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This paper will explore the vast realm of schema theory and the implications this theory can have on students and teachers. Schema theory describes the process by which readers combine their own background knowledge with the information in a text to comprehend that text (Stott, 2001). Teachers have long known that students come preprogrammed with certain information that they use during reading. It is critical for teachers to utilize the student's schemata in order to tap into their reading skills and build their comprehension of the text. With what could be essentially based on this theory, there has been a push to expose teachers to the benefits of allowing students to select their own text, allowing students to spend their time reading selections based on their own interest and ability levels. Teachers are also pushing for students to be exposed to greater amounts of text by completing read-alouds in the classroom which will generate greater interest in multitudes of genres and greater develop the student's schema through this exposure.
There are several different definitions that describe schema theory. Schema theory describes the process by which readers combine their own background knowledge with the information in a text to comprehend that text (Stott, 2001). Schema theory is based on the belief that "every act of comprehension involves one's knowledge of the world (Al-Issa, 2006). Schema theory, according to David E. Rumelhart, deals with knowledge, how it is represented and how this representation makes possible the use of the knowledge (Vurdien, 1994). No matter how one defines the term schema theory, it is the application of prior knowledge in order to comprehend new information and text. Students must be able to apply what they already know in order to develop a greater understand of new concepts. The idea of schemata can also be applied to making inferences and predictions. Inferencing, that is the hypothesizing or predicting that the activation of schema sets in motion, is critical in this process. Recall is important insofar as it activates the schema necessary for inferencing (Vurdien, 1994).
Since schema theory is based on the idea of being able to apply what one already knows to current text, or ideas that are being discussed, it would make sense that inferencing would be an important component in order to accurately apply schema theory. Inferencing consists of "filling in the missing connections between the surface structure fragments of the text by recourse to contest and knowledge about the world" (Vurdien, 1994). Schema serves as the basis for making inferences or reading between the lines and for making predictions based on observation of only part of the input. Schema also serves as the vehicles for searching memory for previously read material and reconstructing meaning (Sheridan, 1978). Students that understand the concept on inference will then be able to understand the concept of "reading between the lines." Authors are known for making implications within their writing, and it then becomes the reader's responsibility to decipher what the author is attempting to say or imply for the reader. Students that have a firm grasp of making inferences are then able to build up their schemata, which will lead to further understanding of greater concepts. Students that are able to make inferences while reading, and are able to rely on their schema will be able to comprehend what they read. Comprehension occurs when a reader is able to use prior knowledge and experience to interpret an author's message (Alvarez, 1989).
In order for readers to understand the concepts that are being read, there are many factors that must be taken into account. In the process of reading, "comprehension of a message entails drawing information from both the message and the internal schemata until sets are reconciled as a single schema or message. The first part of a text activates a schemaâ€¦ which is either confirmed or disconfirmed by what follows. The environment sets up powerful expectations: we are already prepared for certain genres but not for others before we open a newspaper, a scholarly journal or the box containing some machine we have just bought (Stott, 2001). Students that do not comprehend a text or reading that they are working on, based on the information provided, do not have the appropriate schemata to make sense of what they are reading. Readers make use of their schema when they can relate what they already know about a topic to the facts and ideas appearing in a text (Alvarez, 1989). Therefore, it is pertinent that the teacher present information to the students that would assist in building the appropriate schemata for the students in the classroom. Research in the area of schema theory and reading comprehension concluded that the closer the match between the reader's schema and the text, the more comprehension occurs (Al-Issa, 2006). One of the most obvious reasons why a particular content schema may fail to exist for a reader is that the schema is culturally specific and is not part of a particular reader's cultural background (Stott, 2001). This theory presents us with the notion that students are able to constantly build upon their current schema. This would make sense, simply because individuals are able to take in and retain new pieces of information. In the same fashion, we are also able to refine information that we already possess, making adjustments to that information. One's extant schemata are continually being added to, adjusted, or fine tuned, and new schemata are created when one deposits new information in one's knowledge bank (Vurdien, 1994). Most, if not all, research in this area seem to agree that when students are familiar with the topic of the text they are reading (i.e., possess content schema), aware of the discourse level and structural make-up of the genre of the text (i.e., possess formal schema), and skillful in the decoding features needed to recognize how they fit together in a sentence (i.e., possess language schema), they are in a better position to comprehend their assigned reading (Al-Issa, 2006).
Although it is easy to say that a reader needs to apply their schemata to the task at hand, there is much more to it than that. Students must first activate their schema, and teachers are able to assist them with that. In addition to activating their schema, teachers also need to assist their students in constructing new schema. As Bransford points out, schema activation and schema construction are two different problems (Alvarez, 1989). Students must put themselves in a place of readiness. They must have an understanding of what they are going to be reading in order to rely on their current existing schema, as well as build new schema in order to comprehend their current reading as well as future readings. There are several activities that students can engage in that would assist them in activating their schema. Prereading strategies have been developed to help students relate new information appearing in written discourse to their existing knowledge. The design of many of these preorganizers reflects Ausubel's definition of readiness and the purpose of their use is to create a mind set prior to reading. These preorganizers have included advance organizers, structured overviews or graphic organizers, previews, concept maps, and thematic organizers (Alvarez, 1989). This presents students with the opportunity to begin building new schemata on subjects or topics where they may possess none or limited schema. Every culture-specific interference problem dealt with in the classroom presents an opportunity to build new culture-specific schemata that will be available to the EFL/ESL student outside the classroom. Rather than attempting to neutralize texts, it would seem more suitable to prepare students by "helping them build background knowledge on the topic prior to reading, through appropriate prereading activities" (Stott, 2001). In addition to the methods already mentioned to activate a student's schemata, Carrell lists numerous ways in which relevant schemata may be constructed, including lectures, visual aids, demonstrations, real-life experiences, discussion, role-play, text previewing, introduction and discussion of key vocabulary, and key-word/key-concept association activities (Stott, 2001). If a child had difficulty maintaining schemata, separate sentences can be combined with cue words such as "because, since, after, or therefore" that link relationships between two concepts. Visual aid in the form of graphs, flow charts, outlines, and the like, as well as highlighting text, will also help the child with schema maintenance (Vurdien, 1994). Perhaps the best method of building prior knowledge is to expose children to a variety of experiences and information. Planned trips to museums, farms, zoos, and businesses; hands-on activities such as cooking, constructing models, and making costumes; watching movies, videos, and filmstrips; and hearing stories read aloud are a few examples or enriching activities that will result in adding schemata to a child's mental repository (Vurdien, 1994).
While it is possible to activate existing schemata with a given topic, it does not necessarily follow that a learner can use this activated knowledge to develop new knowledge and skills. Students can be taught to incorporate new information into their existing world knowledge. This can be accomplished through teacher guided instruction and self-initiated strategies that includes methods and meaningful materials that induce critical thinking with conceptual problems. In order for schema construction to occur, a framework needs to be provided that helps readers to elaborate upon new facts and ideas and to clarify their significance or relevance (Alvarez, 1989).
While working with students, teachers need to remember that young children are not going to be entering the classroom with the same experiences as the teacher, and are going to be limited in their worldly experiences. Therefore, children are going to need assistance in order to gain the background knowledge or schema that would be necessary in order to comprehend different texts. When presenting a new text to students teachers would be greatly assisting their students by explaining different elements that may be contained within the text if students have not been exposed to the information, they possess no schema. This would include information that is pertinent to culturally significant texts. Those stories that contain information about different cultures are going to be increasingly difficult for many students since it would be safe to assume a great number of the students would not have experiences with that culture. It seems rather self evident that if we want students to comprehend a text in a particular way, that we should assist them in setting up the dominant structure for doing so. It should also be apparent that we cannot presume that students have schemata for all the possible purposes for reading, and need instruction which first provides those models or exemplars so that students can develop schemata which can be used as the basis for inferring when faced with the purpose in another context (Sheridan, 1978).
Probably one of the most significant elements behind schema theory is the fact that it has absolutely tremendous benefits for all students, not just those that are considered ELL or ESL students. It is true that English language learners do not have the same experiences as the native English speakers that are in the classroom. However, do not all students enter the classroom with differences, and varying experiences? Do not all students have varying experiences among the students in classroom; meaning that every student enters the classroom with a great number of different experiences, but no two students have the same experiences. Although this theory would benefit all of the English language learners by providing them the opportunity to have assistance in building up their schemata and their prior knowledge, but this too, would assist all of the students to build prior knowledge on topics that are going to be covered that they may not have had any exposure to themselves. If children lack sufficient schemata, they can be helped to build new schemata by exposure to analogies and comparison that will make the transition from their current knowledge to new knowledge (Vurdien, 1994).
In the same respect, students that are assisted in building-up their background knowledge and their schemata are also assisted in advancing their ability to make inferences. Inferencing, that is the hypothesizing or predicting that the activation of schema sets in motion, is critical in this process. Recall is important insofar as it activates the schema necessary for inferencing (Vurdien, 1994). Why would building-up a student's schema be beneficial when working with inferencing? Simply stated, the two are interrelated. Both schema and inferencing are intertwined together making one impossible without the other. Inferencing is the ability to take the information that is being told to a reader, along with the information that a reader already knows about the subject being discussed, and connect the two in order to generate ideas about what is actually being discussed. As it was stated previously, making inferences is the ability for the reader to "read between the lines." How would such an ambiguous philosophy even be feasible without prior knowledge regarding the topic?
Schema theory is something that teachers need to understand and delve into in order to gain a better understanding of why their students may or may not comprehend certain text. Teachers understand that students need to read, and that the more they do read the greater their vocabulary and their understanding of different texts. This is what schema theory is telling us. Students that read are going to have a much more vast understanding of different concepts, therefore, their schemata is going to be far superior compared to that of a student whom doesn't read often. In order for students to have greater understanding, it must be build upon. This fits directly into the concept of scaffolding, which most teachers know, and understand. Scaffolding is a concept that states that a student's knowledge must be built-up. Students need to be reminded of material they have already learned, and then teach them a new concept that fits into what they already know. This will help to develop the understanding of a new concept in greater detail. The same is true for schema theory; teachers must teach their students using information that they already possess in order for them to comprehend in greater detail. If something is being taught that students do not already have prior knowledge about, it must first be introduced before the students will be able to comprehend the concept.