A Review on Reading Theories and its Implication to the Teaching of Reading


Parlindungan Pardede


Universitas Kristen Indonesia




Opinions and suggestions for the improvement of teaching reading to learners of English as a foreign language, whether based on the results of research and experience, are available in language teaching literature. This paper is a summary of various theories, findings and opinions concerning the teaching of reading. An understanding of these topics, especially the theory of top-down, bottom-up, and meta-cognitive, could be used as the basis for improving the techniques of teaching reading. By doing so, the reading proficiency of learners of English as a foreign language could be significantly enhanced

Keywords: top-down, bottom-up, schemata, meta-cognitive, pre-reading, during-reading, after-reading


Among the four language skills, reading is possibly the most extensively and intensively studied by experts in the field of language teaching. The results of the researches conducted for many decades on nature of reading—how people learn to process textual information—have contributed contrasting theories about what works best in the teaching of reading. As a result, language educators can choose among a wide variety of teaching methods and techniques for students learning to read in their second language (SL) or foreign language (FL).

For students who are learning a SL/FL reading is the most crucial skill to master due to several reasons. First, students can usually perform at a higher level in reading than in any other skills. They can quite accurately understand written materials that they could not discuss orally or in writing with equivalent accuracy or thoroughness. Such condition will undoubtedly enhance their motivation to learn. Second, reading necessitates very minimum requirements. Different from speaking which requires opportunities to interact with sparring partner, or from writing which needs a lot of guidance and time to practice, reading necessitates only a text and motivation. Third, reading is a service skill. After learning how to read effectively, students will be able to learn effectively by reading.

Realizing how crucial reading is for our students, we can see the great importance of developing their reading ability. To achieve it, we should improve our reading lessons by implementing the best method and techniques provided by theories. This article aims to describe principal theories of reading and examine some tips and guidelines for implementing a theory of reading which will help us develop our learner’s abilities.

Theories of Reading

So far, there are three main theories which explain the nature of learning to read. First, the traditional theory, or bottom up processing, which focused on the printed form of a text. (2) the cognitive view, or top-down processing enhanced the role of background knowledge in addition to what appeared on the printed page. Third, the metacognitive view, which is based on the control and manipulation that a reader can have on the act of comprehending a text, and thus, emphasizes the involvement of the reader’s thinking about what he is doing while reading.

1. The traditional bottom-up view

The traditional bottom-up approach to reading was influenced by behaviorist psychology of the 1950s, which claimed learning was based upon “habit formation, brought about by the repeated association of a stimulus with a response” and language learning was characterized as a “response system that humans acquire through automatic conditioning processes,” where “some patterns of language are reinforced (rewarded) and others are not,” and “only those patterns reinforced by the community of language users will persist” (Omaggio 1993, 45-46). Behaviorism became the basis of the audio-lingual method, which sought to form second language “habits” through drilling, repetition, and error correction.

Today, the main method associated with the bottom-up approach to reading is known as phonics, which requires the learner to match letters with sounds in a defined sequence. According to this view, reading is a linear process by which readers decode a text word by word, linking the words into phrases and then sentences (Gray and Rogers, cited in Kucer 1987). According to Samuels and Kamil (1988: 25), the emphasis on behaviorism treated reading as a word-recognition response to the stimuli of the printed words, where “little attempt was made to explain what went on within the recesses of the mind that allowed the human to make sense of the printed page”. In other words, textual comprehension involves adding the meanings of words to get the meanings of clauses (Anderson 1994). These lower level skills are connected to the visual stimulus, or print, and are consequently concerned with recognizing and recalling.

Like the audio-lingual teaching method, phonics emphasizes on repetition and on drills using the sounds that make up words. Information is received and processed beginning with the smallest sound units, and proceeded to letter blends, words, phrases, and sentences. Thus, novice readers acquire a set of hierarchically ordered sub-skills that sequentially build toward comprehension ability. Having mastered these skills, readers are viewed as experts who comprehend what they read.

The bottom-up model describes information flow as a series of stages that transforms the input and passes it to the next stage without any feedback or possibility of later stages of the process influencing earlier stages (Stanovich, 1980). In other words, language is viewed as a code and the reader’s main task is to identify graphemes and convert them into phonemes. Consequently, readers are regarded as passive recipients of information in the text. Meaning resides in the text and the reader has to reproduce it.

The ESL and EFL textbooks influenced by this perspective include exercises that focus on literal comprehension and give little or no importance to the reader’s knowledge or experience with the subject matter, and the only interaction is with the basic building blocks of sounds and words. Most activities are based on recognition and recall of lexical and grammatical forms with an emphasis on the perceptual and decoding dimension.

This model of reading has almost always been under attack as being insufficient and defective for the main reason that it relies on the formal features of the language, mainly words and structure. Although it is possible to accept this rejection for the fact that there is over-reliance on structure in this view, it must be confessed that knowledge of linguistic features is also necessary for comprehension to take place. To counteract over-reliance on form in the traditional view of reading, the cognitive view was introduced.

2. The Cognitive View (top-down processing)

In the 1960s a paradigm shift occurred in the cognitive sciences. Behaviorism became somewhat discredited as the new cognitive theory represented the mind’s innate capacity for learning, which gave new explanatory power to how humans acquired their first language; this also had a tremendous impact on the field of ESL/EFL as psycholinguists explained “how such internal representations of the foreign language develop within the learner’s mind” (Omaggio, 1993: 57).

Ausubel (cited in Omaggio, 1993: 58), made an important distinction between meaningful learning and rote learning. An example of rote learning is simply memorizing lists of isolated words or rules in a new language, where the information becomes temporary and subject to loss. Meaningful learning, on the other hand, occurs when new information is presented in a relevant context and is related to what the learner already knows, so that it can be easily integrated into one’s existing cognitive structure. A learning that is not meaningful will not become permanent. This emphasis on meaning eventually informed the top-down approach to L2 learning, and in the 1960s and 1970s there was an explosion of teaching methods and activities that strongly considered the experience and knowledge of the learner.

These new cognitive and top-down processing approaches revolutionized the conception of the way students learn to read (Smith, 1994). In this view, reading is not just extracting meaning from a text but a process of connecting information in the text with the knowledge the reader brings to the act of reading. In this sense, reading is a dialogue between the reader and the text which involves an active cognitive process in which the reader’s background knowledge plays a key role in the creation of meaning (Tierney and Pearson, 1994). Reading is not a passive mechanical activity but purposeful and rational, dependent on the prior knowledge and expectations of the reader. It is not merely a matter of decoding print to sound but also a matter of making sense of written language (Smith, 1994: 2). In short, reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game, a process in which readers sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, make new hypotheses, and so forth.

Schema Theory

Another theory closely related to top-down processing called schema theory also had a major impact on reading instruction. It describes in detail how the background knowledge of the learner interacts with the reading task and illustrates how a student’s knowledge and previous experience with the world is crucial to deciphering a text. The ability to use this schemata, or background knowledge, plays a fundamental role in one’s trial to comprehend a text.

Schema theory is based on the notion that past experiences lead to the creation of mental frameworks that help a reader make sense of new experiences. Smith (1994: 14) calls schemes the “extensive representations of more general patterns or regularities that occur in our experience”. For instance one’s generic scheme of an airplane will allow him to make sense of airplane he has not previously flied with. This means that past experiences will be related to new experiences, which may include the knowledge of “objects, situations, and events as well as knowledge of procedures for retrieving, organizing and interpreting information” (Kucer, 1987: 31). Anderson (1994: 469) presents research showing that recall of information in a text is affected by the reader’s schemata and explains that “a reader comprehends a message when he is able to bring to mind a schema that gives account of the objects and events described in the message”. Comprehension is the process of “activating or constructing a schema that provides a coherent explanation of objects and events mentioned in a discourse” (Anderson, 1994: 473). For Anderson and Pearson (1988: 38), comprehension is the interaction between old and new information. They emphasize: “To say that one has comprehended a text is to say that she has found a mental ‘home’ for the information in the text, or else that she has modified an existing mental home in order to accommodate that new information”. Therefore, a learner’s schemata will restructure itself to accommodate new information as that information is added to the system (Omaggio, 1993).


Content and formal schemata

Schema theorists differentiate formal schemata (knowledge about the structure of a text) from content schemata (knowledge about the subject matter of a text), and a reader’s prior knowledge of both schemata enables him to predict events and meaning as well as to infer meaning from a wider context.

Formal schemata refers to the way that texts differ from one another; for example, a reading text could be a fictional work, a letter to the editor, or a scientific essay, and each genre will have a different structural organization. Knowledge of these genre structures can aid reading comprehension, as it gives readers a basis for predicting what a text will be like (Smith 1994). For example, if a reader knows that the typical format of a research article consists of sections subtitled Introduction, Theoretical Basis, Methods, Results, Discussion, and Conclusion, that knowledge will facilitate their interaction with the article and boost comprehension. On the other hand, if he is not familiar with this formal schema, teaching it to him could lead to improved reading ability with lasting and beneficial effects.

Content schemata refers to the message of the text. One’s familiarity with the content will make more productive and efficient. As Anderson (1994: 469) explains, “a reader comprehends a message when he is able to bring to mind a schema that gives account of the objects and events described in the message”.


Activating and building schemata

Since the reader plays a fundamental role in the construction of meaning, his age, gender, experience, and culture are important considerations for teachers who want to select readings that will motivate their students. Anderson (1994) notes that when readers cannot locate a schema that fits a text, they may find it incomprehensible. In some cases readers may not have a schema that is significant to the text, or they may need help to activate the pertinent schema to be able to comprehend the text. In such cases it may not be possible for the reader to understand the text, and the teacher must be ready to engage in “building new background knowledge as well as activating existing background knowledge” (Carrell, 1988: 248). In parallel with this, Bransford (1994) points out that difficulties in comprehension may be caused by the lack of background knowledge presumed by the text, and he sees the responsibility of instructors as being twofold: to activate preexisting schemata and to help students to integrate isolated “parcels” of knowledge into a schema or to build a new one.

If the texts to be read contain a cultural context that is different from the student’s, the issues of formal and content schemata become even more important. McDonough (1995), explains that, to a higher extent, this is the reason why ESL and EFL students find it difficult to read in a second language with texts that contain cultural assumptions of the target culture. They may lack the culture-specific background knowledge necessary to process the text in a top-down manner. His reports on several studies demonstrate how people outside a given culture may misunderstand events with unfamiliar cultural connotations. (Students from different cultural backgrounds taking standardized tests which assume common schemata for will also face the same problem.)

Applying schema theory to L2 reading

Based on the aforementioned ideas, it is obvious that in order to teach reading effectively, the teacher’s role to activate and build schemata is paramount. To achieve it, he should in advance select texts that are relevant to the students’ needs, preferences, individual differences, and cultures in order to provide meaningful texts so the students understand the message, which entails activating existing schemata and helping build new schemata. Then, after selecting the text, he needs to do the following three stages of activities to activate and build the students’ schemata. (1) Pre-reading activities, in which the teacher have students think, write, and discuss everything they know about the topic, employing techniques such as prediction, semantic mapping, and reconciled reading. The objective is to make sure that students have the relevant schema for understanding the text. (2) During-reading activities, in which the teacher guide and monitor the interaction between the reader and the text. One important skill teachers can impart at this stage is note-taking, which allows students to compile new vocabulary and important information and details, and to summarize information and record their reactions and opinions. (3)Post-reading activities which facilitate the chance to evaluate students’ adequacy of interpretation, while bearing in mind that accuracy is relative and that “readership” must be respected as long as the writer’s intentions are addressed (Tierney and Pearson, 1994). Post-reading activities focus on a wide range of questions that allow for different interpretations.

While schema activation and building can occur in all three stages, the pre-reading stage deserves special attention since it is here, during the students’ initial contact with the text, where their schemata will be activated.


Pre-reading activities

Pre-reading activities is aimed to activate existing schemata, build new schemata, and provide information to the teacher about what the students know. In their report on the positive effect various pre-reading activities had on reading comprehension, Chen and Graves (1995, 664), define them as “devices for bridging the gap between the text’s content and the reader’s schemata”. Various activities and materials can help the teacher introduce key vocabulary and reinforce concept association to activate both formal and content schemata. Formal schemata will be activated by employing devices such as advance organizers and overviews to draw attention to the structure of a text. The content schemata will be activated by using various pre-reading activities to help learners brainstorm and predict how the information fits in with their previous knowledge.

One of the most important pre-reading activities proposed by schematic theorists is prediction. According to Goodman (1988: 16), prediction is important because “the brain is always anticipating and predicting as it seeks order and significance in sensory inputs”. Smith (1994, 19–20) defines prediction as “the prior elimination of unlikely alternatives”. According to him, predictions are questions the readers ask the world and comprehension is receiving the answers. He emphasizes that it is prediction that makes skilled readers effective when reading texts that contain familiar subject matter. “Prediction brings potential meaning to texts, reducing ambiguity and eliminating in advance irrelevant alternatives. Thus, we are able to generate comprehensible experience from inert pages of print” (Smith 1994, 18).

Another pre-reading activity is previewing, where students look at titles, headings, and pictures, and read the first few paragraphs and the last paragraph; these activities can then help students understand what the text is about by activating their formal and content schemata and making them familiar with the topic before they begin reading in earnest. Semantic mapping is another pre-reading activity that Carrell, Pharis, and Liberto (1989: 651) describe as a useful way to pre-teach vocabulary and to “provide the teacher with an assessment of the students’ prior knowledge or schema availability on the topic”. This activity asks students to brainstorm about the reading topic as the information is displayed on a graphic “map.” As students make associations, the map becomes a thorough summary of the concepts and vocabulary that they will encounter in the reading. It can also help build schemata and vocabulary that students do not yet possess. Again, it is important to know something about the students so the selected texts contain the type of material that is likely to be familiar and interesting to them.

Reutzel (1985) proposes another type of pre-reading activity called reconciled reading lesson, which reverses the sequence presented by many textbooks where the text is followed by questions. Instead, the teacher develops pre-reading questions from the questions that appear at the end of the reading. Smith (1994) criticizes comprehension exercises presented at the end of a reading because they are like memory tests. He argues that using prior knowledge efficiently contributes to fluent readers, and he believes that there is a reciprocal relationship between visual and non-visual (prior knowledge) information; the more the readers have of the latter, the less they need of the former. Although not all the post-reading questions can be easily turned into pre-reading ones, this strategy can be invaluable to activate schemata.


3. The metacognitive view

According to Block (1992), there is now no more debate on “whether reading is a bottom-up, language-based process or a top-down, knowledge-based process.” It is also no more problematic to accept the influence of background knowledge on readers. Research has gone even further to define the control executed by readers on their trial to understand a text. This control is what Block has referred to as meta-cognition.

In the context of reading, meta-cognition involves thinking about what one is doing while reading. Strategic readers do not only sample the text, make hypotheses, confirm or reject them, and make new hypotheses while reading. They also involve many activities along the process of reading, whose stages can be divided into three, i.e. before reading, while reading, and after reading. The activities the readers involve before reading are to identify the purpose of the reading, identify the form or type of the text. In the second stage (while reading), they think about the general character and features of the form or type of the text—such as trying to locate a topic sentence and follow supporting details toward a conclusion, project the author’s purpose for writing the text, choose, scan, or read in detail, make continuous predictions about what will occur next based on information obtained earlier, prior knowledge, and conclusions obtained within the previous stages. Finally, in the last stage, they attempt to form a summary, conclude, or make inference of what was read.

Guidelines for Effective Teaching of Reading

After discussing the ideas and concepts presented in the three reading theories, we are now on the position of arranging tips and guidelines for implementing a theory of reading which will help to develop our learner’s abilities. These tips are arranged in three sections which are parallel with the three consecutive reading stages: before reading, during reading, and after reading.

Pre-Reading Tips

Before the actual act of reading a text begins, some points should be regarded in order to make the process of reading more comprehensible. First, teachers need to make sure that the texts to read contain words and grammatical structures familiar to the learners. If the texts contain unfamiliar vocabulary, teachers can introduce key vocabulary in pre-reading activities that focus on language awareness, such as finding synonyms, antonyms, derivatives, or associated words. Second, teachers should make sure that the topics of texts chosen are in accordance with the age range, interests, sex, and background culture of the students for whom they are intended. If they are not, it is necessary to provide the necessary background information to the reader to facilitate comprehension. This activity could be carried out by letting the class members brainstorm ideas about the meaning of a title or an illustration and discuss what they know.

The followings are some activities teacher can use during the pre-reading stage. These activities will not take a very long time to carry out. However, they are very effective in overcoming the common urge to start reading a text closely right away from the beginning.

  1. Teacher-directed pre-reading, in which some key vocabulary, ideas in the text, and the type of the text are explained. In this approach the teacher directly explains the information the students will need, including key concepts, important vocabulary, and appropriate conceptual framework. The text types are also necessary to introduce because texts may take on different forms and hold certain pieces of information in different places. The students’ familiarity with the types of the text they are reading will develop their understanding of the layout of the material. Such familiarity will, in turn, enable them to focus more deeply on the parts that are more densely compacted with information. Even paying attention to the year of publication of a text, if applicable, may aid the reader in presuppositions about the text as can glancing at the name of the author.
  2. Interactive activities, in which the teacher leads a discussion in which he/she draws out the information students already have and interjects additional information deemed necessary to an understanding of the text to be read. Moreover, the teacher can make explicit links between prior knowledge and important information in the text.
  3. Reflective activities, in which students are guided to make themselves aware of the purpose and goal for reading a certain piece of written material. At the beginning stages this can be done by the teacher, but as the reader becomes more mature this strategy can be left to the readers. For instance, the students may be guided to ask themselves, “Why am I reading this text? What do I want to do or know after finished reading this? Being aware of their purpose and goal to read, later—in during reading activities—they can determine what skill(s) to employ: skimming, scanning, reading for details, or critical reading.


During-reading tips

The activities carried out in during-reading stage consist of taking notes, reacting, predicting, selecting significant information, questioning the writer’s position, evaluating, and placing a text within one’s own experience. These processes may be the most complex to develop in a classroom setting, the reason being that in English reading classes most attention is often paid to dictionaries, the text, and the teacher. The followings are tips that encourage active reading. Practicing them will help the students be active readers.

  1. Making predictions: The students should be taught to be on the watch to predict what is going to happen next in the text to be able to integrate and combine what has come with what is to come.
  2. Making selections: Readers who are more proficient read selectively, continually making decisions about their reading.
  3. Integrating prior knowledge: The schemata that have been activated in the pre-reading section should be called upon to facilitate comprehension.
  4. Skipping insignificant parts: A good reader will concentrate on significant pieces of information while skipping insignificant pieces.
  5. Re-reading: Students should be encouraged to become sensitive to the effect of reading on their comprehension.
  6. Making use of context or guessing: Students should not be encouraged to define and understand every single unknown word in a text. Instead they should learn to make use of context to guess the meaning of unknown words.
  7. Breaking words into their component parts: To keep the process of comprehension ongoing, efficient readers analyze unfamiliar words by break them into their affixes or bases. These parts can help them guess the meaning of a word.
  8. Reading in chunks: To ensure reading speed, students should get used to reading groups of words together. This act will also enhance comprehension by focusing on groups of meaning-conveying symbols simultaneously.
  9. Pausing: Good readers will pause at certain places while reading a text to absorb and internalize the material being read and sort out information.
  10. Paraphrasing: While reading texts, it may be necessary to paraphrase and interpret texts sub-vocally in order to verify what was comprehended.
  11. Monitoring: Good readers monitor their understanding to evaluate whether the text, or the reading of it, is meeting their goals.



After-reading tips

Post-reading activities basically depend on the purpose of reading and the type of information extracted from the text. Barnett (1988) states that post-reading exercises first check students’ comprehension and then lead students to a deeper analysis of the text. In the real world the purpose of reading is not to memorize an author’s point of view or to summarize text content, but rather to see into another mind, or to engage new information with what one already knows. Group discussion will help students focus on information they did not comprehend, or did comprehend correctly. Accordingly, attention will be focused on processes that lead to comprehension or miscomprehension.

Generally speaking, post-reading can take the form of these various activities: (1) discussing the text: written/oral, (2) summarizing: written/oral, (3) making questions: written/oral, (3) answering questions: written/oral, (4) filling in forms and charts (5) writing reading logs  (6) completing a text, (7) listening to or reading other related materials, and (7) role-playing.



Researches, opinions, and suggestions regarding the teaching of the reading exist in extensive amount, and this summary of reading theories is by no means exhaustive. However, with a basic understanding of the theoretical basis of top-down and bottom-up processing, teachers can better take advantage of the most useful methodologies associated with the different approaches. What is important to bear in mind is that relying too much on either top-down or bottom-up processing may cause problems for beginning ESL/EFL readers; therefore, to develop reading abilities, both approaches should be considered, as the meta-cognitive approach suggests. Considering my own experience in teaching reading to Indonesian students, I have found that the students who managed to read English text effectively are those who approach texts in a painful, slow, and frustrating word-by-word manner. By improving their decoding skills, they are freed to concentrate on global meanings. So, both the psycho and the linguistic” aspects must be emphasized in EFL reading classes.



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Rigg, P. 1998. “The Miscue-ESL project.” In Carrell, Devine, and Eskey 1988, 206–220.

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Samuels, S. J., and M. L. Kamil. 1988. “Models of the Reading Process.” In Carrell, Devine, and Eskey, eds. 1988. 22–36.

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Note: This paper was presented in Bimonthly Collegiate Forum of the English Department of FKIP-UKI held on December 8, 2006.

5 thoughts on “A Review on Reading Theories and its Implication to the Teaching of Reading”

  1. Abrar Mustafa said:

    Why is it important to have a pre reading stage in a reading lesson ? (150 words)

  2. Great article,, i wanted to use it in my study… can you give me the date of when the article was made?

    • Hi Peter,
      So, sorry I forget when I finished writing this article. Why don’t you just use the date it was presented as indicated in the “note” section below the article?
      Hope it is useful for you.
      Good luck!

  3. Phil Builder said:

    Excellent article demonstrating the way readers learn and linking this to sensible teaching methods. How do we get schools to focus their methods more in this direction. I work in the area of early literacy, and with kids with reading problems and the latter invariably do not know how to read despite lots of phonics (bottom up stuff) and it is hard to change them into more efficient readers using different strategies. Congratulations. Love your references.

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