Teaching Reading: Final Paper (Part 1)

My final paper for my Instructional Practices for Reading Teachers was made up of 5 short essays in response to 5 prompts about teaching reading. Here is the first prompt and my essay response. Stay tuned! Parts 2-5 will be posted over the next week or so.

Compare and contrast the bottom-up curriculum and the top-down curriculum. Discuss instructional objectives, materials, learning environment, instructional strategies, and assessment.

Both the bottom-up and the top-down models are similar in that they have the same objective: a concern with imparting a holistic understanding of the text. They differ in beliefs about how that holistic understanding is best reached. The “bottom” in the bottom-up model can be defined as the ability to recognize and understand the basic phonetic and phonological elements that make up the English language (Vacca, et al., 2015). The “top” is an understanding of the meaning conveyed by the coherent arrangement of alphabetic print as words (Vacca, et al., 2015). The bottom-up hypothesis, then, states that the bottom, or gaining an understanding of phonetics and phonology, will lead to the top, or an understanding of the meaning conveyed in the text. The top-down philosophy is the exact opposite: the belief that gaining and having an understanding of the meaning conveyed is more important than and will actually lead to an understanding of the phonetic technicalities.

Materials used in the bottom-up patterned classroom are focused on an encoding of the technicalities of the written language. Flashcards with phonetic sounds on them, basal readers, and phonics worksheets are a few examples (Vacca, et al., 2015). Top-down structured classrooms would use materials that foster reading and writing for meaning, centered around meaningful books that students have self-selected or the teacher has chosen based on their relevant content (Vacca, et al., 2015). Top-down classrooms stress having an availability of writing materials, as writing is taught simultaneously with reading (Vacca, et al., 2015).

The learning environment for the bottom-up model is one that is concerned with complete mastery of phonological and phonetic principles (Vacca, et al., 2015). Teachers from this method believe that before an understanding of meaning can be gained, the student must have a concrete understanding of the typology. For the top-down model, the environment is lot less stringent—perhaps even too lenient. Teachers with a top-down belief strive to have an environment that invites children to experiment with language without feeling pressured to conform to perfectionist standards (Vacca, et al., 2015). In classrooms with a top-down focus, it does not matter if a child spells or writes a word incorrectly, so long as they understand the context and overall meaning (Vacca, et al., 2015). The child is encouraged to create or find meaning in the text even if the technical details are not understood.

Strategies for bottom-up teaching are focused on teaching phonics. Memorization and in-depth study of word sounds and an examination of the “alphabetic principle” are a couple prominent strategies (Vacca, 2015, p. 17). Strategies for top-down teaching are focused on giving the child room and necessary coaching to read for meaning and come to a natural understanding of the text. This would include asking a child to supply a word that makes sense in place of one they do not know and allowing them to use “invented spellings” (Vacca, 2015, p. 91) so long as they make sense to the child (Vacca, et al., 2015).

Those with a bottom-up mindset “think students need to be assessed on discrete skills” (Vacca, et al., 2015, p. 39). Such informal assessments include asking a child to point to letters of the alphabet, having them complete “Elkonin boxes,” with which children can show that they understand the alphabetical principle in a visual way (Vacca, et al., 2015, p. 136), and various tests which require the child to show that they recognize letters of the alphabet, words, and the sounds letters make and know how to properly spell and pronounce words (Vacca, et al., 2015). Teachers with a top-down mindset “think students need to be assessed on the kind of knowledge constructed through reading” (Vacca, et al., 2015, p. 39). Thus, children are assessed more through meaningful discussions about what was read or written to see if the student has gained an in-depth understanding of the material (Vacca, et al., 2015). Creativity and experimentation are encouraged (Vacca, et al., 2015). Whether one uses a top-down methodology, backed by the belief that comprehension will lead to phonetic awareness, or a bottom-up methodology, proceeding from the belief that phonetic awareness will lead to comprehension, the instructional objectives, materials, the learning environment, instructional strategies, and assessments are all going to be affected.


Vacca, J. A., Vacca, R. T., Gove, M. K., Burkey, L. C., Lenhart, L. A., & McKeon, C. A. (2015). Reading & learning to read (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.


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