Article Taking a Bottom-up Approach to Learning and Teaching English


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

Categories: General Topics, Speaking Out, Teacher Articles

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Top-down or bottom-up, it depends on how a teacher uses his or her teaching skills to interest the students in various grades. The top-down also has lots of advantages in helping students whose understandings of English listening, speaking, reading, and writing are close to the native speakers, if students are given sufficient questions to practice each day. English grammer is thought to be intricate is because of its structures being unable to be explained and exercised well in the classroom. Not because of the two methods in use are not in practice. Students need more time to digest what the teacher was saying after school. An English spoken student needs ten minutes to review the lessons while a non-English spoken student needs more times to review. The important things is not the method you choose to teach or learn, but the willpower and patient to teach or learn.

I am very disappointed by your comment about the necessity to be an English native speaker in order to efficiently teach ESL/EFL. As explain by many researchers, it is impossible for a foreigner to achieve the same fluency in English as a native speaker. This is due to the fact that a language should be acquired and not learnt (see Krashen).
However, the foreigners have other skills to offer that better correspond to the needs of the learners. Foreigners often have a far better understanding of the English grammar, and they understand that there are some rules behind the "intuition" of the native speakers. This allow the foreigners to better teach writing, where the students have to make full use of the Monitor (see Krashen again).
On the opposite,I would agree that the native speakers are better to teach speaking. But since this skill should be mainly acquired, I don't really understand the need for a grammar-based bottom-up approach to teach it.

I think it all depends solely on the quality of the individual native or non-native teacher, though the market does tend to favour the native speaker. However, your view of native speakers relying on intuition and not knowing the rules of grammar is something of a false picture; trained native speaker teachers will also know the grammar, and many of them will also have experience of learning other languages etc.

Your claim that non-native teachers have the skills that better correspond to the needs of the learners is a generalisation in more ways than one; it assumes that native speakers don't have these skills and assumes that the requirements of learners are the same. How does your experience automatically make you better able to deal with, say, someone who is illiterate in their own language and has had to flee to another country under duress? Or someone who is taking an LLM to learn about case law and the implications it has for their country on joining the WTO? These are both examples of people I have taught whose needs were very different and won't be met simply by having an in-depth knowledge of the grammar of English.

Teaching writing is not simply about grammar, and not a ingle thing; it ranges from literacy to book length texts, etc. Neither grammar rules nor intuition will help much if you're teaching how to format an academic essay.

I have nothing against non-native teachers; I have known many excellent ones, employed some of those and am happy to have contributions from them on the site. I also know that the market can be unfair; non-native teachers are often paid less and given worse conditions, which I don't approve of- people should be paid and treated the same for the same work.

However, your argument uses cartoon stereotypes of both native and non-native teachers. Yes, there are plenty of backpacker natives bluffing and intuiting their way through in dodgy schools, but I wouldn't even accept that they were teachers; to be a genuine teacher does require a level of professional skill and training, so both the native and non-native teacher should have a solid grounding in their field. I also feel that teachers should be graduates and dislike the fact that the CELTA has set entry requirements so low; educators should be educated. Being in an ESL classroom does not mean that a person is a teacher; many are there simply to justify charging the fees. I do see that it is disheartening to see a native speaker sap who knows nothing and is trying to get the cash to continue travelling given an unmerited prestige, especially if they're paid more. I do feel sorry for the Filipinos employed by certain unscrupulous schools and paid less as they get classified as non-native speakers.

Nevertheless, it is a long jump from that to claiming that non-native speakers can, as a homogeneous band, teach writing better than native speakers. I have come across native speakers whose level of knowledge is appalling and who have gt into a classroom. This, however, is more about the dynamics of the profession than a clear assessment of native speaker teachers' knowledge. In many schools here in SE Asia, having a pulse and being able to stand is sufficient qualification for a teaching position, but this is the rough end and you cannot extrapolate a position from that to encompass the whole profession.

BTW, shouldn't you make your Krashen references a teensie bit more specific?

I have been teaching for five years the¨bottom-up¨approach which is the inductive method, where communicative competence reigns over linguistic competence. However,there should be a balance between the two when it comes to paying attention to the student´s needs and goals when using the language.

I agree about the need for balance- sometimes education is a bit like a pendulum and moves too far in one direction.

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