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Bottom-Up Language Learning

In bottom-up language learning, the student learns individual words and other basic elements of language, and then moves up to more complex structures of language. On the other hand, in top-down learning, the student begins with trying to a get a broad sense of the language as a whole, and then filling in the blanks as they emerge. Bottom-up language learning is common in schools, even though it may not really mimic how a child tends to actually learn language. 

Teaching strategies used in basic learning

Bottom-up language learning is a teaching strategy that starts with basic language units and moves on to more complex structures. This is the most common technique used to teach students their native language or introduce a new foreign language.

Language teachers using bottom-up language learning begin with basic words and eventually start using them in very small sentences. As students learn new words, instructors teach them how to use more advanced sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. Eventually students learn even more advanced terminology, mechanics, and proper usage. 

The United States employs bottom-up language learning to teach K-12 American English. High schools, colleges, and, even the Department of State, endorse bottom-up language learning strategies to teach French, Spanish, and other common foreign languages.

Integrating bottom-up learning in the classroom

Bottom-up language learning comes in many forms. Teachers use kinetic, visual, and audial learning strategies to help students retain vocabulary and learn grammar mechanics. One of the most popular devices is flash cards.

Teachers use flashcards in elementary school to show students the relationship between the word and an image on the back. For example, on the front, an image of a red apple helps students remember the word, and they say apple. When the flashcard is reversed, the proper spelling is displayed. Teachers also add songs and sound games to the flashcards to aid in memmory (called assonance). These memory devices help students repeatedly recite the information and eventually retain it permanently.

Reading aloud is another method used by teachers. Students will read a book, essay, or article and take turns reciting the paragraphs. Elementary teachers use books with pictures to help students see the correlation between the words they are reading and action.

But these bottom-up language learning methods are not reserved for elementary or, even, high school students. Colleges use the same image and word correlation to teach students a new language. Most first-year Spanish classes start with common the same words and sentence structure kindergarten teachers use in their classrooms. And college language textbooks use more images and illustrations than traditional texts.

Bottom-up learning - Is it effective?

Researchers long ago debated the two views of how people learn and understand language – bottom-up and top-down language learning. However, most instructors believe these two distinct systems actually complement the other. The two forms may have similar attributes, but each one is very different and offers several approaches that have unique advantages.

Top-down language learning restructures current language knowledge to make it easier to process new languages. Listeners actively reconstruct the original meaning of the speaker using incoming sounds and other signals like body language as clues. Prior knowledge of context and situation enables us to make sense of what we hear. A native speaker, for example, may completely zone out while hearing the news, then snatch a few brief cues that quickly draw him in. Similarly, when we begin a phone conversation to make an appointment, we shift into formal speech-patterns for such situations. 

On the other hand, bottom-up language learning assumes listening is a process of learning sounds and the letters of the alphabet. Students start with the smallest units, and gradually decode them until they understand the content. Although bottom-up theories of the reading process explain the decoding part of the reading process rather well, there is certainly more to reading than decoding. To become readers, students must compare their knowledge and background experiences to the text in order to understand the author’s message. Truly, the whole purpose of reading is comprehension.

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