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Assessment– Why Bother?

Article 5 English Speech Assessment? Why Bother?


How important is assessment for  successful acquisition of clear American English (AE) speaking?  If we didn’t care about efficiency of learning, not important at all.   Your money is worth a lot, but your time is worth even more.  Important is determining  nonnative-born individuals’ pronunciation for the 23 (some count 25) consonants and the 14 AE vowels (some count more), their knowledge of pronunciation rules and their current manner of talking.  Easy to recognize is that in all spoken languages there are  consonants and vowels which are pronounced the same as American English, others that are different.  If the instructor (teacher, coach, tutor) and the student-learner know the errors for AE speech sounds and pronunciation rules, then instruction and learning can put disproportionate and more time to acquiring the AE pronunciation for errors and deficient skills with more efficiency and less time.  “Thus, you know what to fix and what doesn’t need fixing.”  Also, we also know what is the appropriate Level of Course for each person.

Critical is to assess or test all of the AE speech sounds, the most important pronunciation rules and the manner of talking  Critical also is to assess or determine sources of the speech errors, including underlying physical differences, such as vocal strengt, range speech volume or loudness, and vocal flexibility.

We use the term  “English speech communication and intelligibility.”   Other terms used for decades include “Accent Reduction” or “Accent Modification”  or English Pronunciation.  What is “accent”?  It is a pattern of speaking.  Twenty-three languages of the roughly 7,000 languages in the world’s 196 countries are spoken by more than half of the world’s population, according to Ethnologue and The Intrepid Guide, 2022.  Also there are a multitude of Englishes. The 2018  CIA World Factbook  “Field Listing-Languages” reported that  58 sovereign states and 28 non-sovereign entities use English as their official language.

Fact is, many nonnative-born speakers of English or persons who have English as a Second Language (ESL), or English as an Other Language (ESOL) are using the pronunciation of consonants and vowels from their  mother-tongue  (the language they started speaking at about age one to four and beyond).   Even if the individual is from a country where English is the official language, the pronunciation and other physiological characteristics of speech are not the same as American English speech.

For example, a prevalent and frequent  difference in the  pronunciation of consonants and vowels in other languages compared to American English is the duration of the speech sound.  Specifically 70% of AE speech consonant and vowel sounds are double in duration of time (“slow”) compared to the quick or short in duration consonants and vowels.  Other languages frequently speak the same consonants and vowels in a quicker or shortened duration compared to American English.  For instance, prevalent is nonnative speakers pronouncing V, TH, M or N  much more quickly than American English speech.  Or the first language could make the speech sound more lengthy or slower.  For example, in Spanish, the consonant sound CH is pronounced slowly, like the AE speech sound SH.

Not only that, the general stiffness or tension of the speech articulator muscles  or the force of contraction (especially tongue, lips, jaw and muscles in the throat attached to the vocal folds) is a recognized feature of speech production (Gracco, 1994).   Based on the articulatory acoustics (the “sound characteristics” of consonants and vowels) our observations and reports from nonnative speakers,  American English has differences  compared to other languages for speech articulator muscle tension and force of contractions  in addition to critical differences for position of the tongue, lips, teeth and jaw.  Muscular features can be inferred from an oral assessment  of speech that tests all of the consonants and vowels in American English and uses sentences designed to control for coarticulation effects. 

Task Dynamic Model of Speech Production focuses on the dynamics of human speech in that speech production, including clear English speech production, is a coordinated action (Kelso and Tuller, 1984,  Saltzman et al, 2010, Parrell, B. et al 2018).  Specifically, American English and clear American English speech are examples of  manner or mode or style of speaking. The Central Nervous System (CNS) and especially the brain, dictates in a complex way the stiffness or tension of the muscles, the force of the muscles, the activation of motor neuron units and slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers,  the duration of the speech sounds, and the coordination with the voicing at the vocal folds in the larynx of the throat.  For more detail see Article 3 “Task Dynamic Model of Speech Production” – link here.

Initial diagnostic assessment tells the student-learner and the instructor/teacher/coach what to focus on for efficient acquisition of clear American English speech.  We’ll come back to more on this later.

To circle back — 90 sovereign and non-sovereign entities have English as their official language,  includjng India, Australia, Nigeria, Great Britain.  British English matches most frequently American English pronunciation except for notably the American English short vowel A, short vowel O, and consonant R.  For the other Englishes, there are multiple differences for duration of the consonants and vowels, the movement or the articulators (tongue, teeth, lips and jaw), and  the volume or loudness of consonants especially at the ends of words or syllables.  These differences put together are called “accented English.”  Put simply, the more heavily the English is accented or the more differences in the speech production features compared to American English, the more difficult it is for native-born American persons and other internationally born speakers to understand the nonnative-born speaker.  That’s called intelligibility (understandability).

Back to the topic of “Why bother with oral speech assessments? ” Vitally important are mid-course assessments to determine the change in pronunciation of all of the AE consonants and vowels, skill for pronunciation rules and patterns,  and manner of talking.  Is there an improvement  in AE intelligibility (understandability)?  Which AE speech sounds have improved and which sounds have not.  Is the instruction and practice working for the individual like it works for most people?  Thus at 3 weeks and 6 weeks of the 10 week instruction course, we do another assessment using an equivalent phonetically balanced test (10 different assessment tests).  Thus, the instruction and home practice/direct practice and focus on deliberate practice in daily life (taking every opportunity to deliver clear American English) can be modified.   Since on average it takes  70 days of practice everyday to change a habit (Frothingham, 2019) –in this case from accented English to clear American English speech– the end of the course assessment (10 weeks of coached instruction), is essential to determine intelligibility change.  Assessment, especially after 10 weeks, is critical to measuring efficacy or success of the course and the methodology, and measuring speech changes which accompany specific changes in instruction.

As a sidebar,  our initial diagnostic assessment also includes determining intelligibility of the student-learner when talking with background noise.  That’s because  all humans, especially  those in professional roles that call for extended speaking such as teachers/professora, supervisors, ministry, tech people in collaboration, leaders, etc. need to be understood in large rooms or where there is background noise.

Sidebar number two-  our initial diagnostic assessment includes a segment where we do a brief     (about 25 minutes)  training of the student-learner of the Six Clear Talk Strategies used by American English talkers when they want to be easily understood.  Also the brief training includes critical enunciation instruction for clear American English, such as where to position or place the tongue for particular consonants and which AE speech sounds are quick and which have lengthier durations in time.  Then we assess the student-learner on a different equivalent phonetically balanced test to determine how well they learn the strategies with added enunciation instruction.   That information tells us a great deal about student-learners: How well do they learn from auditory instruction?  How do they respond to the (dynamic) task of speak clearly using these strategies with the added enunciation training for American English.   This gives us a leg-up or advantage to making the instruction for the coached course for each individual   even more efficient.

And the initial diagnostic assessment answers the question of prognosis for the student-learner for the methodology of Clear Talk Mastery. In other words, with that brief training, did the student-learner measure better on the intelligibility test after the brief training compared to before the training?  What speech sounds improved, and what are the likely sources or reasons for  speech sounds and intelligibility not improving for American English after the training?

To circle back to the initial question, how important is assessment for successful acquisition of clear American English?  Our answer — scientifically based English speech assessment is critical  for several reasons.   Most importantly, initial diagnostic assessment and mid-course assessments make for more efficient learning.  Crucial for our instruction is also long-lasting learning – more about that later.  Post course assessment  examines the  efficacy or success of the learning in our clear American English speech training program.   It goes without saying that to determine success or efficacy requires comparison to skills and assessment before the instruction- the initial diagnostic assessment. The key question for post course assessment  is “Does the Clear Talk Mastery program work or not?”  and what are the successes and failures. That’s part of our Action Research—keep doing what works and change what doesn’t work  (after you have tested it on a multiple people, not just one person!).  Training and instruction improvement is one goal.  Discovering what to change or keep for efficient and long-lasting American English, — that’s the other target for assessment.  Can instruction and learning get better with using assessments and Action Research?  We bet our life and work on that.

copyright Clear Talk Mastery, Inc 2023 Antonia L. Johnson

Speed Up Learning Clear English Speech- Grow Tongue Muscle Fibers via Exercises and Tactics

Speed up Learning  Clear English Speech — Grow Tongue Muscle Fibers via Exercises and Tactics

We will describe specific exercises and tactics which have speeded up learning and increased accuracy of English speech sounds for our student-learners (measured by assessment).

First, scientific physiological information.  If you know the “why” you will understand the “how.”  For skeletal muscles (tongue muscles are skeletal), there are two kinds of muscle fibers, slow twitch muscle fibers and fast twitch muscle fibers  Scientific evidence indicates average percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers in human tongue is 54% — two-year-olds and adults (Sanders et al 2013).   Most English consonant and vowel sounds have an extended duration in time, double or more, compared to the quick consonants or vowels.  Additionally, when  the task is to speak clearly,  English talkers do feature enhancement— for slow English consonants, they extend the duration and articulator movements (which is congruent with the task-dynamic model of speech production—Kelso & Tuller, 1984).  Getting the English duration and position of articulators is challenging to the nonnative speaker. That is so critical, we teach that right away.   Of course for some speech sounds, the positioning and speed of  the articulators are the same  as for other languages.   It’s where English is different that makes the challenge.

TH both voiced and not voiced and L are high error speech sounds for nonnative speakers.

To acquire  clear, easy to understand  TH  or L speech sounds require the tongue to be extended forward and for the duration of the speech sound to be extended  for at least double or greater duration than a quick English sound such as the consonant sound D.   With the eye, humans can’t see the slow twitch muscle fibers in the tongue.  But it stands to reason that slow twitch muscle fibers are activated to push the tongue blade forward and to extend out  or stretch out the tongue tip to extend to the front of the mouth.

We teach the position of the tongue tip for the TH sounds and the L consonant sound to be the same—push forward  the tip of the tongue so it goes between the upper and lower front teeth or, better yet, to touch the lower lip.   Those consonants are slow in speed with durations lengthier than the quick consonants.  The action of pushing the tongue tip all the way to the position of between upper and lower teeth or all the way to touch the lower lip gives sensory feedback to the brain when the target has been reached— and it takes time— milliseconds—which adds to the duration.  Thus you as speaker are taking advantage of biomechanical characteristics of movement of the tongue forward to extend the duration of the speech sound for the slow consonants TH and L.  Likely your brain processes the task of pushing your tongue forward to  the lower lip or between top and bottom front teeth  and activates exactly the correct slow twitch muscle fibers.  The central nervous system and the slow twitch muscle fibers must learn this pattern for easy to perceive North American English consonants TH and L.  To make that tongue gesture and movement habitual takes much repeated practice.

So where does muscle strengthening come in?  Lengthening muscle fibers, in this case slow twitch muscle fibers, will make those fibers grow in length.   Maximum extending of the tongue muscles for maximum lengthening we call workout practice—like going to a fitness center and doing exercises like boat rowing  or doing yoga exercise muscle stretches to build muscles.   Maximum stretch for many people is to push the tongue tip down past their lower lip and down the chin.

Specifically, for TH and L stretch out forward  the tongue blade  and direct the tongue tip to go down  — to extend between the top and bottom front teeth  and go down toward the bottom of the chin as far as you can for workout practice.   Do this during home practice—direct practice and during coaching sessions (for our student-learners).

However, in daily life English speaking, do not stretch your tongue out and down toward your chin as much as you are able—too weird.  Do that for  home practice and with your coach.   For speech in daily life for conversation and presentations, push your tongue forward to go between your upper and lower teeth or to go to your lower lip.   I personally like lower lip best because  the sensory system feels the tongue muscles stretch forward and feel the  tongue tip on the lower lip.   

Tactic advice. For any practice with reading words and words in sentences, do the  maximum extension exercise/training  called Workout Mode for home practice.  When in public or friends, extend tongue to lower lip or between teeth– we call that Leveled-Up or Careful Leveled-Up Clear Talk Mode. 

The longer you extend the duration of the speech sounds TH and L, and hold onto the extension of the tongues slow twitch muscle fibers, the more you are loading the muscles, and the more muscle growth you will get for slow twitch muscle fibers.  Enhance the feature of lengthy duration of the voicing for the  consonants TH and L to at least double the speech sound length compared to English quick consonants such as  D or B.

Tongue strengthening exercises.  In the last year we have had student-learners add to their vocal strength exercises (5 days a week), tongue strength exercises where they  do the sounds for TH with a voice and TH with no voice, and L using the extended tongue to as far out and down  to the chin for as long in duration time as they can.  Their homework assignment includes doing that 3 times for each speech sound consonant  of  L, TH no voice, and TH voiced for 5 days a week.  Maximum time for this tongue slow twitch muscle fiber exercise is  3 minutes total.

Yay for students.  In 2003,  a student from South Korea taught me the position of the tongue for TH  and L she had learned as a teenager —it worked!

A video is worth a thousand words— so imitate our You Tube English speech tip videos so for direct practice you can see and hear the  exact positioning of the tongue for  L and TH.  The biomechanical extension of the tongue along with the action at the vocal folds for a voice automatically renders the feature enhancement for clear, easy to understand English speech sounds L and TH.  YouTube videos  English Speech Tip Number 35 for L, in the words “file” and “value.”  Following that  are English Speech Tip video 45 for voiced TH in “that” and unvoiced TH in English Speech Tip 53 for “thirty” and “thirteen.”

Accent reduction: Key Skill- Get the Vowels

Accent reduction: Key Skill – Get the Vowels


Have you noticed that people are most likely to say to you “What?”  “What did you say?” after you have said a multiple syllable word?

Critical information for multiple syllable words– each syllable has a meaning and there are 14 vowel sounds (some people say 17) for North American English and 5 letters –a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.

Pronunciation Alert: Say each vowel in a multiple syllable word clearly.

When ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) people speak multiple syllable words in English, they often shorten or reduce unstressed syllables to a very short vowel sound. They do this because it is easier not to move the tongue very much.  In fact, sometimes the speaker moves his tongue so little that  the vowel is so short in time that the listener is actually unable to determine which vowel letter it represents in the word– (a, e, i, o, u– short vowel pronunciation or long vowel pronunciation. The academic term for that is “schwa vowel.”

However, studies show that when speakers are aiming to talk more clearly, they will say the vowels more clearly. When they say the vowels more clearly, listeners say, “It is easy to understand you.”  This is true for clear speech in English and in other languages.

For our training for clear American English, we train speakers to make all vowels in a word more accurately to match the written vowel.  For example,   the “ment” in “appointment” would be pronounced as “ment” with a short vowel “e” and not “mint” with a short “I”  or a schwa, which is an indistinguishable vowel.  By aiming for accurate pronunciation to match the written vowel letter, the speaker makes it easier for the listener to process accurately “ment.” This is a suffix which often changes verbs into nouns.

Also, by paying attention to the vowels and saying them more accurately, the speakers are anchoring better in their brain the accurate spelling. One important reason to master accurate spelling is that the meaning of the syllable is in the spelling.  For example, “ment” is a suffix which takes a verb and makes it a noun.  “Mint” is a flavor  such as in “peppermint” or “spearmint.”

The prefix syllable “ex” is another example.   Saying the short American vowel “e” in “ex” clearly makes it easy for listeners to process the prefix “ex” and understand the meaning of the prefix with the rest of the word.  For instance, “exit,”  “extreme,” “extend.”   If the speaker made the vowel sound like a short “i” as in “ix”  or an indistinguishable vowel  as in a schwa  and closer to “uh,” then the listener would not know he was hearing the very common prefix, “ex.”  Being able to easily and quickly process the “ex,” means that the listener can identify the word right away and combine it with the other words in the sentence to easily understand the information of the entire sentence.

Here is a second  important practical reason to master spelling. In the last 10 years, more and more employers are asking us if we can help our students-learners (and their employees)  get spelling more accurate because it is embarrassing to them when emails go out with inaccurate spelling.

Yay, yay.  The extra effort to speak the vowels very clearly has big time benefit  — to the speaker, the listener, and also to the employer and the individual’s career advancement.

Be sure to watch our English Speech Tips videos and Accent Reduction Tip videos  for more English pronunciation and accent reduction exercise.

Check out our  “ever better!” coached courses by clicking “Services” on our website www.ClearTalkMastery.com. For first time English Clear Talk pronunciation learns and to efficiently renew your coached course learning, check out the subscription program called ClearTalk Weekly, www.subscription.cleartalkmastery.com

PS- It really is true that we have made exceptional strides in our teaching for mastery and long-term learning in these pandemic years with gains previous thought impossible (even by us!).

What Happens When You Don’t Listen & the Unforeseen Danger of Misinterpretation

What Happens When You Don’t Listen & the Unforeseen Danger of Misinterpretation…

Poor listening skills can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and missed opportunities.

But even if you do listen by paying attention and hearing all the words, you can still misinterpret what you hear.

How can that happen? A frequent cause is not having all the information or making an assumption which is not accurate.

Example– Your client is married and both husband and wife work remotely at home. You know this because your client talks about both taking care of the two-year old. You remember your client saying that the husband helped her get her job. She works remotely for a hospital system whose home base is in Minnesota. You assume they both work for the same company and decided (for some reason) to live in Pennsylvania.

ACK!!! Your assumptions are wrong. Turns out they live in Pennsylvania in the city of her husband’s professorial job at a university and he does blended work— on site at the university and remote work. They do not work for the same company.

So how to avoid misinformation and inaccurate assumptions? Use clarifying questions like: “Let me see if I understand accurately …” or “Do I understand correctly…” or “Tell me if I have the picture right…”

Develop your skill of listening and asking clarifying questions to increase connection with people, inspire trust and rapport, and build strong relationships that lead to greater satisfaction and successful outcomes.

English Communication Skill: Up Your Listening Game

English Communication Skill: Up Your Listening Game

Communication is connecting with people, and connecting with people is relationship. Half the story is listening.

Do you want to be a better listener.. or gasp!… an over the top listener?  Do you want other persons to know you are truly in the same space with them?

Here’s two techniques, easy and immediate.

First, clear away the clutter–. noise clutter, desk clutter, even mind clutter.

What to do?

  • Don’t just mute devices, turn them off– phone, streaming device or TV.
  • Something else on your mind? Write it down before you enter a conversation. Your note’s the reminder, so no worry about forgetting to get to this issue– and your mind is free to focus on the rest of the conversation.
  • Clear your desk of whatever is between you and the speaker – so you concentrate on the speaker’s message.
  • Can’t turn phone off, then don’t accept phone calls or view texts. Such Interruptions makes the person in the room feel unimportant and makes what you have to say seem unimportant.

Second, count to three. Couldn’t be simpler– to enable you to listen more effectively, just count to three before you speak.  This slight delay enables you to absorb and understand the last statement before you respond. Three seconds to absorb the message and give the other person one last chance to modify the statement or question.  Even if your response is that you must consult with your client, spouse, or boss, pausing for three seconds helps you better understand and remember what the other person said.

Be sure to watch our English Speech Tips videos and Accent Reduction Tip videos  for more English pronunciation and accent reduction exercise.