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TEFL Masterclass – Developing Top-Down & Bottom-Up Reading Skills

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Ben Crompton – ELT Trainer & Director of Studies Amanda’s School

Ben Crompton’s educational journey commenced in 2007 and fully ignited after obtaining his CELTA certification in 2011. Today, as the Director of Studies at Amanda’s School in Spain, his dedication bears fruit as former students often return with heartfelt expressions of gratitude. Renowned for workshops on pronunciation and sustainable teaching practices, Ben is a versatile professional constantly evolving as a trainer, manager, teacher, and writer. His unwavering commitment is to craft memorable learning experiences, making a lasting impact on his students’ lives.

What you will learn

Reading in English can be a tough skill for learners to master. Whilst many might choose to focus on speaking and listening instead, any learner taking a formal qualification in English needs to be able to read confidently to achieve success. This is no mean feat, especially as much of our course material tends to assess reading rather than teach it, whilst our learners seem less and less interested in reading outside of class. But there is hope.

This highly practical workshop takes sound pedagogical theory and matches it with tried and tested techniques that will help your learners become more confident and independent readers. We will explore what a traditional model to teaching reading often looks like and why it might not be effective. We will then look at how we read a text, and why the combination of top-down and bottom-up processes are essential to focus on in our classes. Using this as a basis, I’ll show you ten short activities you can use with virtually any text to help learners develop those processes.

Workshop Summary

Introduction to Reading Skills Development

Ben Crumpton, in his masterclass, emphasises refining both top-down and bottom-up reading skills. Rather than following conventional teaching methods, the focus should be on the actual processes proficient readers use when interpreting a text.

Addressing Learner Challenges

Many students undervalue reading, often favouring speaking and listening. Despite its critical role in assessment and career contexts, reading can be sidelined. There’s a tendency among educators to teach reading in traditional ways, even if ineffective. Crumpton suggests fine-tuning existing methods rather than complete overhauls, focusing on reading as a vital skill.

Critique of Traditional Reading Lessons

Conventional reading lessons, typically teacher-led, involve pre-reading, reading, and post-reading phases. Such lessons might treat reading as a passive activity. However, research suggests that learners actively engage with texts, underlining the need for teaching to recognise reading as a dynamic process.

The Dual Nature of Text Processing

Highlighting the differences between top-down and bottom-up processing, Crumpton uses a BBC Wales News article. Top-down processing leans on pre-existing knowledge, like knowing about Queen Elizabeth, while bottom-up processing is about linguistic understanding. Both strategies work in tandem when reading. Relying solely on comprehension tests may not be the best educational approach, as real-life reading skills differ.

Prioritising Top-down Reading Skills

The top-down approach involves understanding a text’s broader context before delving into specifics. Educators should introduce questions about the overall meaning, recognising the evolving reading habits of contemporary learners. Social media texts can be a valuable tool in engaging learners. Group activities centred on long texts can facilitate comprehension and familiarise students with text structures. Encouraging prediction before reading can also enhance understanding.

The Importance of Bottom-up Reading Skills

Bottom-up skills, which focus on specifics, shouldn’t be ignored. Techniques such as identifying reference words, unpacking sentence structures, and understanding word pairs or “collocations” are paramount. Teaching students about simple words and connectors can be done effectively using visual aids or multiple-choice questions.

Conclusion: A Balanced Approach

A comprehensive reading proficiency requires a balance. Both top-down and bottom-up strategies are vital, with each offering a unique perspective. Teachers should incorporate exercises focusing on both approaches to ensure well-rounded reading skill development.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. What was the last reading you did in class? What did you do?
  2. What aspects of reading do your learners find most challenging?
  3. Do your reading activities / lessons usually include assessment of reading comprehension? If yes – what do these assessments look like?
  4. Do you include top-down and bottom-up strategies when you teach reading? If yes – what do you do? If no – what would you like to try?
  • Crompton, B. (2022) Are we making tomorrow’s text any easier?Ben Crompton ELT. Available at: https://bencromptonelt.wordpress.com/2022/03/13/are-we-making-tomorrows-text-any-easier/ (Accessed: 08 September 2023).
  • Crompton, B. (2023) Teacher trainingBen Crompton ELT. Available at: https://bencromptonelt.wordpress.com/workshops/ (Accessed: 08 September 2023).
  • Grabe, W. (2009) Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Macalister, J. (2010) ‘Today’s teaching, tomorrow’s text: Exploring the teaching of reading’, ELT Journal, 65(2), pp. 161–169. doi:10.1093/elt/ccq023.
  • Nation, I.S.P. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL reading and writing. Routledge.

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