Top-Down vs Bottom-Up Processing

The TESOL standard is to teach form and structure first, then apply usage afterward. For instance, we might teach the past perfect tense to a class, then say, “Okay, now that you know how to use this tense, you can use it. Go ahead.” But tools generally shouldn’t come before application. You wouldn’t teach students how to use a table saw then say, “In case you ever need to cut wood, you now know one way to do that.” A few students might look for opportunities to apply their knew knowledge and tools, but most won’t actively look for those opportunities. I have difficulty picturing an English learner walking around after class thinking, “I really hope I get to use the past perfect form today.”

This can be a problem for a couple reasons. First of all, if a student doesn’t have a good grasp on why they would use a form, or how often a structure is used, or even specific examples in their own lives in which they could apply the grammar point, it may be difficult to learn that grammar point, if for no other reason than a lack of motivation. (In the same way, its hard for me to lean Organic Chemistry because I don’t see any relevance for it in my life.) Second of all, if learners don’t have a reason to apply what they’ve learned, they’re liable to forget it.

To be fair, teaching structure/form before usage is helpful for receptive skills – that is, reading and listening. If you see or hear the past perfect form but weren’t previously familiar with it, it would be nice if your teacher started with what it looks/sounds like and how it’s used and moves on to why it’s used.

But for productive skills (speaking and writing), this standard method of teaching feels a little backward.

Wouldn’t the reverse approach be more beneficial? Starting with the meaning then pulling the form from it would better line up with productive skills. For example, suppose a student is telling a story, but at some point they explain things in an order different from the chronological order. This is commonly done when conveying the cause for an outcome, for instance. Using the past simple tense for all the verbs involved may lead to confusion. Enter: the past perfect form! Once your student is taught this form, they can go back and adjust the story with proper grammar so that it better communicates the narrative.

When students see the need for a grammar point, they’ll more readily learn it when you teach that topic. And if they already have instances in which they can apply that grammar point, they’ll be more likely to remember it later and to use that grammar point in the future.

So how exactly would you go about teaching through the usage-before-structure approach? I’m not sure of a great way to standardize that, which may be why books typically use the reverse method. Perhaps you develop your own methods. If you find success, please let us know about it!

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