How Languages are Learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada

A Book Review

I have taken a break from reading War and Peace*,  for various reasons, one of them being the need to get a head start on the reading for a teaching course I’ll be doing in a few months’ time.


I began with the excellent How Languages are Learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada (3rd edition), a handbook for language teachers.  I hope the rest of the textbooks on the course reading list are as enjoyable and stimulating as this one.

One of the book’s strengths is that it is very easy to read.  It is well-structured, well-organised and above all, well-written.  It gives just enough detail on research into second language acquisition to be digestible (it’s an introductory text) without being in any way too superficial.

In any case, each chapter finishes with an extensive reading list, providing plenty of ideas for follow-up reading.  There is also a lengthy bibliography in the back which lists all the works cited in the book together with further reading suggestions. The works are drawn from a variety of decades, including this one, happily.

Not only is the book accessible and relatively up-to-date, it also presents findings on language learning research in an engaging way.  It is very much a page turner.

I particularly liked the discussions on research findings into:

– methods of corrective feedback

– different types of teacher questions

– the merits of listening and reading

– pair work, group work and teacher-student interaction

– metalinguistic awareness

While I was reading the text, I employed some critical reading strategies which I found on the Harvard College Library website. My favourite strategy is one that relates to annotations. The idea is to: dialogue with yourself, the author, and the issues and ideas at stake.  This means throwing away the highlighter in favour  of pen and pencil. (Naturally, as soon as I read this tip, I highlighted it in fluorescent yellow.)

The theory is that highlighting “only seems like an active reading strategy; in actual fact, it can lull you into a dangerous passivity.”  The article continues with this advice: “Mark up the margins of your texts with WORDS“.

So mark up the margins of the text with words I did, and on the face of it, it seems to be a helpful strategy.  It made my reading of the book more interactive and intensive.  But the litmus test will be when I return to the text.

Back to my review of  How Languages are Learned: The book is very much a showcase of what goes on inside the language learning classroom.  It has made me reflect on, analyse and criticise ALL of my teaching practices.  Not only do I want to dig deeper on many of the research findings outlined in the book, but I also feel inspired and motivated to make improvements in my teaching.

Oh, and one of the book’s conclusions is that no single method of language teaching will be adequate for all learning environments.  No great revelation.

As well as getting on with the rest of the pre-course reading, I think I will return to Tolstoy.  I sincerely hope to finish War and Peace this year.



I’m up to page 645 of War and Peace.  It’s the beginning of a new section in the book.  A period of peace has just ended (I think) so I’m expecting war to break out again.  In the words of the chapter notes, Tolstoy starts the new section with “theoretical digressions on war and philosophy of history“.   I need to psyche myself up for these digressions.

It doesn’t help that I read James Meek’s review in the LRB on recently published books about Tolstoy.  Meek observes that of Tolstoy’s two great novels, Anna Karenina is the greater.  I knew this already.  That’s why, in a spirit of save-the- best-for-last, I decided to read War and Peace before taking on Anna K.

However, knowing that a technically more brilliant Russian novel of hefty proportions is awaiting me, is not speeding up my progress through the lesser work.


About cityoflu

Secret Agent Lu likes travelling, reading, neuroses (all kinds), the Orient, cities, feet and science.
This entry was posted in Books, Teaching English and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Languages are Learned by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada

  1. Marielle says:

    Hi Lu,

    I just wanted to reinforce what you’ve reported from the Harvard College Library website about understanding or “interrogating texts”. When I went back to university in my mid-20s, I was frustrated by how little I retained when highlighting texts or, even worse still, trying to make notes while reading a text! What a waste of time crossing comprehension and analytical (just what is important for the summary? I usually ended up rewriting most of the text!) processes. Once I curled up on the couch with the book, and simply engaged with what I was reading, my retention level soared. I wish I’d had that realization in secondary school…

  2. Oh, dear. I am definitely guilty of yellow highlighter autopilot. I am taking a break from it, now — reading a Dana Ferris book about corrective feedback in second language writing. Small world, eh?

    • cityoflu says:

      The Dana Ferris book sounds like something I, too, would read during my leisure time – and no doubt I’d feel compelled to highlight the more useful tips on giving feedback!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s