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Tops Down, Bottoms Up!


Tops going down? Bottoms coming up? Sounds exciting, right?

It is! That's because these are terms that refer to approaches for helping your students comprehend a reading or listening passage! As the teacher you get to choose which semi-cinematic approach you will take on how to ask your students to decipher the lesson.

"Top-down approaches provide ways "into" a text using a learner's knowledge of the world."

"Top-down" evokes an image of being inside of a helicopter, or maybe the international space station, looking over the topology of a subject and taking in the big picture. You'll ask the students to predict what a newspaper article might be about by reading the headline, the first sentence, or even just the pictures. Then encourage them to predict the sort of vocabulary and words that will appear in the text before reading it. With listening exercises, if you tell students they will listen to a recording of a mechanic, then they may guess it will be about cars, or that co-workers will talk about their boss, or that a politician's speech will be full of lies. From there you can begin processing the deeper functions of a text. Now that everyone knows what you're talking about. At first, students might not catch every word, but they'll understand the grander strokes of what the author is trying to say. This can often be helpful when dealing with students where their maturity level and English ability doesn't quite match up. As you can draw their attention into a passage by intriguing them with the overall intentions, before diving into the nitty-gritty. It's a 'ice cream before veggies' kind of approach.

"Bottom-up approaches encourage learners to develop deeper, more intensive understanding."

Bottom-up is more like working from a molecular scientist's point of view. Identifying the individual quarks and atoms of a passage. From written words, or even hidden sounds in a native-speakers pronunciation. So if you gave a single cell sample to a biologist, they might not be able to tell you what animal it came from, but as you give them more and more, they would begin to put it together to reveal the entire beast, like assembling pieces to a puzzle. With this approach, a bit more patience is required from your students, but the puzzle example is apt, as the slow-reveal and dawning understanding should be savoured and enjoyed if possible. The process of doing this is called decoding.

The spy quietly took photographs of the secret plans,

if only she could have guessed what a terrible impact they would bring...

Start with a sentence (like the one above), and have students identify the verb, "took", great. Then have them underline the pronouns or demonstratives, "the spy" and "she", good.

Now blank out the conjunctions, like "if", and then have students supply different ones, like "and" or "but", and observe how it changes the meaning of the sentence.

Then play around with the adjectives and adverbs to bungle the sentence for comedic effect. Like switching "quietly" for "noisy", or "terrible" for "stinky".

Finally, after all this, go back and read the original passage, and students should have a greater degree of clarity for the passage.

Both approaches can be helpful, whether you are teasing the slow reveal, or pumping the action-packed teaser-trailer to whet their appetites to read the text. Either approach will also help you on the process you will take as teacher, such as the questions you will ask your students, and help turn a systematic lessons into a story unto itself.

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