There comes a point at which understanding and studying language from a top-down perspective is just about impossible without a good understanding of the details. In this way, a bottom-up approach to foreign language study is necessary. This is not easy, however. In some instances, it requires looking closely at grammatical forms that are used less frequently and that might be more complicated. It also requires learning and teaching vocabulary with a lexical approach. A bottom-up approach to ESL/EFL learning is further complicated by reduced forms, or reductions, which occur in the everyday speech of people whose first language is English. Students might feel that English is quite mysterious and complex. I think it is not often enough that a bottom-up approach is used in the ESL/EFL classroom. The opportunity for a bottom-up approach to learning and teaching English might not present itself in all its forms in the first place. One has to allow bottom-up to present itself. This will begin to assist students in unlocking the mystery. The ESL/EFL classroom can, at times, shelter students from the reality of how English is used. Guidance from an ESL/EFL teacher with an objective viewpoint and whose first language is English is, therefore, indispensable to the ESL/EFL learner.
Taking a bottom-up approach to ESL/EFL learning and teaching can help unravel some of the complexities involved in becoming a proficient speaker and listener of English as a second or foreign language. In order to go beyond the high-intermediate level in ESL/EFL studies, a bottom-up approach to learning and teaching is absolutely necessary. Still, one should take note that students at lower levels can also become frustrated by not understanding everything in a given text. Ultimately, it's the teacher's responsibility to show ESL/EFL students how they can take a bottom-up approach to their independent study of English. Of course, students have to do their part as well. The student who wants to progress will take on this responsibility. Part of teaching a language is showing how to learn a language; part of learning a language is understanding that a great deal of learning occurs outside of the classroom by means of independent study, speaking practice, and exposure to the language.
One has to know where to begin and what to learn next. At a certain point, the secret of what to learn next lies in a bottom-up approach to language study. There is a lot of focus on grammar, and that's necessary. Grammatical accuracy is important to the student who aspires to reach a high level of proficiency. However, language is complex, and grammar alone will not allow one to rise to the true level of understanding that one might desire. ESL/EFL Grammar books present forms separately and apart from one another. While this form of learning and teaching is practical and necessary, it is in opposition to how language is really used and understood. Texts which show grammar in context must be brought into the ESL/EFL classroom at all levels. At the beginner level, this is easier said than done. At more advanced levels, formal language cannot be fully processed and understood without showing it side by side with informal language. The distinction between formal language and informal language is not always clear; the lines are sometimes blurred. It is not always easy to say what formal language is and what informal language is. Authentic texts are necessary in order to understand this.
While it may challenge and frustrate some learners, the introduction of texts which are more complicated is necessary if one is to bring bottom-up learning and teaching to the ESL/EFL classroom. One could say that more complicated texts are, in fact, authentic texts. It might be impossible to understand a text using a top-down approach. The proficient speaker of English, or speaker whose first language is English, more often employs a top-down approach to listening and understanding in real-life circumstances, whereas the less proficient ESL/EFL learner might become easily frustrated at what seems to be his or her lack of ability to do the same. The teacher should then ask: what impedes understanding? Certainly, one's level of expression is limited by one's ability to understand. However, a higher level of understanding does not guarantee a higher level of expression. Automatic processing is necessary to achieve a higher level of expression. Automatic processing becomes more accessible to one who aspires to reach a high level of proficiency as one gets a handle on more of the details and intricacies of English. It is difficult to progress if one is continually burdened by having to analyze the language in one's environment in order to understand it and respond to it. Language can be complex and full of subtleties. Bottom-up is the way forward if one is to reach a high level of proficiency as a speaker, listener, writer, and reader of English. The teacher should not only be the students' guide to learning and understanding, but should also show students how they can be their own guides to learning and understanding.
Students: Do you require a high level of proficiency? If so, do you know where to begin?
Teachers: Do you understand what your students require?
Copyright 2005 Steven David Bloomberg