Converting squiggles on the page or screen into meaningful messages

By Jenny Hardacre
TEFL teacher and trainer with 30 years experience

Converting squiggles on the page or screen into meaningful messages

There are two types of process involved in reading; bottom-up and top-down.  Bottom-up is the process of decoding the symbols on the page or screen starting with the smallest unit, so that C-A-T is converted to the sounds /k/ /æ/ /t/ and the word is understood, the words are combined to understand the sentences and so on “…the reader first processes the smallest linguistic unit, gradually compiling the smaller units to decipher and comprehend the higher units (e.g., sentence syntax).” Emerald. 1991. (Quoted on Lingualinks )

Top-down processes involve readers bringing their knowledge of the world and of written texts to help  them predict the content of what they are going to read. So for example if I am in the doctor’s waiting room and I pick up a copy of Cat Lover’s Gazette, which has a big picture of a cute ginger kitten on the front cover, I don’t even need to decode C-A-T to work out that I’m going to read about cats, most likely positive articles about cats and there will be a lot of cat related vocabulary.

Students reading in a foreign language tend to over focus on the bottom up process, reading the words one by one and panicking as soon as they see something unfamiliar. This makes it very difficult for them to reach a global understanding of the text and means they tend to read very slowly. The first three stages of the procedure I gave last time are designed to get students to the stage the native speaker is already at when s/he picks up the copy of Cat Lover’s Gazette.

Selecting Vocabulary for pre-teaching

An obvious disadvantage language learners face is that there is likely to be a lot of vocabulary they don’t know. When you are planning a reading lesson, look through the text and pick out the words and phrases your students may not know. This often raises a problem – we are recommended to teach a maximum of 12 new lexical items in a lesson but texts usually contain more new words than that. Give first priority to those that students will ready need to know in order  to understand the text – the keywords. One way of judging this is to copy the text and black out all the words they won’t know, then decide which it would be most useful to put back in.  If the keywords you have chosen total less than twelve you should then select items that are most likely to be useful to your students. If you’re unsure, there are lots of websites that list the most frequently used words in English, for example

I welcome comments, questions and suggestions for future blogs so don’t hesitate to get in touch on the comment form below.

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2 Responses to “Converting squiggles on the page or screen into meaningful messages”

  1. Andrew Sigler
    October 29, 2013 at 6:20 pm #


    My name is Andrew Sigler and I’m a regional editor for New Music Box, the online presence for New Music USA. I wanted to ask your permission to use the squiggle above in a story I’m doing about graphic notation in music. I was looking for an analogy concerning layman and written language to relate to conventionally trained musicians who read from graphic scores. I can be reached at the attached address and my work can be found at new music box dot org.

    Thanks so much!

    Andy Sigler

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