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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

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Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs to be activated, and activities such as discussions, questionnaires, quizzes, brainstorms, and vocabulary-anticipation can all be used to do this.

For example, when you saw the title of this piece, you probably started thinking about what it might mean, what the arguments in the piece were likely to be, whether you wanted to read it, and so on.

So assuming you still do want to read it…

Bottom-up processing starts from the text. It assumes that by working on a combination of different aspects of the written or spoken text, the learner can increase their ability to comprehend it. These might be very “micro-” elements, such as the fact that we tend to insert a “w” sound between certain vowels; or they could be at a more “macro-” level, such as searching for synonyms within a text. The key idea here is decoding.

For example, in order to understand the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”), you needed to work out that the first 17 words are the subject (a complex noun phrase), that the verb comes next (“has been going on”), followed by an adverbial (though unless you are a grammar geek, you won’t have used these terms). Identifying the verb is a key aspect of decoding complex texts.

Improving the ability to decode

Most people would agree that we use a combination of the two approaches when we are processing a text. We tend to switch from one to another as is needed. But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true. If you are in a noisy café, and can’t “decode” what your friend is saying (bottom-up), you tend to fill in the gaps with your knowledge of the world, or your friend’s usual speech habits.

Within this framework, the idea of “comprehending a text” needs to be defined. Many activities in coursebooks are essentially asking the learners: “Did you understand this text?” – i.e. the one in front of them. This can work as an assessment or diagnostic tool, but the danger is that it does not prepare the learners for the next text. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

We can do this to a limited extent with top-down activities – for example, we can train learners to use prediction techniques to anticipate the content and language of a text. Furthermore, classroom research and teacher experience tell us that top-down activities such as the ones listed above can be integrated easily into lessons, are motivating and fun, and enhance the overall experience for the learner. So we should not discount top-down activities entirely.

However, common sense tells us that we are often in situations where we are less able to use top-down skills, for example, in exams, or simply when we turn on the radio at random. At this point, our ability to decode becomes key. And it is with bottom-up approaches that the training aspect comes into its own.

Vocabulary, of course, is vital. The wider your vocabulary, the more fluent your reading or listening is likely to be. However, bottom-up skills remain important because they work on aspects of the text that are useful even when the learner’s vocabulary level is high. We have all heard learners say plaintively “Well, I know all these words, but I still didn’t get what they were saying!” For this reason, reading and listening activities need to include work on decoding text.

Subsequent blog articles will explore how training in bottom-up decoding can be introduced painlessly into the classroom.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

12 thoughts on “Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

  1. Hello,
    you might find my site http://www.engames.eu interesting for your site.
    It contains free materials for learners of English. There are grammar mind maps and games for learners of English. Check it out and if you like it, I will be really happy if you share it.
    Have a nice day
    Zdenek Rotrekl

  2. Pingback: Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for t...

  3. You’re the grteseat! JMHO

  4. Pingback: Comprehending/reading/decoding texts | READINGPOWER

  5. Pingback: Spicing up Coursebook Reading Texts | ELTBerry

  6. The problem of text processing is much more complicated than just top-down or bottom-up approach.
    In the second sentence of this piece (the one that starts “The debate…”) I didn’t pay attention to how many words the subject consists of. It’s not relevant for my processing at all. What’s more, now when you attracted my attention to this, i think the subject is debate, next 16 words is a defining relative clause.

  7. Ha! Grammar-Translation Method rears its ugly head again, decades after it went out of vogue. Funny how if you stay in ESOL long enough, you see everything – twice!

  8. Pingback: Cê Tem Bruneva? Ou Cê Tem Bruchove? | Mattiello Consultoria

  9. The article mentions, “But whereas it used to be thought that we revert to bottom-up processing when we are unable to use top-down (for example, if we are unable to predict the content, we have to listen to the actual words!), research suggests that in fact the reverse is true.” What research is this referring to? Overall I find this article very useful. However, if you refer to research to make a point, then you should cite it.

  10. In other words, we need to train learners in transferable skills that can be used for any text in the future.

    This post’s emphasis on the importance of bottom-up decoding skills is refreshing. In the school where I work, focus has shifted almost entirely to top-down skills. Like you, I don’t negate their importance, but I do think that bottom-up decoding is much more important than it’s generally thought to be. And the example you gave of the noisy café is spot on. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a situation and had to “fill in the gaps”….but only when I can’t “decode” what they’re saying in the first place. And, again, drawing on your example of the cafe, top-down decoding skills are, I think, less reliable than bottom-up skills (how often have I tried to “fill in the gaps” only to answer a question that they weren’t asking in the first place!).

  11. Having read this I thought it was very informative.
    I appreciate you spending some time and energy to put this short article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending a
    significant amount of time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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