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Learning to Orchestrate Acts of Reading, Using Top-down and Bottom-up Skills

I believe much of the misunderstanding over the Alberta Language Arts curriculum arises out of fundamental misconceptions of the act of reading.  In this brief piece, I explore how capable readers orchestrate many different elements of word recognition, comprehension, association, and reflection, all at the same time.  The intense focus of the curriculum on the word recognition aspect of reading fails to acknowledge the broader complexity of how we interpret meaning from print, and it does not make time available for children to develop and refine a broader skill set.

Bottom-up and top-down

Reading is a complex activity that is achieved on the strength of at least two different kinds of activity, often referred to as bottom-up and top-down. Phonics works from the bottom up; at the sight of a page of print, readers should have the option of sounding out an unknown word. Fluent reading permits this kind of decoding to work automatically and swiftly. Much of the anxiety over early reading occurs in the learning period before that automaticity is achieved.

Yet readers who can only work from the bottom up are confined to a slow and tedious process; in many cases deciphering individual words calls for such laborious and detailed attention to the specific set of letters that the working memory is overloaded before the reader can assemble enough words to make sense of the sentence. Many of us have heard beginning readers painfully working through a single word at a time without ever understanding the larger whole, and it is everybody’s ambition to develop children’s fluency beyond this word-by-word approach. Top-down strategies are vital to reduce the cognitive load so that meaningful and enjoyable reading becomes possible.

Top-down strategies include the skills of noticing patterns and making reasonable predictions. The value of a prediction is that it narrows the options that must be assessed while progressing through a sentence. Even when a word makes phonetic sense, it may be meaningless in the context of a sentence or a paragraph, and children need to be able to deal with this kind of discrepancy in ways that are tolerably reliable.  This top-down awareness is grounded by accountability to the actual words on the page, but it is not limited to rote recitation of what the letters present; it helps shape a reader’s awareness of the more extensive and complete communication of the whole text.

Many parents intuitively start early to equip their children with both top-down and bottom-up knowledge. For example, young children learn that their own name is composed of letters – and that there are other letters in the world. They may learn the alphabet and even start to gain some sense of the links between letters and sounds. They learn which way is up in a book, and sometimes they learn about reading left to right in English, or that a word is a separate item on a page defined in part by the white space that divides it from the next word.

At the same time, children who are regularly read to, at home or elsewhere, begin to understand that stories work in patterned ways, and that some of these patterns are predictable. They learn that words and pictures may work together, in complementary or contradictory ways, to create a complete text that is larger than a simple accumulation of letters. They learn that their own private associations feed into their interpretation of the words in their text to help bring them to life in the mind.  They learn that the overarching purpose of reading is to enlarge understanding in ways that are more successful when they are interesting and pleasurable. 

The new ELA curriculum is far, far too focused on bottom-up strategies. It may well be that some children benefit from some extra emphasis on the bottom-up aspects of reading (and their parents are reasonably hoping that this additional focus will speed them to that desired point of fluency and automaticity). But no child is well served in the long run by an approach that misleads them into thinking that proficient readers use only bottom-up skills. No capable reader reads exclusively by means of focusing on the phonetic construction of the words; such an approach is far too inefficient to be successful. Successful readers weave a text out of bottom-up and top-down data.  They draw on the strengths of a “both/and” approach.

The focus on bottom-up in the new curriculum is so intensive that top-down is lost in the mix (or implicitly degraded as “guessing,” just one short step away from outright “cheating”). The curriculum is too crowded with bottom-up to leave the vital time needed to develop the top-down awareness.  Adding awareness of the value of top-down thinking is particularly crucial for children who do not have pre-school experience of the written language; it also matters very greatly for children learning in a second or further language, who may well be importing top-down ideas from a cultural repertoire that is not always helpful for learning the conventions of stories in English (though rich and rewarding in its own terms). This curriculum is so hyper-focused on explicit learning that it leaves no room for developing those tacit understandings that also, and equally essentially feed successful reading.

Acknowledging the vital importance of top-down strategies is not the same as rejecting the significance of bottom-up strategies (although some bottom-up proponents seem to dismiss any top-down strategy whatsoever). We need a curriculum that does not crowd out vital top-down understanding to obsess over bottom-up strategies at the exclusion of all else.

To become a successful reader, a child must learn to orchestrate a number of cognitive activities at once.  Learning to read is often compared to learning to ride a bike.  As with bike riding, readers must learn to manage different strategic elements at the same time in a process of mental orchestration.  With bike riding, a learner must figure out how to combine staying upright with moving forward.  We are all familiar with that magical moment when the learner rider takes off without falling over. 

For readers to achieve such a moment of take-off, they not only must decode the words on the page or screen in front of them but must also begin to activate the sense of those words in their minds, which can only happen as the words are combined in meaningful patterns.  Initially, just as with bike riding, there will be some wobbles, as readers learn to recognize words and to combine them to make sense.  A reader who can only process a list of words, real and/or nonsensical, is not yet really reading.  As well as developing a sense of accountability to the words, a reader needs to achieve forward momentum through the text.

There are sciences of reading.  There are also arts of reading.  Readers do not move in lockstep through identical stages in exactly the same order, and to insist that they do so (as this curriculum so frequently insists) is to reduce their chances of learning the crucial skills of orchestrating, of meshing many component elements of textual interpretation in individual, dynamic, and successful ways. 

This curriculum effectively offers Alberta’s children the equivalent of a stationary bike that stays upright but goes nowhere (able to decode a list of words with accuracy but not equipped to progress autonomously through a meaningful text, let alone to reflect critically about it). Extending my metaphor perhaps to breaking point, it seems fair to me to observe that, for many children, this restricted experience will not only deny them the opportunity to learn how to balance upright and move ahead at the same time, but will also make it impossible for them to ride their bikes (or their books) into new territory, learning new lessons about the world. 

My comparison perhaps looks less extravagant when we consider that this world that they cannot reach with their non-moving bikes includes many aspects of English language arts that are deliberately omitted or under-represented in the new curriculum: 

  • true in-depth learning about ways of writing;
  • the excitement and joy of reading for pleasure, becoming ever more sophisticated readers in the process; 
  • the many aspects of critical literacy that will enable them to withstand the pressures of commercial surveillance and seduction in our contemporary culture;
  • the multiple strands of digital literacy;
  • the creative capacity to express thoughts and values in different media forms and formats;
  • the deep meaning of representing oneself in the world and also of finding oneself textually represented by others;
  • and more.

There simply isn’t room for necessary exploration in these vital zones in a day crowded with obligatory drill.  Worse, the curriculum doesn’t even map these vital elements of literacy as important territory. 

Alberta children deserve better than what this curriculum offers.  Alberta society, today and tomorrow, needs better.  We know how to do better; the time has come to start again.

Further reading

a) This open access Canadian article by Joe Stouffer from The Reading Teacher explores reader (and teacher) strategies that draw on the strengths of both bottom-up and top-down approaches.

“Seeking Middle Ground: Analyzing Running Records from the Top and Bottom”

b) This article from the International Literacy Association’s Reading Research Quarterly does not have an open access version that I could locate.  It is well worth reading, however, if you can get your hands on it, both for its discussion of how readers learn to orchestrate complex behaviours over time, and for its broad evidence base drawing on different disciplinary approaches.  The ResearchGate citation of this article opens a route to requesting a copy directly from the authors.  It is a more accessible read than it might sound from the title and the journal.

“A Confluence of Complexity:  Intersections among Reading Theory, Neuroscience, and Observations of Young Readers”

Catherine F. Compton-Lilly, Ayan Mitra, Mary Guay, and Lucy K. Spence.

First published 2020 in Reading Research Quarterly 55(S1), pp. S185-S195.

Journal link (most academic libraries will offer access to this journal, but here is the external paywall link through the publisher):

ResearchGate link: