In a comment here, Alan Coady made an interesting point about the use of the terms, “top down/bottom up”. In the context of the post, this is certainly a political point. In England, as I understand it, schools are required to use the synthetic phonics method; while in Scotland guidance to that effect is issued with no compulsion.

However, the terms also refer to very different approaches to the teaching of reading. ‘Top down’ refers to a ‘whole language’, linguistically rich methodology of which the ‘real books’ movement was the most extreme. The method emphasises the meaning readers bring to text based on their experience and interpretation of text based on their prior knowledge. Some commentators (e.g. Goodman 1967 ) refer to this as a ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game’.

In contrast, ‘Bottom Up’ or the serial method, stipulates that the meaning of any text must be “decoded” by the reader and that students are “reading” when they can “sound out” words on a page (Phonics). There is little reference to higher level knowledge. I know of one school even today that does not allow its pupils to have a ‘reading book’ (and remember in some cases this may be the only book to which a child has access) until s/he has cracked the phonic code.

Thus, theories that stress bottom-up processing focus on how readers extract information from the printed page, claiming that readers deal with letters and words in a relatively complete and systematic fashion (e.g., Gough 1972 ). Theories that stress top-down processing (e.g. Smith 1971 and Stanovich 1967) hold that readers form hypotheses about which words they will encounter and take in only just enough visual information to test their hypotheses.

I guess I may be open to yet more attack from the phonics zealots in admitting to my own practice: the issue really does raise all sorts of hackles and some commentators can become quite hot under the collar!

But I’ll go for it: in most situations, bottom-up and top-down processes work together to ensure the accurate and rapid processing of information. This is certainly the approach that I have taken in my years of teaching reading and is symptomatic of the pragmatic, eclectic tactic that so many experienced teachers take when they have the choice.

Every child is an individual. Everyone has a different learning and cognitive style. Some children flourish with a phonic approach; others rely more upon context cues and prior experience. In busy classsrooms, all must be catered for.

In essence, we want our children to believe that reading opens doorways to magic and ideas and other worlds. We want them to believe that  they can become readers.

Thanks here  for the image.