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ISSN 1829-5351
Республика Казахстан

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 Теория и практика



Архив статей 2019 г.


Helping intermediate level students develop top-down and bottom-up strategies to improve reading skills

№ 2 (183) февраль 2019г.

А.М. ИСКАКОВА, учитель английского языка и ГППР, Назарбаев интеллектуальная школа физико- математического направления в городеТараз

Introduction 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 and phrases.


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. com/teaching-inferencing.html).

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

Issue 1

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 words.

-Give students a newspaper article.
-Ask students to highlight all unknown words from the article.
-Divide students into pairs and ask them to work out the meaning.
-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.

Issue 2.

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.

Issue 3

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”.

Issue 4

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 their ideas.

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 (Learnt).


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.

Issue 5

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 from reading.

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.


1. Burt M, Peyton J & Adams R. (2003). Reading and Adult English language learners.

2. Carrell, P. L. &Eisterhold, J. C. 1983. Schema Theory and ESL Reading Pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly 17(4), 553-573.

3. Grabe, W. &Stoller, F. (2002).Teaching and Researching Reading. Routledge.

4. Grellet, F. (1981): Developing Reading Skills: A Practical Guide to Reading Comprehension Exercises. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

5. Harmer, J. (2001): The Practice of English Language Teaching. 3rd Edition. England: Pearson Education Limited.

6. Nuttall, C. (2005): Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. 3rd Edition. Macmillan Education.

7. Szűcs&Kövér (2016). Reading skills involved in guided summary writing: a case study. WoPaLP.

8. Thornbury, S. (2006). An A-Z of ELT. Macmillan

9. Villanueva de Debat, E. 2006. Applying Current Approaches to the Teaching of Reading. English Teaching Forum. 44(1), 8-15.

10. Urquhart S. & Weir C. (1998). Reading in a second language: Process, product and practice. Pearson Education Limited.

11. Retrieved from: http://www.speechlanguageresources.com/ teaching-inferencing.html



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