The view from the top: How to teach reading skills from the top down
The traditional approach to reading skills in the language classroom is to work with information through comprehension tasks, checking how much specific content learners can process at the level of words and sentences. This may be an effective way to check understanding of specific details in a text, but does it help students to develop their broader reading skills? Asking students to focus on individual key words and choose from a limited set of choices about meaning does not mirror the range of skills we apply when we approach a piece of written text, and does not help learners to come more engaged and interested readers.
When we read a newspaper article, a book or other content-rich text, we are more concerned about the bigger picture - how the events in the story relate to each other, how the details add up to the complete analysis of the event, or how the characters develop across the narrative. We are processing not only the sentence-to-sentence meanings as they unfold, but also the content’s relationship to our own lives, and how it relates to the context of the wider world. This kind of ‘top-end’ processing is necessary for us to gain a deeper understanding of a text as we read through it.
Back in the language classroom, there is an argument for doing the same thing with content-rich texts such as professional documents or academic publications. Rather than focusing in too deeply onto words, phrases and sentences selected by the teacher, we can present a whole text to a learner, and work from the top-end features (topics, context, broad arguments presented early in the text) down to the more specific features which the learner may struggle with. This approach is known as ‘top-down’ processing of a text (see my earlier post about the differences between top-down and bottom-up approaches to texts in the language classroom).
The benefits of a top-down approach are seen particularly strongly in the academic and professional fields within second language education. In these settings, learners have to meet and engage with challenging texts every day for their work or study, so the ability to take a whole text and work through it to find the big picture, before looking more closely to confirm relevant details is a valuable skill.
Some tips for top-down reading work:
Before presenting a text, introduce the key topics as a short discussion, or Q+A, to find out how closely the content relates to the learner. This will not only set the context for the reading, but will activate key topics in the learner’s mind, and also give you an idea of where you may need to work more slowly and give guidance
If the text has an introduction, get the learner to read through this without using a dictionary or asking questions. Once they finish, ask for a prediction of what they expect to come in the main body of there article - do they predict a positive or negative stance, for example? Do they expect to read facts and figures, or a more personal account? What general topics do they think will be discussed? This predictive step will get the learner ready to compare the reality of the content with their preconception, which will help the information land with them more easily.
Early in the reading work, either from the introduction or the initial paragraph(s), do some work with tone and stance - what is the tone of the writing, and why? What is the authors opinion? What is the main purpose of the writing?
As you work through the text, keep returning to these important top-end factors, and ask the learner to talk about how these features of the text are achieved - how does the writer communicate this tone / topic / purpose / opinion? What language does the writer use to carry out these features? In this set of questions, you are focusing the learner in on the ways in which language is used to achieve writer’s purpose, the specific words and phrases which are used to communicate these (which are more relevant now, in the context of the previous, top-end work that you have just done). This is the main part of the reading work, which focuses on the phrasing, usage and vocabulary used in the text, and how they contribute to that bigger picture.
Finally, consider the final paragraph, or conclusion, of the text, and put the points mentioned there into the context of the text as a whole. How effectively does this complete the text, does it develop any ideas beyond the text itself, and does it give a strong final point to leave the reader with?
Taking this top-down approach can focus learners much more effectively on key features of a text, and bring out more varied and interesting work with the content you present in class. If you work in academic or professional English teaching environments, try this approach out and see where it takes your discussion of subject-specific texts.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
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