Schema Theorys Usefulness For Teaching Reading English Language Essay

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As a concept of background knowledge Schema Theory has played a significant role in neurological and psychological studies for hundreds of years. In the 70's the concept found applications in the fields of general education and English language teaching (ELT).

The purpose of this paper is to briefly outline Schema Theory and evaluate its usefulness for ELT. I attempt to focus on Schema Theory and its applications in the teaching of reading comprehension in particular. Another objective is to look at how Schema Theory has been utilised in ELT learning materials design, highlight a number of limitations of Schema Theory applications and suggest further treatments.

This paper has been divided into four main sections. It begins with a brief outline of what Schema Theory is by looking at its field origins, history and characteristics. The second section evaluates the usefulness of Schema Theory in the teaching of reading comprehension. The third section describes how Schema Theory has been utilised in the design of ELT materials with focus on what activities in the teaching of reading comprehension correlate with the schema concept. The last section addresses some limitations of Schema Theory applications and looks at some suggestions for further applications.

While a variety of words and phrases have been used and suggested by relevant authors [1] the terms "schema" and "schemata" (the plural form), will be used in this paper. To refer to Schema Theory the abbreviation "ST" will be used throughout.

I. Schema Theory: A Concise Introduction to History, Origins and Characteristics

"At the core of schema theory is the belief that what we remember is influenced by what we already know, and that our use of past experience to deal with new experience is a fundamental feature of the way the human mind works" (Gross, 2001:309)

Gross' quote adequately summarises the focal point of ST but by no means should the description be treated as exhaustive and fully explicit. Through the years the schema concept has been adopted and inevitably modified by a number of theorists. The notion has experienced characteristics and relation transformations depending on the study field and theoretical context in which it has been utilised. The French psychologist Jean Piaget used the schema concept in his theory of cognitive development in children. Sir Henry Head, an English neurologist, used the term "schema" to represent one's perception of the location of limbs and body in the cortex of the brain. Sir Frederic Bartlett, a British psychologist, adopted the term "schema" from Head as part of his theory of reconstructive memory [2] . Bartlett (1935:213) pointed out:

"Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organised passed reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form."

Below are outlined some of the main characteristics of ST according to modern psychologists Rumelhart and Ortony (1977):

1. Schemata have variables.

Rumelhart and Ortony (1977) give the following example:

Let's imagine that we have a schema for the concept of someone breaking something. If we have the schema BREAK, its variables supposedly would be (a) the breaker (or the agent); (b) the object (what is being broken); and (c) the method (or how the object is broken). The above variables would have different values depending on the environment, context of the task or other factors. In addition, when one variable is not easily bound to another (i.e. due to lack of enough information in the task) then we have to infer the identity of that variable using variable constraints. Our previous experiences and accumulated background knowledge would allow us to deal with the situation as "the variable constraints within the schema (enable) a probable value to be assigned to one of the variables (and this) assignment of inferred values to variables we refer to as the assignment of default values" (Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977:104; Minsky in Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977). Rumelhart and Ortony (1977:105) continue:

"Once an assignment of variables has been made, either from the environment, from memory, or by default, the schema is said to have been instantiated. It will transpire in our discussion of comprehension. that the instantiation of schemata is only the first step in comprehension."

2. Schemata are embedded

A schema can form a system comprising of other schemata acting as its constituents. Those constituents are referred to as subschemata. For instance if we have a dominating schema for RESTAURANT there could be subschemata for PLACE, CUSTOMERS, FOOD etc. embedded in it. In addition, those subschemata could have their own subschemata (e.g. FOOD with subschemata TASTE, SMELL, TEXTURE etc.). It is important to notice the hierarchical organisation of those schemata and how they are embedded within each other. According to Rumelhart and Ortony, (1977) the advantages of this faculty of embedding are that one can comprehend a situation by referring to the main constituents of schemata without referring to the subschemata of those constituents. However, the latter would be beneficial for the process of understanding and would allow more thorough comprehension of that situation. Rumelhart and Ortony, (1977:109) add that another "advantage of embedding, related to the first, is that of representational economy of variables."

3. Schemata are abstract

This characteristic concerns the ability of the mind to interpret the input by referring to different packets of information stored in our memory. These packets of knowledge form the system of the human memory and are at all levels of abstraction, ranging from those which are very abstract (e.g. concepts, beliefs) to the very stable ones (e.g. the appearance of an object).

4. Schemata represent knowledge

Rumelhart and Ortony (1977) claim that schemata don't represent definitions, but rather encyclopaedic knowledge, which is associated with concepts. Therefore:

"…they are not linguistic entities, but abstract symbolic representations of knowledge which we express and describe in language, and which may be used for understanding language , but which are nevertheless not themselves linguistic." (Rumelhart and Ortony, 1977:111)

ST allows us to better understand how our mind works, how we as human beings are able to involuntarily reflect on previous experiences and background knowledge and make judgments and assimilate, what appears to be, the "unknown". Our memory consists of hierarchical structures of information which we refer to when we want to identify incoming stimulus. This process of perception and understanding through reflection on pre-existing knowledge is what would be identified as learning.

Of course the discussion should not stop here and we should further consider how ST relates to education and evaluate its usefulness in the teaching of reading. Anderson (1977:417-8) claims that "…educators have always looked to psychology as the discipline which ought to rationalize educational practice". He saw the potential of ST implications in education and, in particular, the beneficial character of ST in improving curriculum and teaching techniques.

II. Schema Theory and its Applications in the Teaching of Reading

"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." (Anderson and Pearson, 1988:37)

Let us imagine that one passes by a newsagent stand and reads the following headline from a popular tabloid:

"FA confirm £Â½m Liverpool payout over Stevie injury" [3] 

Now let us assume that the reader can recognise "Liverpool" and "Stevie" as personal nouns aided by his or hers linguistic knowledge that personal nouns would normally begin with a capital letter. Let us also assume that the reader has a sufficient understanding of what "injury", "confirm" and "payout" mean and that "£Â½m" refers to money and that "FA" is also a noun (because of subject-verb agreement knowledge). So far, one would assume that we have enough knowledge about the structure and components of this piece of discourse to allow us to comprehend it fully. However, our understanding of the passage goes beyond the sentence. In order to understand the text, one must have some pre-existing knowledge about the sport, football. Consequently one would recognise the abbreviation FA as Football Association and that Liverpool is an English football club and Stevie is one of its most popular players. Accordingly the connection between the above and the "money payout" would be made.

In other words, the text alone does not convey meaning (Carrell, 1982). To understand a text we have to look beyond its linguistic structures, which only give us directions as to what schemata to activate (Widdowson, 1983). By accessing a familiar schema we are in a position to make appropriate interpretations of the text and if we fail to achieve that, neither our linguistic competence or knowledge of cohesive ties would enable us to comprehend the text (Carrell, 1983). The above example shows us how significant the applications of ST in teaching reading comprehension could be. Carrell (1982) criticises those authors who believe that textual analysis techniques and cohesion theory determine the coherence of a text and therefore would solve the problems with ESL reading comprehension. Carrell emphasises the importance of ST and attempts "to caution those in second language teaching and research, particularly in ESL, not to expect cohesion theory to be the ultimate solution to ESL reading/writing problems at the level of the text" (Carrel, 1982:486).

However, we must not forget that linguistic competence and schematic knowledge could be treated as equally important in achieving reading comprehension and these levels of language knowledge correlate with each other. The main concern here is how beneficial ST applications are in the teaching of reading comprehension and how we as teachers can help our learners use schematic knowledge to interpret a text. By referring to pre-existing knowledge students can engage with the text and make appropriate interpretations by activating the necessary schemata without relying too much on their linguistic competence. They have the opportunity to comprehend a text and infer the meaning of unfamiliar lexical items using top-down techniques without feeling too text-bounded or assuming that every single word in a passage must be dealt with. I believe that ST applications in the teaching of reading comprehension can promote effective reading, student autonomy and motivate learning. However, we cannot expect our students to be naturally efficient readers and use their schematic knowledge exhaustively and resourcefully in any given situation. The section below deals with how ST has been utilised in ELT materials design and illustrates some reading activities that would encourage effective use of schematic knowledge when dealing with texts.

III. Schema Theory and its Applications in ELT Materials Design

Communicative language teaching (CLT), which emerged in the 1970s, encouraged great emphasis on learning through interaction in the target language; use of authentic materials and tasks; and stress on the development of communicative language competence. According to Eskey and Grabe (1988), CLT contributed dramatically to the improvement in teaching reading but "clearly the major source of improvement has been the growing understanding and acceptance of psycholinguistic models of the reading process" (Eskey and Grabe, 1988:223). The following discussions illustrate a number of reading activities for ESL/EFL learners which can be found in current ELT books and which, if used effectively by both teachers and learners, would improve second language reading comprehension. Carrell (1984) suggests that ELT reading activities can be divided into two main types:

1. Reading activities mainly used to build schematic knowledge

1.1 Pre-reading activities

Insufficient background knowledge can be a reason why a text cannot be comprehended. This could be the lack of appropriate content or formal schemata, with the former referring to our knowledge about the context of a text and the latter to its organisational structures (e.g. genre differences)(Carrell, 1983,1984). It is worth mentioning that miscomprehension could also be the result of culture specific schemata. Currently available ELT teaching materials suggest that there are various pre-reading activities designed with the particular aim of aiding the growth of students' background knowledge in order to understand a text. Such activities are classroom discussions, role-plays and debates about the topic of the text; viewing movies and pictures; prior reading of similar texts; student-generated predictions about the content; familiarising with specific lexical items featuring in the text; pre-viewing activities (e.g. genre analysis); key-word or key-concept association tasks; semantic mapping or brainstorming (Carrell, 1984; Williams, 1987; Wallace, 1992). However, Carrell (1984) makes a valid point about how some pre-reading activities may act only as tools to achieve text prediction and establish reading for purpose which accesses schemata. Carrell's suggestion is that "prereading activities must accomplish both goals: building new background knowledge, as well as activating existing background knowledge" (Carrell, 1984:335).

1.2 Vocabulary instruction

When we give vocabulary instructions to students in order to aid reading comprehension and build schemata we must bare in mind how we introduce the intended vocabulary. According to Carrell (1984) simply using definitions, synonyms, antonyms etc. would be unsatisfactory. Furthermore, introducing lexical items through a single context setting and use of contextual clues also would not be enough. Carrell emphasises that "the meaning of a word is in its uses; we cannot teach the meanings of new words apart from teaching how those words are used" (Carrell, 1984:336). A solution to this as suggested by Carrell (1984) could be that language curricula incorporate general programmes for concept and vocabulary development. My teaching experience allows me to conclude that we can never give our students enough exposure to language uses, but what I could further suggest is that we could encourage independent reading outside the classroom, promote reading for pleasure as well as introduce students to different genre. I believe that the above are beneficial even though this appears to be a long-term process.

2. Reading activities mainly used to access and activate schematic knowledge

2.1 Comprehension instruction

As teachers of reading we must focus our attention on teaching reading comprehension skills as opposed to assessing and testing reading and perhaps teaching the learner how to learn is not an easy task. Hudson (1988) carried out an empirical study to observe the effects of induced schemata on the 'short-circuit' in L2 reading. The results of Hudson's study concluded that stimulating and activating schematic knowledge plays a crucial part in one's reading comprehension. The use of student self-generated or prediction questions is seen as a helpful tool for teaching comprehension skills (Carrell, 1984). Another way of improving comprehension top-down techniques could be teaching structural knowledge of a text. For instance we might teach a CV formal schema, and accompany the process with questions about this schema, which would later on enable the learners to top-down process a CV text (see Appendix 1). Another way to improve comprehension skills is to use anomalous texts (see Appendix 2). This type of activity could be very effective in encouraging top-down reading processing as "discussing the anomalies and why they do not make sense helps to sensitize students to the importance of invoking background knowledge and checking textual details against background knowledge"(Carrell, 1984:339). Other similar activities as, suggested by Carrell (1984), are nonsense texts and cloze texts where words or phrases are either substituted by nonsense words or are omitted. These types of activities are common practice in today's teaching of reading and benefit students' comprehension techniques as they allow them to activate pre-existing knowledge and make contextual guesses.

2.2 Choice of materials

We must bear in mind that the reading materials we present to our learners should be interesting, culture appropriate and relate to learners' needs and personal experiences. These assumptions and the careful exploitation of texts would assist the access and activation of schematic knowledge. Nowadays, ELT reading materials are able to accommodate the needs and interests of learners from various backgrounds. An example of this is the use of reading materials in ESP and EAP.

IV. Some Limitations in the Use of Schema Theory Applications. Suggestions for Further Applications

Below are some limitations of ST applications in the teaching of reading along with some suggestions on how to deal with these issues.

Culture-specific schemata

In addition to linguistic problems, learners may find a text difficult to comprehend because they possess culturally specific background knowledge, which may be different to the one intended by the writer. As mentioned in the last section, selecting appropriate reading materials is crucial and it could help us deal with this problem. Further suggestions made by Carrell and Eisterhold (1983), as to how to maximise reading comprehension by providing culturally specific materials, is manipulating the text itself. An example of this is using the Language Experience Approach (LEA) [4] or Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) [5] . Reflecting on my experience with teaching ESOL beginner learners, I conclude that both LEA and SSR are treated as effective and are often used by teachers in the ESL environment. We must not assume that teachers should provide learners with culture-specific texts in order to deal with comprehension. Carrell's argument is that with more advanced levels for example "when moving to texts which presume different cultural experiences, the requisite background knowledge should first be built through appropriate pre-reading activities (Carrell, 1984:340). Another valid point made by Carrell (1984) is that the lack of appropriate content schema in the reader should not necessarily signal that the content schema is culture-specific. "Absence of content schemata may be independent of culture-specificity of content. Content schemata may be absent within as well as across cultures"(Carrell, 1983:89).

Level of students

When treating ST applications, the level of the learners should be taken into consideration. We should not assume that learners at different levels possess the same reading skills and "know" how to activate, use and build their schematic knowledge. Referring back to Hudson's study mentioned in the third section of this paper, we have to ask the question whether readers at different proficiency levels deal with texts differently and whether inducement of schemata is effective across levels. To the results of Hudson's study we should add that "the advanced level readers found self-reconciliation through the text more effective than externally induced schemata" (Hudson, 1988:20). On the other hand, pre-reading activities were favoured by beginner and intermediate ESL learners. It shows that advanced level learners have utilised skills, which the lower level students would probably improve with experience. By providing suitable pre-reading activities to lower level learners we could build the foundations of effective reading skills and "learning-how-to-read" skills. Taking students' level into account is crucial as what works for some does not work for others.

Text- boundedness

When learners process a reading text they tend to rely on both bottom-up and top-down techniques. It has been suggested that efficient readers use these processes conjointly in order to achieve maximum comprehension of a text (Eskey and Grabe, 1988; Carrell, 1988). The focus of this discussion is to see what causes text-boundedness and how this can limit the applications of ST in the process of reading. Carrell (1988) suggests a number of factors which may cause text-biased processing. Such factors are schema availability, schema activation, skill deficiencies, conceptions about reading and cognitive styles. The lack of content or formal schema is one of the main causes of linguistic reliance. However, one might posses the appropriate schemata but these schemata might not be activated, which will also result in linguistic dependence. Educational habits can influence conceptions about learning. In some countries language learning is primarily associated with bottom-up processing and top-down techniques might not be seen as appropriate and effective. If we have a multi-cultural group of EFL/ESL readers it may be advisable to consider their possible conceptions about the reading process and find appropriate activities to accommodate their styles as well as introduce different reading techniques. According to Carrell " a reader's reading style maybe part of a general cognitive style of processing any incoming information, regardless of the type of information or its modality of transmission (and) those who are overly text-bound in reading situations may tend to be stimulus-bound in general" (Carrell, 1988:109).


It is fair to say that ST applications in the teaching of reading have positive contributions to ELT. Understanding a piece of written discourse goes beyond the level of the sentence and one's pre-existing knowledge of the world can make the connection between what is read and what is understood. No matter how useful schematic knowledge can be, if it is not employed efficiently it won't fully benefit the reader. As teachers we have to consider factors such as culture influence and learners' proficiency level. We must carefully exploit our reading materials and use the reading activities appropriately in order to ensure the maximum benefit of ST on our learners' reading comprehension skills.

Word Count: 3,485


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Anderson, R.C. and Pearson, P.D. (1988). 'A schema-theoretic view of basic process in reading comprehension' in Carrell, P.L, Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds.) ' Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading' Cambridge:CUP

Bartlett, F.C. (1932). 'Remembering' Cambridge: CUP

Carrell, P. (1982). 'Cohesion is not Coherence" TESOL Quarterly 16/4:479-488

Carrell, P. (1983). 'Some issues in studying the role of schemata, or background knowledge, in second language comprehension' Reading in a Foreign Language 1/2:81-92

Carrell, P. (1984). 'Schema theory and ESL reading: classroom applications and implications' The Modern Language Journal 68/4:332-343

Carrell, P. (1988). 'Some causes of text-boundedness and schema interference in ESL reading' in Carrell, P.L, Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds.) ' Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading' Cambridge:CUP

Carrell, P. and Eisterhold, J.C. (1983) 'Schema theory and ESL reading pedagogy' TESOL Quaterly 17/4:553-574

Eskey, D.E. and Grabe, W. (1988). 'Interactive models for second language reading: perspectives on instruction' in Carrell, P.L, Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds.) ' Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading' Cambridge:CUP

Gross, R.D. (2001). 'Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour' (4th edition). London: Hodder & Stoughton

Hudson, T. (1988). 'The effects of induced schemata on the "short circuit" in L2 reading: non-decoding factors in L2 reading performance' in Carrell, P.L, Devine, J. and Eskey, D.E. (eds.) ' Interactive Approaches to Second Language Reading' Cambridge:CUP

McCarthy, M. (1990). 'Vocabulary' Oxford: OUP

Minsky, M. (1975). 'A framework for representing knowledge' in Winston, P.H. (ed) 'The Psychology of Computer Vision' New York: McGraw Hill

Rumelhart, D.E. and Ortony, A. (1977). 'The Representation of knowledge in memory' in Anderson, R., Spiro, R., and Montague, W. (eds) 'Schooling and the Acquisition of Knowledge' Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Schank, R.C. and Abelson, R.P. (1977). 'Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding' Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Wallace, C. (1992). 'Reading' Oxford:OUP

Widdowson, H.G. (1983). 'Language purpose and language use' Oxford:OUP

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Appendix 1

(From Skills for Life learner materials pack, ESOL Level 1, Unit 4, page 8)