Levels of Language and Models of Reading

This section is on levels of language and how these levels relate to models of reading. Look in the appendix for the Linguistic Ladder. I want to go through it briefly.

On the bottom rung, though it is not of any less importance, is phonetics. Phonetics has to do with sounds and the organization of sounds. Phonemic awareness. The sounds we hear.

Phonology is the organization of these sounds and how we put them together with the symbols that represent them.

Morphology has to do the meaning. What the words mean. The smallest unit of meaning is a morpheme.

Syntax is how the words are organized. The rules. The grammar. In different languages their sentence structure is different.

Semantics has to do with the meaning that we pull from the phrases or words, the connotations.

Pragmatics relates to the discourse. The organization or the structure of ideas. The structure of text, the expository structure, the narrative structure. The difference between prose and poetry relates to the pragmatics of language.

Now let’s look at how the levels of language correlate to models of reading.

Models of reading help us understand what takes place when a person reads. Though to fully understand it is impossible. Huey said in 1908 that to fully understand what takes place when we read would be the acme of a psychologist’s dream. We can’t adequately represent it.

But let’s talk about what the models of reading represent. The bottom up model puts the emphasis on the lower levels of language, the symbols and the sounds relationship. The decoding of our language. This lower level needs to be automatic for us to be able to put our full attention on comprehending the concepts or ideas.

The energy we use to decode takes away from the energy and our focus to think about what we are actually reading. So, automaticity at the lower level is important. Beginning readers put much energy and focus at this level because they are trying to learn the letter sound relationships, because if you can’t decode the words, you are not reading. You may be talking, you might have memorized the text, but you are not actually reading.

The top down model refers to the background knowledge or the experiences that we have that we bring to the text. You can decode the words of a language and not know what you are reading. We call this “barking at print.” Where you read what is there, but you don’t understand it, and you for sure can’t tell someone about it.

What happens really is an interaction between the knowledge you bring to the text about the concepts that you are reading about and the ability to decode the words that represent these concepts.

For people learning a second language, we can’t really predict which model of reading they are going to depend on more heavily, the bottom up or the top down. It depends on the context that they are reading about. They may have plenty of background knowledge concerning a certain topic, but then on other topics, they may not have adequate background knowledge.

So still, it’s an interaction for both first language and second language learners.

As mature readers, you will notice the effect of top down, or background knowledge, when you read something you are not familiar with. You will read it more slowly. Maybe you have to look up some terms or acquire an understanding of different concepts that you are reading about before you fully comprehend the text.

You can pronounce the words. You can decode the words, or figure out what they are, but you are not really understanding what is being explained or described in the text. So you then realize, oh, the knowledge that I bring to the task, my background knowledge, my experiences, do play an important part in reading.

The three models of reading are the basic models: bottom-up model, top-down model, and interactive model of reading. Each attempts to illustrate the levels of language that we use when we read.

As you read to a child, all of the bottom-up and top-down components of reading will be interacting. There is a lot going on. But mostly, what I hope takes place is the pleasure of sharing time together reading.