Contemporary Research in Psycholinguistics

This essay examines contemporary research in psycholinguistics as it applies to the reading approaches. It examines two competing theories of reading development – top-down processing and bottom-up processing — and examines their discrepancies to reach a more thorough understanding. A hybrid, interactive approach is also discussed. The essay examines particular examples of reading in action to determine the plausibility of these approaches: One example is the psycholinguistic investigation into the extent that the knowledge transferred from L1 ability to L2 proficiency represents top-down or bottom-down processing. The essay argues that attaining higher levels of objective analysis necessarily requires investigation into not only bottom-down or top-down processing, but also the foundational components on which the correlations are based.

I. Literature Overview
Contemporary research into reading processes notes that models that have been introduced have mutated and changed over time. Models in first language reading have served foundationally as models in second-language reading. Stahl and Hayes (1997) have discussed the ways that academic models influence and help shape approaches that teacher’s adopt in the classroom. Other theorists, such as Barnett (1989), have discussed how models are greatly limited in scope by the time period and contextual constraints in which they emerge. The types of models also change with practitioners’ age and experience. A main concern is that the difference between first language reading models and second language reading models is that the participants have already developed first language reading skills that are influencing the second-language reading process. The different orthographies of the first-language also affect second-language reading ability and researchers argue that this must be taken into consideration when developing lessons.

Reading process theory dates back to the inception of psychology as a formal discipline with cognitive theorists such as William Wundt. This research focused mainly on investigating perceptual issues. Beginning in the 1880s researchers fore-grounded the foundations of what came to represent the predominant focus of studies for the next century. In 1908 Huey published Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading which shifted focus in a more behaviorist slant until the 1960s. With Syntactic Structures and further attacks on behaviorist processes, academic attention shifted back to perceptual issues, with researchers investigating reading speed and eye focus. Notably, it was around this time that reading comprehension became a major issue for theorists.

Contemporary research focuses on the importance of two paradigms of investigation: Top Down and Bottom-Up Processing. While most researchers have adopted what can be termed an interactive approach – that is, a hybrid understanding of the competing theories.

II. Literature Evaluation
An example that demonstrates the difference between reading approaches that stress bottom-up processing and those that stress top-down processing concerns the moment of linguistic comprehension. Suppose that a reader has just read, “Daylight savings time ends tomorrow, and so people should remember to change their …” According to the top-down view, the reader guesses that the next word in the sentence will be “clocks.” The reader checks that the word begins with a “c” and, because the hypothesis has been supported, does not take in the remaining letters of the word. (Treiman 1998)

Theories of reading that stress bottom-up processing claim that the reader processes all of the letters in the last word of the sentence, regardless of its predictability. The bottom-up approach takes elements from the outside world, for reading these are words, letters, and phrases. The reading then processes them into intelligible linguistic units and then constructs meaning through these linguistic units with minimal incorporation of higher level knowledge. Gough (1972) stresses that readers process words from the printed page in very systematic and syntactic ways. The stringent adherents view reading comprehension in much the same manner, in that these linguistic units are processed individually and then linearly comprise what is determined to be textual understanding. The only difference between spoken comprehension and written is the textual dimension.
Contemporary research into the transference of language skills from the reader’s first language to their second reflects the affects of bottom-up processing on linguistic understanding. Akamatsu (1999) has conducted research that argues that the alphabetic nature of a language can help transference to a second language but, as in the case of Asian characters, can also hinder second language reading abilities because of conflicting underlying structures. Alderson (1984) discusses the view as it occurs between languages like Farsi and English or German and English, where differences of linguistic structure and morphology inhibit transference. In these instances the use of bottom-up processing on the reading process is evident in that the individual phonemic units are inhibiting transference. In contrast, Uljin and Kempen (1976) studied the relationship between two morphologically divergent languages – Dutch and French – and found no problems with reading transference. In interpreting this data, Hudson (2007) sees the difference as in the two studies as characterized by the users in the Dutch and French study making up for low-level structural ability by using “…conceptual knowledge and strategy use.” (p.12)

Top-down processing contends that the reader utilizes their past knowledge and textual expectations to formulate and process meaning. Top-down processing is more akin to sociolinguistic and communicative competence theories that argue past knowledge affects how readers will interpret meaning in the text. They also assume that textual comprehension isn’t as rapid a process as bottom-up processing assumes. Bachman (1990) offers an extremely dichotomous definition of communicative competence (Table 1). Researchers stress that top-down processing often involves a guessing game readers play with the text, as they attempt to determine what meaning the words and phrases actually represent. (Goodman 1968) With the top-down method the reader is in a constant state of contextual reformation, where past interpretations are supplemented or replaced by new meanings based on furthered reading and the implementation of background understanding. These approaches are similar to Reader Response and Death of the Author style literary theories, in that the reader brings meaning to the text and is not directly bound by the linearity of its linguistic units.

Goodman (1968) develops a top-down method of reading comprehension by shifting the focus of reading proficiency away from strictly grammar concerns to include pragmatic and textual concerns. Goodman’s research has focused on second language acquisition, as well as the difficulties regional dialects face in developing mainstream fluency. (Goodman 1986) Rather than supporting Akamatsu’s (1999) bottom-up processing approach that various languages, based on structural components, will have greater or lesser levels of transference, Goodman and Goodman (1978) identify an underlying principal to all languages. For example, if a student pronounces a word h’ep, instead of help the same underlying assumptions are occurring, but the dominant pedagogy interprets the mistake as a structural miscue.

Finally, there is an interactive model of reading. The interactive model is the most supported by the majority of researchers in that they accept foundational elements of both top-down processing and bottom-up processing in their understanding of reading approaches. It holds that elements of higher order top-down processing and lower order, bottom-up processing contribute in a hybrid function to develop linguistic meaning. Carr (1982) discusses a hierarchical view of this process:
Such components could be labeled 1) vocabulary knowledge and sight word recognition; 2) phonetic decoding skills; 3) relational knowledge and prediction from context, and; 4) comprehension skills p. 31

Here it is determined that through comprehension of the lexical elements of words and phonemes the reader can interactively incorporate elements of past experiences and interpretations in the overall construction of meaning.

III. Pedagogical Applications of Literature
Contemporary psycholinguistic research isn’t able to uniformly offer an objective definition for ‘reading ability’ or ‘language proficiency.’ As a result, the definitions vary throughout studies, with elements of ‘reading ability’ constituting ‘language proficiency’ in different analyses. There is a too firm reliance on statistical assumptions, when a foundational understanding of reading ability is essential to reach the issue’s core. This is a call to second-language reading pedagogy to find a workable solution.
Lori Helman (1986) does an excellent job of discussing how this cognitive research into reading approaches can be applied to English-language reading instruction. She identifies six main categories educators can follow to improve their English-language teaching. The general approach she offers begins with teaching common elements between the two languages and then work with areas where they are in opposition. This takes into account bottom-up processing approaches by analyzing the linguistic units in their relation to second-language reading comprehension: the educator should use their own personal understanding of Spanish to determine the stage of the students’ development. She writes, “When it is acknowledged that students’ developmental spelling attempts make sense, the alphabetical understandings are validated (Helman, 1986, p. 457).”

She argues the need for second-language educators to consider students’ original language when providing critical instruction. Her cognitive research demonstrates that Spanish-speaking students at Henderson’s (1986) “spelling by sound” stage of alphabetic writing, where students rely on hearing the sounds of words to write them, demonstrate difficulties because certain sound features in English don’t exist in Spanish. Specifically, Helman identifies the analysis of the positions of consonant sounds, consonant clusters, and vowels in each language as the main areas of difficulty. For example, a Spanish speaker will often wrongly substitute certain Spanish letters when they encounter letter-sound combinations that exist only in English – dem instead of them. She further explains confusions that result from sound-letter combinations and letter-positioning existing in only one language. Ultimately, this is a bottom-up structural lens towards L2 proficiency that educators must use to be more efficient teachers of reading.
On contrary, ‘strong’ theory of top-down processing supported by the cognitive research into communicative competence is that second language proficiency is not the sole determining threshold factor into second language reading ability, but that pragmatic and rhetorical knowledge are being relayed independently of language proficiency. Ultimately, the threshold is not an element of grammacticality (i.e. 3,000 word vocabulary), but the level at which textual and pragmatic competence are able to take on cognitive meaning. This theory accounts for the statistically varying nature of the threshold level, as pragmatic competence is not as objectively determined as other considerations in language testing. Taking into account the communicative competence perspective on cognitive development in reading, an experimental pedagogy needs to address metacognitive elements that target pragmatic and rhetorical understanding while incorporating second-language proficiency.

In Word Knowledge (2008) Cheryl Zimmerman offers an interactive approach to reading. She writes, “The meaning that you assign to a new word is closely linked to what you already know…the association of words to personal experiences facilitates the learning of new information.” (Zimmerman, 2008, p. 18) That is, teachers cannot structurally “teach” all that the students need to know about the meaning of a word, so that the lesson should ultimately allow students to negotiate word meaning through pragmatic and bottom-down structural means. As an English student in Hong Kong I experienced lessons geared towards pure language proficiency. A typical lesson involved the teacher giving definitions to words and students and then students being broken into small groups and asked to drill each other on these definitions. While effective means of processing grammar and accumulating vocabulary, they fell short of developing true pragmatic capacities for language. The new pedagogy could discard the vocabulary definition tests. In their place, a daily word presentation could be instituted: Students are assigned a word and are required to explain it to the class by relating it to a personal experience or visual or verbal entity. For instance, if the word was ‘ecstatic,’ the language learner would describe a situation they felt ecstatic in, an American song that is ecstatic, and a Western picture that produces these emotions. The rest of the class could engage in the lesson and offer personal interpretations. This is ‘strong’ understanding of communicative competence and corresponds to Bachman’s Pragmatic level of competence, and also involves a strong sociolinguistic component. This lesson displaces the absolute nature of vocabulary that textbook definitions relay, and requires students to implement their pragmatic capacities for language by requiring them to use vocabulary in various contextual dimensions, and compare their efficacy with fellow students. By requiring the students to involve Western traditions of art and music it helps cognitively attune students to foreign registers and develop deep L2 proficiency and ability.