The Top Down Model Reading Process, which involves reading chunks of text, is the polar opposite of the paradigm taught in schools for decades, a process called Bottom Up where students decoded vocabulary before reading began. A literature review of Top Down indicates a strong break with tradition, especially in vocabulary assimilation; some theorists suggest neither process is entirely satisfactory.
The Top Down Method Explained
The Top Down method asks students to bring their own sense of self and understanding to literature by reading whole segments of text without dissecting vocabulary. Meaning is then extrapolated "as a whole" through the student's knowledge. As an example, Top Down used in a complex work such as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" would involve the readers' understanding of gang mentality, the generation gap and the compulsive nature of young people in love. All of this knowledge is already understood, argue the theorists, at the high school level.
Top Down Vocabulary in Context
Top Down breaks with the vocabulary-saturated models of Chall in favor of the theories of Goodman and Smith, who argue that the reading student, confronted with an unfamiliar word, will reason it out based on context. To return to Shakespeare, the phrase "Do you quarrel, sir?" would depend on the student's realization that a fight is about to take place, and "quarrel" in Shakespeare's context is a physical altercation. Staging the work in class, for example, while reading it gives valuable context that obviates the need for extensive vocabulary lists.
Top Down, Bottom Up Intersection
Rayner and Pollatsek in their experimental work in reading psychology determined that neither Top Down nor Bottom Up processes were entirely satisfactory alone. The two researchers created a detailed construct of the intersecting of the two processes in the teaching of reading, wherein they theorized that a reading student's own lexicon, or personal vocabulary cache, and the phonetic nature of sounding out the words, surpassed the contextual process that Top Down advocates. Unfortunately, despite experimental evidence that supports the theory, the actual process is still undetermined.
Top Down Gaining
The literature review of the process suggests that, despite reservations, Top Down is gaining momentum both with educators and students; Rebecca Treiman, despite her predilection for Bottom Up, argues for Top Down's efficacy as a natural adjunct to any form of comprehension. Children and even infants comprehend experience as a whole; reading, most argue, should duplicate that learning paradigm.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.