Bottom Up vs Top Down English Language Teaching

They're really not getting it.

They think coursebooks can be student-centered.

Well, let me see if I can make it the slightest bit clearer: 

  • if you walk into class with an objective that is anything other than extracting language from students and then building on that (scaffolding) whether you've got a book in your hands or not - 
  • if you walk into class with an aim that is anything other than working with your students' needs, wishes and wants and working the kinks out of their grammatical weaknesses - 
  • if you're building a sort of random lexis, based on the unit of a book, and you've no actual idea whether or not they will be able to put that language to use -
  • if you're spending more than 50% of your class time in activities that don't require your students to speak to each other about themselves and their lives then you're teaching top-down.
If that sits good with you, so be it.

But if you want to teach English from the bottom up: Join the dogme group, read Meddings and Thornbury's book Teaching Unplugged and/or read my previous posts on dogme and those of my esteemed colleagues around the globe, do a google search on dogme ELT.

Because of all the things it is or isn't, it's not a "style."

Best, Karenne

Interesting link

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12 Responses to “Bottom Up vs Top Down English Language Teaching”

  • Evan says:
    May 23, 2010

    Provocative post as ever Karenne :-) not sure I agree with you though - it totally depends on how you use the coursebook and the context you are teaching in - they can be wonderful resources, and very student-centered.

    May 24, 2010

    Well, yes - if the book meets the criteria as above, can't see why not. I'm actually teaching a beginner level student (first one I've had in absolutely ages) and panicked and got a book.

    Didn't take long tho' for me to feel completely frustrated and am dogmeing the book by getting us out of it - simply using it as a "style-guide" - the way all coursebooks should be approached.


  • Luke Meddings says:
    May 24, 2010

    Thanks for this Karenne - for the spirit of challenge and the link to the still very active dogme list at (and, yes, for the book mention!)

    'Bottom-up' rather than 'top-down' is one of my three rules of thumb for dogme teaching, and is sometimes seen as being consistent with personalised/personalisable published materials.

    This can make the 'bottom-up' notion seem less challenging than it really is, which is why I link it to a second 'rule of thumb': namely, that the bulk of planning comes after the lesson and not before - in other words that planning becomes reporting, which in turn informs the next lesson.

    I do think this combination of bottom-up lesson and 'after the event' reporting is more radical than is sometimes imagined.

    I won't share the last rule of thumb just now or I won't have a talk for the next few months!

  • Alex Case says:
    May 24, 2010

    Most of my students' main use of English outside the classroom will be in their next English class, i.e. with their next textbook...

    Not sure about having to extract the language from the students. I already know their lives and so what they are likely to want to say, their weaknesses, and the mistakes they are likely to make, so it is a lot more efficient for me to give them the language, correct their mistakes before they make them, then get them to use that language to communicate about themselves and other topics they are interested in or are likely to need. I can then adjust that language afterwards using the techniques you are suggesting. Brainstorming and correction of the errors they just happened to make in that class seem terribly time inefficent to me.

    Agreed with your criteria otherwise. Still just seems like a reason for good materials rather than a reason not to have materials though.

    May 24, 2010


    Yup - this is it exactly, I was trying to explain this the other day on Mike Harrison's blog in the face of OFSTED and his having to produce plans pre-class.

    I really don't know about how personalized published materials can occur although I think English360 are probably moving in the right direction with regard to that.

    I noticed Scott mentioning "Local" textbooks and I have mentioned elsewhere a need for more "niche-based" textbooks but honestly there's still part of my gut says -eh... each person is an individual with very distinctive needs.

    In the face of those who cry out what about when I have 35 students in a class -wah, wah- and to them I say, you're probably doing more babysitting and setting them up to take a test than really getting them to learn anything in English - and I do mean deep learning of the language not stuff a person can memorize to answer a set of multiple-choice questions in order to get a certificate which magically declares that they've now got XYZ level of English.

    Working with a student's level of English means knowing your students and then catering pre- post- in-task to the areas where they need the work.

    Looking forward to hearing about the third rule of thumb!

    May 24, 2010


    "it is a lot more efficient for me to give them the language,"

    Is it language they can ever put into real use? Or is it language designed only to make you feel efficient?

    "Still just seems like a reason for good materials rather than a reason not to have materials though."

    Good materials = materials lite. i.e. not the center of the classroom...not the objective: a tool, a helpful device.

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Arnold says:
    May 24, 2010

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • Nick Jaworski says:
    May 27, 2010

    Having recently taken on a new class I had a wonderful comment from a student whose last teacher used the book more than a bit. He complained, "Yesterday we did a unit on gardening. I don't care about gardening. I remember "bush" and "pumpkin." When will I ever use those? I was so bored."

    Therein lies the problem.

  • Anonymous says:
    May 27, 2010

    Sorry to bother you. I tried clicking to get to the dogme group and a message from yahoo appeared saying that it no longer exists.
    Is that so?

  • Anonymous says:
    May 28, 2010

    Liked that very much!!!
    For some time now many of my lesson aims have been as vague as 'to help students learn something and together find something new they will enjoy doing that is in English'. Most recent lessons were, to set up a LinkedIn account; to search, watch and bookmark TED talks; to decide whether to buy a blackberry or an iphone. Meaningful language use and vocab acquisition were at a peak and some of them even emailed the school saying that they wanted more lessons like that. Is that Dogme, CLIL, TBL, or what? Some co-workers here would risk saying this is simply 'a good class', some others 'this is not an English class, you're phony'.
    Who knows, some students hate it when I do that and want to check out the grammar box and fill in the blanks. Who knows?

  • Andy says:
    May 29, 2010

    I am the DOS for English for a language school and would love more of my English trainers to think about teaching from the bottom up! is not easy to get them to attend in-house workshops to challenge and develop some of their preconceptions about how to run a business English class: they seek the "security" of books and fear not having them. I would love to hear ideas about how to encourage more freelancers to attend workshops - I feel that there is a substantial group with little idea about the developments and discussions going on, such as this one.

    May 30, 2010

    Hi Andy,

    I think the trick is to be surrounded by others who are also developing professionally. Have you got a teaching association near where you live? Can you start one - or an alliance of schools - if not?

    In Ecuador a bunch of us (DOSes) started working together and we even held training sessions for each other, the spark of enthusiasm for our work spilled over to schools and one year we held a mini-conference with 70 non native English teachers... it's that thing of how one flame can spark a fire!

    Best of luck and if you have any more questions, don't hesitate to write (kalinagoenglishblog at googlemail dot com) *written longhand to avoid the spam bots who attack my blog and website with a ferocity!



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