ELT Journal

‘Bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ John Field ELT J 53:338-339, 1999. doi:10.1093/elt/53.4.338

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learners appear to make considerable use of top-down information: employing it compensatorily to plug gaps where their understanding of a text is incomplete. 'top-down' is more complex than is sometimes suggested. So note that the term 'top-down' is not always synonymous with 'contextual'. Drawing on this concept of levels of processing. it is not certain that bottom-up processing involves all the levels described. the vexed question of the use of bottomup and top-down information by foreign-language learners. where knowledge of complete words influences the way we perceive sounds or letters. 338 Like 'bottom-up' processing. that it is only employed after a word has been identified. In truth. which are said to be activated to different degrees according to how closely they match the signal.Key concepts in ELT 'Bottom-up' and 'top-down' In accounts of foreign-language listening and reading. This kind of effect is appropriately described as 'top-down' since it involves knowledge at a higher level affecting processing at a lower. A simple analysis might present the listener as combining groups of features into phonemes. where they distinguish processes that are data-driven from those that are knowledge-driven. in which topdown and bottom-up processes extend simultaneously through all levels. but derive originally from computer science. where one word sparks off associations with others. others. one of them outstrips the rest. and assembling sentences must all be going on in parallel. Also unspecified in many accounts of L2 reading and listening is the way in which bottom-up and top-down processes interact. The best account of this process is ELT Journal Volume 53/4 October 1999 © Oxford University Press 1999 . In listening. that it becomes available during the perceptual process. There is evidence that in listening it takes place at a delay of only a quarter of a second behind the speaker—which implies that the tasks of analysing the phonetic signal. when the evidence is complete. words into clauses. Contextual information can come from many different sources: from knowledge of the speaker/writer or from knowledge of the world. or it can be based upon the probability of one word following another. The listener forms hypotheses as to the identity of the word being uttered. from analogy with a previous situation or from the meaning that has been built up so far. they cite evidence of word superiority effects. or do they operate simultaneously? The evidence from LI research is contradictory. A truism of ELT has it that low-level listeners and readers become fixated at word level. In support of such models. identifying words. Underlying the metaphors 'top' and 'bottom' is a hierarchical view of the stages through which listening or reading proceeds. Some findings suggest that contextual information is invoked before perception. perceptual information is often described as 'bottom-up'. phonemes into syllables. others that we construct words directly from phonetic features. and is influenced throughout by top-down information from context. Nor does bottom-up processing deal with one level at a time.e. and clauses into propositions. The candidates compete with each other until. helping us to anticipate words. others. an expectation set up before reading or listening. The truth is rather more complex. many ELT commentators present a picture of listening and reading in which bottom-up information from the signal is assembled step by step. the smallest unit) is the phonetic feature. Some psychologists believe that we process speech into syllables without passing through a phonemic level. First. into which new information is integrated as it emerges. It can be derived from a schema. syllables into words. It is important to specify which of these cues is intended when the expression 'top-down' is employed. Does one occur before the other. the lowest level (i. while information provided by context is said to be 'top-down'. Finally. and do not have enough spare attentional capacity to construct global meaning. Some researchers argue for completely interactive models of listening and reading. it can take the form of spreading activation. A quarter of a second is roughly the length of an English syllable—so the listener often begins the processing of a word before the speaker has finished saying it. The terms have been borrowed from cognitive psychology. At the 'top' is the overall meaning of the utterance. Goodman's much-quoted view (1970) that successful readers guess ahead using current context has not been conclusively demonstrated.

Currently. K. J. 1970.). the most influential model of LI listening is the fully-interactive Cohort Model (Marslen-Wilson 1987). References Goodman. 1987: 'Functional parallelism in spoken word recognition'. K. for example. the more we draw upon cues from top-down sources. He is about to complete a PhD on listening at Cambridge University. Modern Language Journal 75: 196-204. DE: International Reading Association. 1991: 'A comparison of second language listening and reading comprehension'. Stanovich. Singer and R. Perfetti. He has trained teachers in Europe. or ambient noise). see Oakhill and Garnham (1988). originally formulated for LI reading. E-mail: jcfl000@dircon. Garnham. Cognition 25. Newark. Ruddell (eds. Oakhill. and national secondary school coursebooks for Saudi Arabia. and A. E. and Chapters 2-3 of Perfetti (1985). Stanovich suggests that we use contextual information to make up for unreliability in the signal (bad handwriting. Oxford: Blackwell. D. the Far East. C. and Africa. S. B. the Middle East. His publications include listening and study skills materials. Lund. Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading. 1985. Marslen-Wilson. 1988. R.provided by Stanovich's interactive-compensatory mechanism (1980). New York: Oxford University Press. Becoming a Skilled Reader.: 'Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game' in H. and lectures on the MA course in ELT and Applied Linguistics at Kings College London. 1980: 'Toward an interactivecompensatory model of individual differences in the development of reading fluency'.co. Reading Ability. J. distance-learning materials for Chinese television. W.uk Key concepts in ELT 339 . a BBC radio series for beginners. This seems to describe accurately the way in which L2 learners resort to top-down inferencing when understanding is impaired by limited vocabulary or syntax. Reading Research Quarterly 16: 32-71. A. The strategy may be more common in listening than in reading: see Lund (1991). The more flawed the bottom-up information. The author John Field has a long-term interest in skills approaches in ELT. For accounts of the role of bottom-up and topdown processes in LI reading.

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