Learners who read more often will get better at reading, and subsequently improve their skills, increasing their reading rate. Not all fast readers are good readers, but research does indicate that learners who read at a slow rate tend to dislike reading.

Is it a question of exposure

Yes and no. The more we are exposed to something, the better we get at it, and reading in another language is no different. However, current research in ESL/EFL suggests that not all learners can become proficient readers based on exposure alone. Teachers must find strategies to help improve learners’ reading skills.

A brief history of 2nd language reading trends

Thirty years ago, reading was all about meaning: top down skills. Teachers were encouraged to activate a learner’s prior knowledge in order to build schemata from which learners could form ideas around, thus increasing comprehension. Nowadays, however, there has been a shift to focus more on learners’ bottom-up skills, and assure literal comprehension of the text first.

The Top-down Approach

This approach focuses on “meaningful” learning. Reading becomes a dialog between the text and reader. It relies on Schema Theory, which, briefly, says that a reader’s experience and background knowledge is essential for understanding a text. Types of reading activities that focus on this approach are:

predicting the text using titles, pictureswriting a journal entry about a time the learner had a similar experienceexpressing an opinion or reaction to the textwriting a summary of the text or of the author’s point of view taking notes in the margin of the main ideas of each paragraphrelating the text to something in current events

The Bottom-up Approach

This approach focuses on the smaller units of language that help us decode a message: word and structure recognition, the sound-letter relationship, making meaning of syntactic units (phrases and sentences). The argument is that, without a literal or fundamental understanding of the language, no top-down processing can occur. Improving bottom-up skills can create faster readers, as learners improve their sight-word recognition. Examples of reading activities that exhibit this approach are:

finding or underlining examples of tenses (e.g. future, past) or grammar structures (e.g. prepositions of place, conditional sentences) scanning a text for specific information (e.g. someone’s age, the population of a country)making a timeline of the events in the textfinding synonyms or definitions for words in bold

An interactive approach

Although many teachers often favor one approach over the other, it can be argued that both have their place in the language classroom. In fact, the two approaches tend to be compensatory – learners weak in a bottom-up approach compensate by using top-down skills, and vice versa. The two approaches also influence one another – if bottom-up skills are ignored, there is the risk of misunderstanding the basic meaning from which top-down skills are built. On the other hand, if top-down skills are ignored, learners become passive readers, and do not develop the analytical skills important to good readers. As with most things in teaching, it is necessary to create a balance between the two.


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