When Pronunciation Isn’t Enough: Teaching Comprehension

Today we conclude our language learning video series with Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who has been answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

One of the most common language learning exercises is to read a text-based resource, but as instructors we often make the mistake of focusing primarily on pronunciation. While this is a valuable skill for language learners, the most important thing is that students truly understand what they’re reading. In this video, Dr. Nielson offers guidance on what types of questions to ask learners of different proficiency levels, and ways to help learners fully engage with the material that will actually help them improve.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Task-Based Language Teaching: What Does It Really Mean?

If you Google Task-Based Language Teaching, or TBLT, you’ll find a lot of definitions related to the latest trend in teaching second or foreign languages. But what does it really mean?

TBLT is an approach to language learning that was popularized in the 1980s by N. Prabhu in Bangalore, India. Prabhu discovered that learners were able to learn more effectively when they were focused on a tangible, non-linguistic task like reading a map, than when they were focused on a linguistic task such as using second conditional verb forms.

Similarly, learning a language at its core is simply learning a new skill. And just like any other skill—playing the piano or swimming, for instance—you learn by doing. The sooner you start playing music or jumping into the pool, the sooner you’ll start learning and practicing the skills you need to play an entire song or swim the breaststroke. In contrast, studying music theory or reading a book about swimming techniques may be insightful, but it probably won’t help you achieve your real goal as quickly and efficiently as possible.

TBLT is centered on meaningful tasks using target language (the language being learned) in real-life situations, as opposed to focusing on the target language on its own without any relatable or concrete context. Examples of tasks can range from scheduling a doctor’s appointment and filing a complaint with customer service to answering job interview questions and using small talk with colleagues. TBLT prepares learners for real-world situations, while traditional language teaching that focuses on target language in isolation will not, like a lesson on the past perfect of the verb “to be.” You can easily draw examples of the traditional approach to language learning from your own experience: your high school Spanish teacher may have had you complete irregular verb conjugation exercises instead of role-playing ordering food in a restaurant and applying the target language to a real-life situation. With TBLT, you will never wonder why you’re learning a specific verb tense or set of expressions. The reason will always be related to a real-life situation that is crystal clear to you from the start.

From a language learner’s perspective, a TBLT approach means that your goals and real-life outcomes for learning a new language—whether you want to easily communicate abroad in a country where the language is spoken or work at an international company—should guide your decision when choosing a course, software or tutor. Never lose sight of your goals along the way. For example, if you plan on traveling abroad to Spain and want to learn some Spanish to help you get around, focus on the types of interactions and situations you expect to experience in Spain. Think of common tasks such as asking for directions, ordering food in a restaurant, reading a menu and checking in to a hotel. Don’t spend too much time focusing on language that falls outside of these interactions as it won’t pertain to your experience. And because that language isn’t relevant to your goals, it may discourage you from sticking with it. You don’t need to learn how to describe someone’s eye color (Bob tiene ojos marrones) or learn the comparative in Spanish (El gato corre más rápido que el perro), but you do need to know how to politely ask for information (Disculpe, sabe cómo llegar a la estación de tren?) or how to tell a server that you are a vegetarian (Soy vegetariana. No como carne ni pescado.). This way, you’ll actually be prepared for your trip, you’ll save time and you’ll stay motivated!

More often than not, language learners do not assess their goals when they embark upon the brave journey of learning a new language. They assume that any one-size-fits-all solution will work for their specific needs, but everyone’s goals are different and TBLT acknowledges this as critical to success. If you’re learning English to improve your career versus learning English because you’ll be traveling to New York, the language you’ll need is different. So how could the same exact course help you achieve two very different goals? Instead of choosing a static course designed as a catch-all solution, choose one that is customizable and adaptive based on your unique goals—a task-based and personalized solution.

Mari Nazary is Voxy's VP of Pedagogy and Curriculum.

Mari Nazary is Voxy’s VP of Pedagogy and Curriculum.

The Best and Worst Ways to Provide Feedback to Learners

Today we bring you the latest segment in a video series by Voxy’s Chief Education Officer, Dr. Katharine Nielson, who’s answering all your nitty-gritty questions about how people learn languages.

As a language instructor, when and how should you be offering your learners corrective feedback? And what’s the worst thing you can do when a learner is in the middle of completing a task, answering a question or telling a story? In this video, Dr. Nielson explains the difference between implicit and explicit instruction and feedback,  talks about the most effective kind of corrective feedback (and when to use it) and some common pitfalls to avoid.


Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy's Chief Education Officer.

Dr. Katharine B. Neilson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.

Voxy News

Voxy Launches Popular Digital Marketing Course from General Assembly

Voxy is proud to be working with General Assembly (GA), a global education company specializing in 21st-century skills, to deliver its Digital Marketing course on the Voxy platform.

This collaboration will bring GA’s popular Digital Marketing course to the Voxy platform for English language learners around the world. The professional-level foundation course has been taken by more than 10,000 employees at large companies and uses exclusive content from GA’s online curriculum. The online course covers functional and relevant topics including: social media, UX (user experience), mobile strategy and content marketing.

GA addresses the skills gap in today’s tech- and data-focused workforce and provides professional development and training in areas like marketing, data science and visual design. This new offering will allow Voxy’s learners to access applicable skills to further   their comprehension of the English language.

“Voxy’s partnership with GA is 100 percent aligned with our unique task-based approach to language learning, which takes authentic materials and converts them into language lessons that address real-life goals,” said Mari Nazary, Voxy’s VP of Pedagogy & Curriculum. “Thanks to GA’s rich and effective Digital Marketing course, we’re continuing to address our learners’ needs for improving their professional development skills while also practicing the English they need to advance their careers.”

Want to check it out? Visit the Voxy Unit Catalog and choose Courses from the dropdown menu at the top of the page.


Idioms of the Week: Health

In this blog series, we’re breaking down common English expressions that are used in everyday conversation, so you’ll be able to expand your language skills and have fun with new English phrases. This week, we’re keeping to the theme of health.

1. bitter pill to swallow (noun phrase): an unpleasant fact one must accept

Ex. Losing the highly competitive presidential election was a bitter pill to swallow for the once-revered candidate.

2. as fit as a fiddle (adjective phrase): to be healthy and physically fit

Ex. Despite being nearly eighty years old, Tom is as fit as a fiddle.

3. back on one’s feet (noun phrase): to regain one’s physical health again

Ex. With the help of antibiotics to treat her flu symptoms, Melanie is back on her feet.

4. bundle of nerves (adjective phrase): used to describe a very nervous or anxious person

Ex. Because she was scared of flying, Denise was a bundle of nerves during the whole plane flight.

5. burn (oneself) out (verb phrase): to become emotionally and physically tired from doing something for a long term

Ex. After working continuous ten hour shifts as a waitress, she was totally burned out.

6. clean bill of health (noun phrase): a statement or assessment that someone is healthy

Ex. My doctor gave me a clean bill of health when I visited him for my annual physical exam.

7. green around the gills (adjective phrase): used to describe someone who looks sick and nauseated

Ex. After a tumultuous rollercoaster ride, Cindy was green around the gills.

8. bun in the oven (noun phrase): used to describe someone who is pregnant

Ex. When Sharon returned from her honeymoon, she had a bun in the oven.

9. break out in a cold sweat (verb phrase): to perspire from nervousness or anxiety

Ex. Dan broke out in a cold sweat upon learning of the surprise pop quiz in math class.

10. breathe one’s last (noun phrase): to die

Ex. Despite fighting a chronic illness for years, the ninety-year-old man breathed his last.

Try using these idioms the next time you practice your English skills. You’ll find yourself using them more naturally in conversation in no time!