quarter horses.

    The commonality of effective training concepts was striking. One reason for that is that both disciplines require at least understanding of how to train the body, relatively independent of language and meta-cognitive involvement. Here are some of the principles from Griffin's list, along with my informal extrapolation to pronunciation teaching (in italics):

    • "Research has shown that horses work harder and maintain higher response rates when reinforcements are not on a predictable schedule. You should avoid becoming routine when reinforcing responses." Question: How do you reinforce appropriate pronunciation? My guess is that you have a very limited repertoire of responses, at best. Record yourself or have a colleague observe you in action . . . weep!
    • "Long, concentrated learning sessions are an inefficient method of training horses. A more effective training method is to have more training sessions per week of shorter duration. Work on different maneuvers each day. Refrain from repetitive drilling on a maneuver after the horse has learned it well." This is the gold standard of integrated instruction, especially with multi-level classes, requiring consistent preparation and follow up. That last note is especially revealing, what is known as the "delearning effect." (In haptic instruction that is particularly relevant.)
    • "Inherent emotionality is a horse's (general) psychological state.  . . . A good trainer quickly recognizes the emotional state of the horse and adjusts training regimens accordingly." Pronunciation teaching/learning is perhaps the most emotionally problematic aspect of language learning. Research (e.g. Baker, 2012) has established that a surprising number of instructors avoid pronunciation for that reason alone.
    • "  . . . An older horse may have a decreased learning performance, most likely because it has learned to ignore the type of stimuli often utilized in learning." This actually goes back to the first point: balance between variety and consistency. Pronunciation techniques have the (probably deserved) reputation of being boring in the extreme, with drill and meaningless "speaking" or oral reading. There are, of course, other ways to anchor new patterns and sounds. (See the right hand column, for instance . . . )
    • "Horses have very good memory . . . Recent research in this area has shown that horses learn to learn. The learn-to-learn phenomenon is simple: The more tasks a horse learns to perform, the easier it will be for that horse to learn new tasks. These new tasks may be tasks that the horse will never use, but they will aid in learning ability." This one is critical for pronunciation instruction: It is not absolutely essential that everything presented is recognized by learners as being immediately applicable or "relevant" to their use of the language. Learning, itself, enhances ability to learn, in effect. Recent research on "simple" memorization, for example,  has demonstrated that the very practice itself helps learners develop better memories and aptitude for learning in general--and memory for longer lists of procedural "steps" as well.
    The parallel is remarkable. With the advent of more and more web-based instruction, learners are by default being forced to learn more by reading text and listening, along with often exceedingly "disembodied" speaking in response. Haptic pronunciation teaching, of course, is one approach, as are several others, requiring more or less instructor explicit management of body movement and presentation/control.

    Saddle up!

    Tuesday, December 6, 2016

    Pronunciation teaching not your cup of tea? It may be your metaphor or M-Cat!

    Neuroscientist, Glaser, of King's College, as reported in the Guardian, may just have the "answer": adjust your metaphors! For example, if your students are not as friendly or malleable as they should be, have them all hold a cup of warm tea for a bit. (Caveat emptor: The following is serious fun!) In one study:

    "Those holding hot drinks were also more likely to be generous, and less likely to display behaviour thought of as selfish. This is due to the strong linguistic and metaphorical links created in the brain by repeatedly using the words ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ to describe personalities."

    "This is due . . . " Wow. That is a bit of a stretch, of course, but he is getting warm . . . Pretty strong claim there, that it is the specific use of such adjectives alone that generates the visceral, affective response. Without digging too deeply into the evidence (which he doesn't, in fact), just hold your warm latte in both hands and read on. 

    I've reported earlier on the blog similar research "linking" the metaphorical and somatic/tactile link between words such as "rough" or "coarse", for example, and how the brain seems to interpret those in a way very similar to when one actually touches a surface possessing that tactile quality.

    Similar studies connect language and olfaction (smell/aroma therapy), e.g. That argument stinks! Likewise, beginning with work such as Metaphors we live by,  Lakoff and Johnson (2003), and continuing more recently in language teaching, e.g.,  Holme (2004) Mind, Metaphor and Language Teaching, in a very real sense, anything in the classroom is in principle, amenable to intentional (metaphorical) design and adjustment.

    In the past, asking students to hold something random to affect their perception of something else was seen as pretty far out--objectionable to the point of unconscious manipulation. But today, with both research on the impact of placibos and pop-neuroscience that encourages a wide range of conscious adjustment of perception, it is a different "ball game"! (I make extensive use of balls in pronunciation teaching.) But first we need to ferret out all the classroom behaviors that are potentially working against us!

    What we might term "meta-cup-a-tea" (M-Cat), that is the sensation evoked by touch or physical contact and presence is a variable in all instruction, including pronunciation. In general pronunciation instruction M-Cat may rarely be attended to consciously, but in haptic pronunciation instruction (HaPT) it can be critical, since it can divert awareness away from pronunciation-focused touch-based techniques. (For more on that see this!) In L2 work, however, cultural "misinterpretation" of in-class touching can of course go almost anyplace imaginable.

    So let's just look at a few traditional pronunciation teaching "tactile experiences" (other than what goes on in the mouth or what is involved in HaPT) for their potential "Meta-cup-a-tea" contribution (or lack of contribution) to instruction. Listed below are some of my students' best M-Cats. On the face of it many of these are done to reinforce or correlate with a targeted sound or pattern. In practice, it is not at all clear what if any connectedness is realized, nonetheless. In many cases the "contact" or pressure can be counterproductive, interfering or distracting attention--but still fun:
    • blowing air on tissue paper or hands: X is mostly hot air, germ dispersing 
    • touching the face: X is untrained; has not taken course in public speaking
    • clapping or tapping hands: X is attention-deprived
    • stretching rubber bands: X is all thumbs, overextended
    • snapping fingers: X impulsive, too much math, phonetics or syntax
    • overly precise hand writing: X is scary or boring or compulsive
    • hands holding things that are not warm: X is cold, unfeeling
    • spinning pencils: X is neurotic, not from this culture, not a native speaker!
    • fingers on smart phones, especially when multi-tasking: X is "situ-phrenic"
    • hands excessively on books, notebooks: X is bookish, introvert, anachronist, dead-tree-ite
    • hands excessively on body parts: X has pronounced problem
    • hand or marker moving on iPad or white/smart board: X is hip, maybe even creative
    • going through practice cards: X is a dealer
    • caressing keyboard or mouse: X is geek-ish, L2-a-phobe, possibly closet rat
    • glutes on chair: X is sedentary, butt stable
    • sitting on chair in language lab: X is antisocial, isolationist
    • full body on bed: X is seriously sedentary, probable "sound-nambulant"
    • earphones on/in ears: X is audio-phont, "ear-y" at best
    • chewing, eating, drinking: X is hypoglycemic or language hungry
    • continually wiping finger prints off iPhone screen: dys-Appled, but possibly good follower
    • head scratching: lice, itching to learn, excessive meta-cognition in process
    Got any more good M-Cats? Post'em and I'll add them to the list.