Top-down and bottom-up approaches to language - what is the difference?
When thinking about how to present language to students at the beginning of a class, we have a choice to make: do we need to introduce the forms we are teaching from the very beginning, presenting the meaning, drilling and checking meaning, building up to phrases and sentences with lots of teacher support? Or, can we present this language in a reading or listening text and expect learners to cope with the language as it comes up in the activity?
These two approaches to presentation of language show the difference between a bottom-up approach and a top-down approach, both of which can be effective in different situations. The ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ terms refer to the point where students first experience the language they are learning.
‘Bottom-end’ processing involves focused work with individual words, building up to phrases and sentences in bigger and bigger units of language throughout a lesson, towards the ‘top-end’ processing required to understand the language in use, in the context of other language and structures at paragraph, dialogue or whole-text level. The ‘top-to-bottom’ organisation of language structures can be shown as follows:
text / dialogue / video recording
paragraph / stretch of speech
letters (spelling) and sounds (pronunciation)
In this way, a ‘top-down’ procedure presents students with language in the context of top-end structures, in reading texts, listening or video recordings, and works down to focus on the component sentences and phrases to get to the meanings of the specific words or structures being taught. By contrast, a ‘bottom-up’ process moves in the other direction, focusing on words, spellings and pronunciations before asking students to apply them in phrases and sentences, usually in restricted tasks, before applying them further in top-end discussion or writing tasks.
The choice of which direction to take through a lesson should be based on many factors: how familiar may the students be with the language you are teaching? How easy is it for learners to guess the meanings of what you present to them, and how much hand-holding do the class need with new forms that you present in general?
A top-down approach is more appropriate for students who are somewhat familiar with the language you will focus on in a text, or who are more independent learners that can deal with new language in context. Top-down approaches work better when teaching language that is intuitive, or which is presented with a lot of contextual clues to meaning.
A bottom-up approach is more effective for language that is more difficult to understand (for example irregular or complex forms which may cause confusion if not directly taught early in a class), and will suit learners who prefer more teacher support with new forms.
That said, a top-down approach can be a good way of encouraging more independence with language study in more dependent learners, especially if tasks and activities are designed to scaffold independence through work with language in context.
Be aware that the top-down / bottom-up planning choice is a conscious one - don’t just present language in a text because that is how it is done in the textbook. Might a bottom-up approach be more effective for the learners in your class? Similarly, a lot of time can be wasted presenting language from scratch when learners are already able to use it to some extent. In this case, it may be more effective to add challenge and present the forms from the top down in a listening or reading activity. Ultimately, the choice is up to you, the teacher, to make based on your knowledge of the learners and the language you are teaching.
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.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.