Helping intermediate level students develop top-down
and bottom-up strategies to improve reading skills
№ 2 (183) февраль 2019г.
языка и ГППР,
Reading plays a crucial role in teaching and learning English language. It helps to develop
students’ mind and imagination. Also students might discover the things they are interested in,
especially if they know how to read and understand what is read. From teaching monolingual
intermediate level students in Kazakhstan I have noticed that my students do not apply reading
strategies from L1. Also the lack of vocabulary, which leads to the lack of confidence, prevents
them from starting independent reading. I view that helping students to develop «top-down»
and «bottom-up» processing strategies to understand reading texts will improve their reading
skills. Also students will become more autonomous readers and will be able to reach deeper
levels of understanding text.
Top-down/Bottom-up processes of reading
Reading involves two kinds of processing: bottom-up and top-down.
Top-down process «characterises the reader as someone who has a set of expectations about
text information» (Grabe&Stoller, 2002:295). In other words this type of process focuses on
activating reader’s background knowledge and experience. I agree with Villanueva de Debat
(2006:10) who claimed that «reading is not a passive mechanical activity but ‘purposeful and
rational’, dependent on the prior knowledge and expectations of the reader (or learner)». There
is another theory which is closely connected to top-down process: schema theory. Carell
and Eisterhold (1983:556) stated that according to schema theory «comprehending a text is
an interactive process between the reader's background knowledge and the text». I support
Thornbury’s (2006) idea that schemata are essential in comprehension because it provides
students with some understanding of the topic. As a result it helps students to make sense of
experience and predict what might happen next.
Bottom-up process «is a mechanical process in which the reader creates a unit-by-unit mental
translation of the information in the text, with little interference from the reader’s background
knowledge» ( Grabe&Stoller, 2002:285). In other words, reader creates meaning first focusing on
the smallest units such as letters, sounds and then looks at how these units are used in syllables,
words, phrases and sentences (Burt, Peyton & Adams, 2003). As the decoding process is more
automatic, therefore a reader is focusing more on comprehension.
Szűcs and Kövér (2016: 58) claim that «unskilled readers mostly rely on top-down processing
and contextual clues in their reading comprehension, whereas skilled readers only use context to
enrich their understanding instead of complementing in complete information and compensating
for a lack of lexical access». However, I believe that a competent reader uses both top-down
and bottom-up processing simultaneously in order to establish the meaning of a text.
Sub-skills and strategies
Reading for gist
According to Thornbury (2006:191) reading for gist is «rapidly reading a text in order to get
the gist, or the main ideas or sense of a text». Simply saying a competent reader should not spend
time on comprehending and analyzing each word in a text, but should just get the main message
of it. For this particular sub-skill a competent reader applies prediction and skimming strategies.
Grabe and Stoller (2002) define prediction as a pre-teaching activity that prepares students
for further reading. It helps students to activate their background knowledge about a text, which
they are going to read. For example, when students read a magazine article they are expected to
see an attention grapping intro, an unusual title, short sentences with some unusual expressions
Grabe and Stoller (2002: 294) claimed that «the process of skimming typically involves the
strategic skipping of segments of the text and the reading of key parts». In other words,a reader
is focusing mainly on the idea of the text. When a reader comprehends the main idea of the text,
she/he is ready to move to more detailed reading.
Reading for specific information
Reading for specific information involves understanding what information, or what kind of information a reader is looking for. Sometimes, reading for
specific information also involves reading to see whether a text
contains necessary information or not. In this case scanning is
a vital strategy, which a competent reader should use.
Scanning is defined as a «reading selectively in order to
achieve specific reading goal» (Urquhart & Weir, 1998). For
example, scanning is used to find a specific number, location,
time or date. During scanning a competent reader does not
follow the same linear order as in the text, but he/she is looking
for information that is necessary for him/her. For example, at
which time a particular TV program starts.
Reading for inference
Nuttall (2005) states that inference allows a competent
reader to «read between the lines». For example, «an inference
would be more like... «Billy stood in the shade of a tree, that
helped beat back some of the heat. He changed into his shorts
and put sunscreen on his skin.» In the above inference example,
there is nothing stated explicitly about it being a hot day. But the
reader can infer that it's a hot day by the information presented,
such as «the shade of the tree beating back the heat; and Billy
changed into his shorts and applied sunscreen.» A ll of t he
language strongly suggests that it is a hot day». In other words, a
reader does not have ready answers in a text, but he/she is given
some clues that help a competent reader to comprehend what the
author is talking about. (http://www.speechlanguageresources.
Reading for deducing meaning from context
According to Grellet (1981:12) «Inferring means making us
if syntactic, logical and cultural clues to discover the meaning
of unknown elements». Grellet (1981) also highlights that
difficult words should not be explained to students beforehand,
but students should be encouraged to deduce the meaning of
words from a context. I completely agree with her point of view.
Learners’ issues and suggestions
Problems of deducing the meaning of unknown words.
My intermediate level students feel insecure inferring the
meaning of unknown words from a context and always try to
use a dictionary in order to translate all unknown words. They
have a belief that they might understand a text better only if
they know the translation or definition of each word. However,
their constant use of dictionary prevents them to become an
autonomous reader. In addition, the use of dictionary takes a
lot of time and it also disturbs the students’ chain of thoughts.
Aim: to train students to infer the meaning of unfamiliar
-Give students a newspaper article.
-Ask students to highlight all unknown words from the
-Divide students into pairs and ask them to work out the
-Encourage students to look at the words before and after
in order to infer the meaning of unknown words.
Working out the meaning of words will encourage students
to activate their top-down and bottom-up processes. To infer
the meaning of words will also help students to become more
autonomous readers and make students more confident in
dealing with unknown words. Nuttall (2005) also recommends
that students should be encouraged to come up to a certain
conclusion as these discussions will develop their metacognitive
awareness of how they achieved the task.
Poor skimming skills
During my teaching experience I have noticed that my
teenagers do not apply skimming strategy. When they start
reading, they try to undersand each word in a text. Sometimes
they use dictionaries and look up a definition or translation of
words. As a result they are not focusing on understanding the
general meaning of a text.
Aim: to train students to skim through longer texts.
-Provide students with a text. It might be a short story,
a magazine or newspaper article.
-To set time limit. Ask students to spend three minutes
on reading a text and try to comprehend the general idea.
When students are given a set amount of time, they try to
apply skimming strategy unconsiously because time limit creates
the sense of urgency. As a result they are not focusing on
each word in a text, but they try to find an answer to the question.
Understanding of the general idea of a text will provide
students with good support, especially if then they are required
to focus on some details in the text.
Lack of motivation of reading the long texts
According to the results of my survey and observation I
have discovered that low intermediate level students tend to
avoid reading long texts especially during a series of lesson
«Reading for pleasure». «Reading for pleasure» lasts about
five lessons and during these lessons students are required to
choose a book and read it for fun. However,students think that
reading long texts are boring. Therefore, they automatically
disbelieve that they would be able to comprehend a text and
find it engaging. Therefore, during reading lessons students
become less motivated.
Aim: to create interest in reading long texts.
-Conduct a survey among students and choose the text
that they will find engaging. Also it is essential to choose texts
that will be appropriate tostudents’ level and needs.
-Divide the text into separate paragraphs (Appendix 3).
-Provide the students with one paragraph only and ask
them to predict what will happen next. Students might discussin
pairs or small groups.
-Then give students the second paragraph and ask them
to read a paragraph checking their predictions.
-At the end there might be questions for inferring the
author’s attitude or opinion.
Breaking up the text into separate paragraphs will create an
interest in reading and students will be motivated to know what
will happen next. Also it will encourage better understanding
of a text by focusing on each paragraph separately. Carefully
created questions about their further prediction of the text will
motivate students to read the text till the end. Pair and group
work will make the reading process more engaging and will
involve all students to participate in the discussion. Questions
about author’s attitude or opinion will make students “read
between the lines”.
The lack of background knowledge
I have revealed that sometimes my IELTS students face
with difficulties during reading activities due to the lack of
background knowledge about some areas. I personally believe
that when students are able to activate their schemata, they
comprehend the text better. Therefore, if students do not possess
enough prior knowledge about the subject, it leads to difficulties
in reading comprehension. It happens because students cannot
deduce the possible vocabulary and the possible content beforehand.
Therefore, they spend much time on comprehending the
general idea of the text and trying to deduce the meaning of the
words. Usually, the problem of limited background knowledge
is mostly connected with their age and experience.
To train students to activate their schematic knowledge
-Students might be provided with a title of a story or a
magazine article (Appendix 4).
-Studnets predict what a text will be about. Then students
brainstorm the possible terms or words that might be used in
the given text.
-Students work in pairs or small groups and brainstorm
Another activity which might be used is KLW chart (Knew,
Learnt, Want to know) (Appendix 4). Students first write what
they know about the given topic and then what they want to
know. After reading a text and expanding their knowledge
with new information they complete the column in the middle
All the described activities help to activate students’ background
knowledge and practice prediction and anticipation.
Students might not be familiar with the topic before reading,
but they might predict and brainstorm some ideas. When students
predict it also activates their imagination. Also students
might draw a line between what they know about a topic and
which area requires more attention or what information might
be interesting to know about.
Reluctance of reading outside the classroom
From my experience few Russian and Kazakh speaking
students read extensively in English. This reluctance of the
majority of students comes from the misconception that reading
in a foreign language can be done only in the classroom.
Studnets consider that everything what they read is done only
for language acquisition. However, reading regularly increases
language exposure. Students will less struggle with deducing
the meaning of unknown words as they will develop their own
strategy: paying close attention to the words before and after.
I always try to encourage my students to read at home without
a dictionary as it is more beneficial to their language learning.
I have noticed that when students read more they infer the
meaning of some words from the context better. Nuttall (2005)
explains that there is a correlation between how you read and
what you understand. If a reader reads less, he will understand
less. If the reader reads slowly, he will get the less enjoyment
Aim: to encourage students to read extensively.
-Start a regular intensive program. Before setting up an
intensive reading program it is essential to conduct a survey
on the students’ preferences in reading (Appendix 5).
-Select short stories, engaging newspapers or magazine
articles and have students read them over the weekend.
-Prepare some questions related to what they have read
and conduct a short discussion in pairs or in groups.
-This should be a repeated process until the students
develop a constant habit of reading independently.
Nuttall (2005:127) states that reading extensively is «the
easiest and most effective way of improving reading». In addition
Nuttall (2005:131) states that extensive reading outside the
class must be «easier than that of the current target language
coursebook». Students will enjoy reading graded short stories
every weekend, especially if they find these stories engaging.
The whole class discussion will motivate the students to read
more and come prepared to the lessons.
This background essay increased my understanding of
teaching process in general and made me look differently at
teaching reading skill. I have never thought about possible
issues that students might face with while reading a text. When
I first started my career, I paid close attention to planning and
teaching and whether the text is appropriate for my students’
level or not. I have never thought about individual’s needs and
issues that they might experience.
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