Book Review: “While We’re on the Topic”

I just finished reading Bill VanPatten’s newest book, While We’re on the Topic: BVP on Language, Acquisition, and Classroom Practice, and I thought I would write a review. The book is available on the ACTFL website.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Bill VanPatten is a prominent researcher in the field of Second Language Acquisition. He is a Professor of Spanish and Second Language Studies at Michigan State University. He also hosts Tea with BVP, an online radio show/podcast for language teachers—which, by the way, is starting up again for their new season this Thursday!

I was expecting that the book might be mostly a repeat of what has been discussed on Tea with BVP (which I would have been totally fine with, since I am a big fan of the show!) And although the book does cover a lot of the same topics, there was also quite a bit of new information that has not been discussed in great detail on Tea with BVP. For example, there is an entire chapter on different types of focus on form—ways that teachers can attempt to “speed up” acquisition of grammatical forms. Although we know that we can’t alter the order of acquisition through explicit instruction and practice, some researchers think there might be ways that teachers can help their students to acquire certain forms more quickly. It should be noted, however, that in the discussion of the techniques of input enhancement and focus on form, BVP states: “It is not clear to what extent such events actually ‘speed up’ or ‘help’ acquisition” (p. 104). Research has not clearly proven the effectiveness of these techniques. Therefore, I don’t plan to focus too heavily on these techniques in my own classroom, though they are good to know about and keep in mind. (And some of these things just happen naturally in a classroom—for example, a focus on form often occurs when negotiating meaning during a conversation with students.) BVP also writes a little bit about processing instruction, the pedagogical intervention that he pioneered. I’m not planning on using processing instruction much in my own classroom anytime soon, mostly because I would like to learn more about it before using it and also because, as BVP himself says, the activities are quite difficult for teachers to design themselves. Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn a little more about it.

I also enjoyed the chapter on Tasks and the epilogue at the end of the book, which describes an hour-long class in which students complete a Task. I am intrigued by the idea of Tasks and would like to use them more in my own classroom—along with the other methods and techniques I already use, like TPRS, Story Listening, etc.—but I don’t yet have a firm grasp on how to design my own Tasks. I still feel like I need more examples and information on the topic, but the book did help me gain a better understanding of Tasks and how Tasks can focus on providing students with input (despite the common perception that Tasks require students to produce a lot of output).

All in all, While We’re on the Topic is an excellent book that gives teachers an overview of some of the important principles of second language acquisition and how they can apply those principles in the classroom. It is an informative and enjoyable read for teachers who are interested in bringing their classes more in line with what research shows are best practices for SLA. It provides clear, valuable information in a fun, conversational style, in which BVP’s sense of humor shines through. I highly recommend it for both new and veteran teachers.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: “While We’re on the Topic”

  1. This was a helpful review, Allison. Thanks for it.

    I read some of BVP’s resources in college and even taught out of his textbook “Sol Y Viento” at the univ level. I have incorporated a lot of tasks into my teaching that I can share with you. I’m not sure what exactly he says about tasks in this new book of his, but I have found them easy to put together. I did have his textbook as a model to go off of, though.

    I will admit that I’m having a hard time reconciling a lot of what he says about tasks with what he says about the nature of input. I had a little tweet conversation about it which you can find here –


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