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Helping low - level learners

use bottom-up processing


strategies to understand
reading texts
Language Systems Assessment 3

25-Sep-13
Distance Delta
Kateryna Kirichenko
Table of Contents
Introduction .................................................................................................................................................. 2
Analysis ......................................................................................................................................................... 3
Reading and theories ................................................................................................................................ 3
Bottom-up strategies ................................................................................................................................ 3
Automatic recognition skills .................................................................................................................. 4
Vocabulary & structural knowledge ..................................................................................................... 4
Formal discourse structure knowledge................................................................................................. 4
Problems and solutions................................................................................................................................. 6
Problem One: Word recognition: associating letters with sounds ........................................................... 6
Solution One ............................................................................................................................................. 6
Problem Two: Morphology ....................................................................................................................... 7
Solution Two ............................................................................................................................................. 7
Problem Three Understanding cohesive devices (conjunctions).............................................................. 7
Solution Three ........................................................................................................................................... 7
Problem Four: Understanding referential pronouns ................................................................................ 8
Solution Four ............................................................................................................................................. 8
Word count ................................................................................................................................................... 9
Bibliography .................................................................................................................................................. 9
Appendices.................................................................................................................................................. 11
Appendix 1a ............................................................................................................................................ 11
Appendix 1b ............................................................................................................................................ 12

Introduction
Having learned English myself, I believe that reading is one of the key parts of language learning. My
teaching experience has shown that students who read often make faster progress learning the
language.

After reading about different theories reading I have decided to focus on bottom-up skills. While I
believe that interactive model is the most comprehensive, I also believe that bottom –up skills deserve
more attention. Especially for learners whose native language has a different script (Japanese, Chinese,
Arabic, etc.). At the moment I teach Arabic learners and a lot of them struggle with reading simply
because they lack low-level skills. This also affects their writing skills and becomes an obstacle when it
comes to exams and/or further academic study.
Analysis

Reading and theories


Defining reading isn’t easy. It is a complex process. While it is often referred to as a “receptive skill” it
isn’t passive (Hedge, 2000) - while reading, people ‘interact’ with the text, bring their own knowledge
and experience to the text to interpret and understand it.

Below are some of the characteristics of reading by Grabe:

 Reading is rapid –readers need to read at a certain speed to make connections and process data.
Efficient readers recognise words and use lexical and syntactical knowledge automatically.
 Reading is interactive – readers apply their knowledge to information in a text to make sense of
it. Different skills (lower and higher level) work together to help readers understand the text.
 Reading develops gradually – nobody becomes a fluent reader instantaneously. It is a result of a
long term effort.
(Grabe, 1991)

Three main models of reading have been developed:

1. Bottom-up –the earliest model developed by Gough. It describes how readers decode letters
and words and use lexical and grammatical knowledge to understand texts. (Hedge, 2000). The
phonics teaching method is associated with the bottom-up approach and many believe that
bottom-up strategies are about decoding letters or words. However, in my opinion, there is
more to it. As Silberstein wrote: ‘bottom-up reading requires language processing at all level:
word, sentence, and discourse’ (Silberstein, 1994, p. 7).
2. Top-down – this model is usually associated with Goodman and Smith. In top-down approach
readers use their prior knowledge and beliefs to understand and interpret texts. It is often
described as ‘reader-driven’ as opposed to a ‘data-driven’ bottom-up model (Urquhart & Weir,
1998). Readers approach texts with specific purposes and those often define strategies they
employ.
3. Interactive - this model combines the bottom-up and top-down approaches. According to its
proponents (Stanovich, Rumelhart, etc.) successful readers use both sets of skills while reading.
From my own experience as a reader, I agree this model is the most comprehensive. It would be
difficult to understand and interpret texts using only bottom-up or only top-down skills.

Bottom-up strategies
A lot has been written on reading processes but it seems that top-down reading processes are often
seen as more important (even when discussing the interactive model) and bottom-up (which is often
referred to as ‘mechanical’ or ‘traditional’) get less attention.

For the purposes of this essay I will be focussing on three categories of reading skills from Grabe’s
taxonomy:

• automatic recognition skills


• vocabulary & structural knowledge
• formal discourse structure knowledge
(Grabe, 1991)

These are associated with bottom-up model, concentrating on the skills low-level learners use. As Ulijin
and Salager-Meyer (Ulijin and Salager-Meyer, 1998 as cited in Lin, 2001) note, helping students of low
L2 proficiency to improve their word-identification skill is a more important goal than helping them to
develop problem-solving skills such as using context to figure out interpretations, intentions and
conclusions.

Automatic recognition skills


Word recognition is one of the most important processes in reading. Fluent reading comprehension
requires rapid and automatic recognition of a large vocabulary (Grabe, 2009, p. 23). There are two main
factors involved in word recognition:

 Grapheme-to-phoneme knowledge. English writing system is a phonemic opaque system which


means that the correspondence between graphemes and phonemes is not always regular.
Letter a, for example, can sound as /æ/, /ei/, /ɒ/ or /ɑ:/. However, except a few
irregularities, English language is quite systematic (the phonics method uses this system quite
effectively) and good readers take advantage of it (Birch, 2002).
 Knowledge of morphemes. Morphemes are the smallest units of language that contain meaning.
The word play makes sense in itself, but the addition of morpheme s makes plays either a plural
noun (Two plays are showing tonight) or a present tense verb with a singular subject (He plays
football). In the word unhelpful, the prefix un changes the meaning of helpful to its opposite.
Expert readers store common morphemes and their phonological representations and can read
them efficiently. (Birch, 2002).

Vocabulary & structural knowledge


Once a word is recognised, it becomes a lexical item that carries meaning. If the item is stored in mental
lexicon, learners can accesses and understand it. Fluent readers have a wide range of vocabulary that
helps their understanding of the texts (Birch, 2002).

Some studies suggest that lexical knowledge is the basis of reading comprehension (Urquhart & Weir,
1998). Others suggest that it must be supported by syntactic knowledge (Nuttal, 1996). I agree with
both. They are closely connected in that that although knowing words is very important, without
knowing syntax it would be difficult to interpret them and to see relationships between them, especially
in complex sentences. While most fluent native readers may not have the formal knowledge of the parts
of speech or sentence structures, they use cues from texts, such as word order and grammatical words,
to decipher the meaning. For example, they know that the is followed by a noun or a noun phrase and
that the subject of a typical English sentences is a noun or a noun phrase. (Birch, 2002). These processes
of lexical and syntactical interpretations occur automatically and speed up the comprehension of a text.

Formal discourse structure knowledge


Understanding discourse signals is extremely important for efficient reading. They show relationships
between words, sentences and ideas in texts and increase comprehension reading efficiency.
Discourse signals can be divided into following categories:

 additive (and, , too, for example, etc.)


 adversative (but, on the other hand, etc.)
 causal (so, this is why, etc.)
 temporal (first, then, etc.)
(Thornbury, 2005)

It is important for readers to understand these signals. Look at the following sentences:

 There are many birds and it’s always noisy. – in this sentence ‘and’ adds information. We don’t
know why it’s noisy.
 There are many birds so it’s very noisy. – in this sentence ‘so’ shows that the birds are the
reason it’s noisy.

In-text reference shows the relationships inside the text and connects sentences with other sentences.
Reference is mainly achieved through the use of pronouns and articles.

Pronoun reference – pronouns stand in place of nouns (their antecedents). Pronouns can refer to items
in the text mentioned before (anaphoric reference) or to the items mentioned later in the text
(cataphoric reference) or items outside of the text (exophoric reference). Pronouns can refer to single
nouns, noun phrases or whole topics (Thornbury, 2005)

The man had a stick. He hit me.

My older sister Helen, is very pretty. She is a model.

Optimism is a very important. Being optimistic and looking forward to the next day is essential to our
happiness. Be optimistic! It will change you life!

Yellow – antecedent, blue – its pronoun.

Article the also shows connections in texts. It can refer backward, forward and outside of the text. It
shows that the knowledge is shared between the writer and the reader – they both know ‘which one’,
either because it has been mentioned before (with indefinite article a or as a synonym – It was a dog.
The dog was hungry) or because information about it follows the noun (the man who held the boy)
(Thornbury, 2005).
Problems and solutions

Problem One: Word recognition: associating letters with sounds


A lot of English learners have difficulties understanding how letters/combinations of letters form sound.
Arabic learners have difficulties differentiating between vowel sounds such as /æ/, /ʌ/ and /e/ or /i:/
and /ɪ/; and some consonants such as /p/ and /b/ or /g/ and /ʤ/. Often when they read a word they
don’t associate its written form with its pronunciation and need to ask for it or look it up (some
students asked me what gym /gɪm/ was and when I said “Gym /ʤɪm/”? They all said they knew the
meaning).

Solution One
Teaching phonics is one of the most popular (although widely criticised) methods of teaching reading by
correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system (http://oxforddictionaries.com/).
Teaching phonics is a long-term process; however, parts of it can be used to teach separate letter
recognition relevant to your students.

Aim: to help students recognise and differentiate between sounds /æ/ and /e/.

Procedure:

1. Write 4 CVC words containing letter a (sound /æ/) such as man, pan, etc. on the board in one column
and read them aloud for the students. Ask them to repeat the words making sure they make the sound
/æ/ correctly. Demonstrate how the sound is made (put your tongue low and push it forward a little.
Spread your lips slightly, and keep your jaw open). Do a chorus repetition and then ask individual
students to make the sound.

2. Write 4 CVC words containing letter e (sound /e/), such as pen, men, ten, etc. in the next column.
Read them aloud. Point out that the sound is different this time. Tell the students that if they close the
jaw while saying /æ/, they will hear the change to /e/. Practise as in Step 1.

3. Display the map (appendice 1a) on the IWB and explain how to play the game (see appendix 1b).
Practice once with the whole class using the image on the IWB. Distribute photocopies of the board and
ask the students to work in pairs. Students move around the board according to the sound they hear.

Evaluation: This activity is very helpful to low-level learners of English because it helps them hear and
see (they need to find the word to decide where they move next) the differences. It is fun and can be
repeated to introduce other sounds. I often introduce it at the very beginning of a course and use it
every lesson reviewing and introducing new sounds.

Adapted from Hancock (1995)


Problem Two: Morphology
Lower-level students of all nationalities (from my experience) have difficulties differentiating between
parts of speech. This can become a problem when reading texts with complex sentences. This also leads
to problems in writing.

Solution Two
Aim: to raise awareness of word formation by using monolingual dictionaries.

Procedure:

1. Pre-teach parts of speech: noun, adjective, adverb (can be done in the previous lesson).

2. Display a word your students might not know, such as ‘careless’. Ask the students to look it up in a
dictionary. Ask them if there other words that have the same root (care, carelessness, carelessly). Ask
them how do you think they are made.

2. Give a few more words and ask them to look them up see what other parts of the speech there are
that stem from the same root (happy – happiness, unhappy, happily, etc).

3. Give a few gapped sentences where students need to fill in the gaps with the words of the same root.
For example: I saw his big smile – he looked very _____________ (happy). Look, she’s crying. She looks
very ____________ (unhappy), etc.

Evaluation: Lower-level students will benefit from this activity. Using a dictionary is an important skill
and it needs to be introduced in class to help students use it independently.

Adapted from S. Silberstein ( 1994)

Problem Three Understanding cohesive devices (conjunctions)


For most beginner and elementary students conjunctions are a grey area. From my experience, beginner
students do not see the difference between and and but. As a result they often have difficulties with
reading comprehension.

Solution Three

Aim: Help readers understand the meaning of text by using discourse markers to identify the
relationship the writer intends between two parts of the text. If the reader understands one part of the
text, the discourse marker can be a key to the other part.

Procedure:

1. Introduce the students to the functional groups of conjunctions (additive – and, also; adversative –
but, on the other hand, causal – so, as a result, etc).

2. Students read a text with highlighted conjunctions and discuss how they indicate the relationships
between the parts of the sentences/words.

3. Give a gapped text with a list of conjunctions. Students fill in the gaps.
4. Once students have finished, check the answers and ask why they chose them – students will need to
explain where they needed to add information (and) or explain why something happened (so).

5.Ggive students the first part of a sentence and a conjunction. Give two choices of finishing the
sentence.

For example:

I have a dog and _________ a) a cat. b) no goldfish.


I like big houses so ____________ a) I want to buy one. b) my friend has one.

Students look at the conjunctions and decide which ending is more appropriate and why.

Adapted from Mackey, 1974 as cited in Long & Richards, 1987, p. 254)

Evaluation: in this activity students learn to pay attention to conjuncts and their functions. Students see
that discourse markers often can help them to make sense of a difficult text.

Problem Four: Understanding referential pronouns


Lower level students often have difficulties understanding the relationships between parts of the text
marked by referential pronouns. When giving doing comprehension tests they often give wrong answers
simply because they don’t pay attention to them. Arab learners have difficulties because Arabic verb
forms incorporate personal pronouns as suffixes. Japanese students face a similar problem – their verbs
can stand on their own which can lead to Japanese students omitting all pronouns. (Michael Swan and
Bernard Smith, 2001). J

Solution Four
Aim: to highlight the relationships referential pronouns represent in short texts

Procedure:

1. Give students a short paragraph with personal pronouns (a short story or an anecdote with several
characters would be the best ). Students read it quickly for gist. Set time limit to keep them on task.

2. Students find and underline pronouns. If possible have the text on IWB or OHP to check their answers.

3. Using different colours highlighters highlight pronouns and their corresponding nouns in the text. Ask
students if seeing the relationship helps them understand the text.

4. Give a longer text with a few paragraphs and comprehension questions, to answer which students
need to see the connections marked by referential pronouns. Ask the students to answer the questions
individually. Then they work in small groups discussing how they found the answers and again
highlighting nouns and their corresponding pronouns.

Evaluation: This activity is very simple, but it helps students see relationships between words, sentences
and paragraphs. If done regularly, it increases reading comprehension by becoming automatic.
Word count
Introduction.................................122

Analysis.......................................1188

Problems and solutions...............1189

Total word count.........................2499

Bibliography
Birch, B. (2002). English L2 Reading: Getting to the bottom. LAWRENCE ERLBAUM ASSOCIATES,
PUBLISHERS.

Grabe, W. (1991). Current developments in second language reading research. TESOL Quarterly , 375-
406.

Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a Second Language. Moving from Theory to Practice. CUP.

Grellet, F. (1981). Developing Reading Skills. CUP.

Hancock, M. (1995). Pronunciation Games . CUP.

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. OUP.

http://oxforddictionaries.com/. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2013, from Oxford Dictionaries:


http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/phonics

Lin, Z. (2001). Discovering EFL learners’ perception of prior knowledge and its roles in reading
comprehension. Journal of Research in Reading , Volume 25 (Issue 2), 172-190.

Long, M., & Richards, J. C. (1987). Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings. Heinle ELT.

Michael Swan and Bernard Smith. (2001). Learner English . CUP.

Nuttal, C. (1996). Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Macmillan Heinemann.

Silberstein, S. (1994). teachniques and resources in teaching reading. OUP.

Thornbury, S. (2005). Beyond the Sentence. Macmillan.

Urquhart, S., & Weir, C. (1998). Reading in a Second Language: Process, Product and Practice. Longman.
Appendices

Appendix 1a
Appendix 1b