on 17 August 2004
This book, first published in 1999, is now in its second edition, and forms part of OUP's "Handbooks for Language Teachers" series. The target audience is teachers, especially (but not only)trainees, and the aim is to help teachers judge the merits of different textbooks and methodologies in the field of EFL/ESL.
While the book assumes some knowledge of teaching and of basic linguistics, it does not assume a lot of specialized knowledge in either linguistics or SLA research; a technical glossary is provided. As a language teacher myself, I found the book very interesting and useful. Lightbown and Spada have done a good job of organizing and describing the different approaches to EFL/ESL and the most important developments in SLA research over the last 100 years or so.
The introduction includes a short summary of each chapter. It also includes a simple questionnaire on 12 popular views of language learning; the implications are that teachers' styles and approaches are determined largely by what they believe about language and learning, and that these beliefs should be at least informed by knowledge of research in the field.
As well as an index and bibliography, each chapter ends with a list of sources and suggestions for further reading.
Chapter 1 investigates how we learn our first language, and quotes actual examples from children's speech (including the authors' own). This is important because " one of the significant findings of second language acquisition research has been that there are important similarities between first and second language acquisition." The chapter looks at some important questions, like the importance of age, is there a critical period for learning a second language, is language learning just like any other kind of learning, how important are imitation and practice, and the how, when and how often to correct errors. Chapter 2 looks at theories which explain second language learning, including behaviourism, Chomsky's (and others') innatism, Krashen's monitor model, information processing and connectionism, and the interactionist theory. The authors describe the various theories clearly and simply, and also point out some of the unanswered questions left by each theory.
Chapter 3 examines factors that affect second language learning, including intelligence, aptitude, motivation, learner beliefs and age, and learner attitudes to the second language and its speakers. It also examines the characteristics of good language learners.
Chapter 4 looks at learner language, including interlanguage. A particularly fascinating section is on developmental sequences, and a comparison between the sequences of first-language learners and second-language learners.
Chapter 5, Observing Second Language Teaching, compares instructional and natural settings for language learning, and looks at various classroom interactions, with examples from actual transcripts. Of particular interest in chapters 3, 4 and 5 are the activities, sections where the reader is invited to reflect on their own learning experience or teaching practice. Some activities involve filling out tables or answering questionnaires, others assume that the reader is a practising teacher, or at least has access to a classroom of students.
Chapter 6 looks at five "proposals", the authors' term for methodology or approach to language teaching. The "proposals" though go beyond methodology or approach, sometimes combining several. The idea, presumably, is to encourage a fresh look at methodologies and approaches, particularly from the point of view of actual classroom practices and procedures. For instance, the first is "Get it right from the beginning", and the authors describe it thus: "The 'Get it right form the beginning' proposal for second language teaching probably best describes the way in which many of us were taught a second language in school. It includes the traditional approaches discussed in Chapter 5 - grammar translation and audiolingual approaches." Each proposal includes selections from transcripts of classroom interaction, and I found these to be particularly helpful, as well as interesting in their own right. Each proposal also gets a critique: "The students have no reason to get involved or to think about what they are saying. Indeed, some students who have no idea what the sentences mean will successfully repeat them anyway, while their minds wander off to other things." The proposals are also examined in the light of research findings. No one proposal gets 100% approval, and the pros and cons of each are presented.
Chapter 7 examines 12 popular ideas about language learning in the light of discovered facts and research. They include, "students learn what they are taught", "languages are learned mainly through imitation", and "teachers should teach simple structures before complex ones".
To summarize, the book uses simple language, deliberately eschewing SLA jargon, to describe a complex field for the benefit of teachers and trainee teachers. It is well organized and makes extensive (but not over-extensive) use of transcripts from interactions with children and second-language learners, both in classroom and natural settings. It covers the most important research findings in the last 50 years or so, and also the most significant methodologies and approaches developed over the last hundred years. While it is written for teachers, it does not assume a prior knowledge of research methods or theoretical issues, and it may be of interest also to advanced EFL/ESL learners, or to the general reader. Its main purpose is to help teachers judge the value and approach of the plethora of EFL/ESL textbooks now on offer. It is interesting to compare this book with Vivian Cook's "Second Language Learning and Language Teaching" (Arnold 2001, 3rd edition; distributed in the US by OUP). Cook's book is more technical, as the title implies, and includes a fuller discussion of language teaching, for example the learning and teaching of pronunciation, and contains excerpts from (and critiques of) various coursebooks and TEFL handbooks. It also discusses teaching techniques such as the negotiated syllabus, which is the kind of detail that Lightbown and Spada don't delve into. Cook's book is more useful, I think, for practising teachers, whereas Lightbown and Spada's book is a more general introduction, for trainee teachers or teachers re-training themselves to be EFL/ESL teachers.