Using an Interactive Reading Model for Instruction

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn about bottom-up and top-down approaches to reading and their shortcomings. Then, you'll discover how an interactive reading model aims for the best of both worlds.

Ways of Teaching Reading

Two reading teachers are having a debate at their lunch table.

One teacher says, ''Students must first learn the basics of how to actually understand the particular words on the page when reading. Only after they master this can they understand bigger concepts like themes and symbolism.'' As he talks, he finds himself waving a piece of string cheese from his lunch for emphasis.

The other teacher heartily disagrees. She momentarily considers throwing her pickle at the other teacher in protest, but thinks better of this. ''I totally disagree!'' she exclaims. ''Students don't have to know the meaning of each and every word in a text before they can understand the big ideas of what they're reading.''

Before a food fight ensues, another more experienced teacher chimes in. ''You both have a point. Have you considered the interactive reading model?''

The two arguing teachers put down their tasty weapons of pickle and string cheese. They spend the rest of their lunch listening to the mentoring teacher explain more about this approach.

A Bottom-Up Approach

The mentoring teacher starts by explaining that the two extremes they are debating are known as top-down and bottom-up reading models.

The teacher who waved his string cheese as he argued for learning vocabulary is a fan of a bottom-up approach to reading. He favors an emphasis on actually comprehending each word and guides his class to do drills, so they get good at reading and spelling a variety of words. His students tend to be skilled at quickly reading a text.

There are some shortcomings to this method. Sometimes his students are able to get through an entire text without having much of a clue about the meaning of it. He's not too bothered by this because he feels it's much more important to understand the actual graphical, visual letters, words and sentences in a text. However, if he's honest, he can admit that his students seem to be missing the ability to fully understand what they are reading.

You can remember the term ''bottom-up'' by thinking of a student sitting at a desk with a book in her hands. The bottom, in this case, is the book itself. A bottom-up approach is concerned mainly with the book itself (the 'bottom') and less concerned at first with the context and ideas in a reader's mind (the 'top').

A Top-Down Approach

A top-down approach heads in the opposite direction. A student's own mind (the 'top') is key for this model, rather than focusing only on the text itself. A top-down approach emphasizes meaning and themes, rather than the letters and words that make up the text.

The teacher who was dangerously close to throwing her pickle across the lunch table is a fan of this method. She can't understand why a teacher would take a bottom-up approach, which is so concerned with trying to decode every word on the page. She's much more interested in her students getting engaged with a book's topic and relating to its themes. She believes that students bring so much of their own context to reading. She finds it irrelevant to drill them on vocabulary words before exposing them to really good and interesting literature.

However, if she's really honest, she'll admit that her model isn't perfect. Her students don't always have the language skills they really need to get through a text. They may get the major themes, but have missed some finer points because they had to skip over a good amount of words to finish.

Interactive Reading Model

The mentoring teacher explains that the interactive reading model is basically a combination of both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The model attempts to address the shortcomings of each.

A reader may switch between approaches and use them in conjunction with one another as needed. A teacher using this model would not discourage a student's focus on learning to interpret specific words, but also would encourage a student to develop an interest in the larger meaning of a text.

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