Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ESOL Instruction from the Bottom-Up: Using Reading Strategies

While engaged in a silent reading task, a student in my ESL class raised his hand and asked, “Teacher, what does f-i-a-n-c-e mean?” spelling out the letters because he was unable to pronounce the word. He had encountered this unknown word in his reading. And rather than guessing the meaning from context and moving on, a reading strategy I had so often engrained in my students with the intent of helping them develop autonomous learning habits, he wanted his prediction confirmed right then and there. “Fiancé…?” I replied inquisitively in preparation to move into an eloquent but simple explanation and definition of this French word adopted into the lexicon of the English language. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Fiancé? Never mind. I know what it is now,” and he looked back to the text on his desk and continued his silent reading…satisfied. He only needed to know how the word was pronounced—specifically, how it sounded—in order to attach meaning to this unfamiliar looking—but familiar sounding—word.

I realized at that moment the importance of providing my ESL students explicit instruction in phonemic awareness in context of other kinds of reading strategies I had so often neglected—bottom-up strategies. Bottom-up strategies incorporate the lower-level processes that teach students to construct meaning from the most basic units of language, including letters, letter clusters, and words. Essentially, the bottom-up approach maintains that students make meaning of a text by building on a foundation of analyzing the smallest units of meaning. As I self-reflected on my own teaching, I realized I was quite effective at teaching top-down strategies, which included helping my students generate meaning by employing background knowledge, expectations, assumptions, and questions, and engaging my students in pre-reading strategies, such as previewing the text, predicting, and activating background knowledge. But what was I doing to help my ESL students learn the bottom-up strategies they needed to become fluent readers?

I had been taught the importance of top-down strategies in my teaching methodology classes as a graduate student, and I had even studied language learning strategies quite extensively during that time. But why did I not learn how to teach bottom-up strategies as well? Were they important to my future ESL/EFL students? Since I was not taught how to teach bottom-up strategies in college, should I assume that teaching only top-down strategies was sufficient in helping ESL/EFL students achieve the goals of reading comprehension and fluency?

By doing a little informal research on the topic, I learned that English-language learners do need explicit instruction in low-level strategies that native English-speaking readers use to read most efficiently (Birch, 29). In fact, “ESL and EFL learners need to acquire the knowledge base of English phonemes so that their aural discrimination of sounds can proceed effortlessly, quickly, and unconsciously” (Birch, 53). ESL/EFL learners who have phonemic awareness are better readers because they are able to connect sounds with symbols and attach meaning to sounds, a process which is sometimes easier than attaching meaning to printed text. Furthermore, if readers can associate the sounds of words when learning the meaning of new vocabulary, they are able to remember the new words better.

While I acknowledge that explicit instruction in top-down strategies is crucial, the embedding of bottom-up, decoding strategy instruction is an important supplementary aspect to second and foreign language reading instruction, even though the teaching of these decoding skills is often neglected. David Eskey asserts that second language reading literature promotes a “top-down bias…[that] produce[s] a somewhat distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face” (95). He also issues the caution that “even educated guessing at meaning is not a substitute for accurate decoding” (97).

Although I had the best intentions to help my ESL students guess the meaning of unknown words from context to promote autonomy through top-down strategy use, I learned two salient lessons from my student’s silent reading experience regarding reading strategy instruction. First, I learned that sometimes ESL/EFL students know the sounds of words, but they do not have the skills to accurately decode them. Second, I learned that developing fluency in ESL and EFL readers requires more than just top-down strategy training, even though it is top-down strategy instruction that teacher-training courses and second- and foreign-language instruction courses tend to emphasize. Very simply put, it is essential to keep in mind that sometimes top-down strategies just aren’t enough.

For more articles like this one, read this article by Robin Schwarz, Using Phonemic Awareness with ESL Students.


Birch, B. M, (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the Bottom. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Eskey, D. (1993). Holding in the bottom: An interactive approach to the language problems of second language readers. In P. Carrell, J. Devine, & D. Eskey (Eds.), Interactive approaches to second language reading (pp. 93-100). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your blogs. I am really enjoying reading about your experiences and about ESL.