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Using the Schema-Theoretic Approach to Reading Instruction

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  • 0:03 Schema and Schema Theory
  • 1:18 Schemas & Reading…
  • 2:46 Interest in Schema Theory
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

As a reader, are you just absorbing what a text says? In this lesson, we'll discuss the role of schemas in the reading process and how we interpret more than just words on a page.

Schema and Schema Theory

A cognitive psychologist named Pam is writing a research article on schema theory. Her teenaged son, Seth, notices what she's working on and asks her what this theory is all about. This lesson reveals how Pam boils down this topic for Seth and helps him understand its relationship to reading instruction.

First, Pam aims to define the term schema for Seth. She explains that one way to describe a schema is that it's the set of knowledge and experiences we have about a topic or idea. Schemas are a way of organizing and grouping information in our minds. A schema is also what we bring to the table when we read about something.

For example, she tells Seth to describe an outdoor pool and his feelings about it. He gives her a good description, including various possible shapes for outdoor pools, what materials might be used in making a pool, and how the water would look. He also describes other associations he has with pools, like fun, relaxation, games, or even some element of danger.

Pam proposes that if Seth reads a story that includes an outdoor pool as part of the plot, he will use his own schema for outdoor pools to better comprehend the scene. If he'd never heard of or seen an outdoor pool in his life, his experience of reading about one and imagining it would be entirely different.

Schemas & Reading Comprehension

Seth finds this somewhat interesting, but wonders how a theory about schema might matter to him as a student.

Pam asks Seth to imagine he's reading a text set in another country where many people have a shrine to religious figures in their backyard. Seth's never heard of something like this, and so hesitantly says okay. Now, Pam says that he should imagine that the story is largely centered on one such shrine, even though it's never really described in any detail.

Seth says that his first thought is that he would probably understand very little about it, since he's not exactly sure what his mom is even talking about. He probably would miss key parts of the story. What Seth has realized is that his previous understanding of various schemas affects his comprehension of new information. Since he has no previous experience with private religious shrines, he can only use his schema of shrines in other circumstances. The size, items, purpose, significance, history, and look of a backyard shrine are all unknown to him, so it's nearly like starting from scratch when he reads about one.

On the other hand, if an outdoor pool is referenced, he can imagine more than what's described. He uses his previous experience of pools to fill in any gaps. He might even end up remembering something that was never even included as part of the description in the text. For example, when later asked about the pool as it's described, Seth might bring up a diving board, even though there isn't one mentioned in the text itself. This would be related to his schema of pools, which goes beyond the text itself.

Interest in Schema Theory

Seth starts to get the idea and asks his mom, who isn't a teacher, why she's so interested in this topic as a cognitive psychologist. She explains that her field is focused on cognitive processes. This includes an interest in how people learn. It might be easy to assume that a reader only comprehends information from what the text says directly, like a sponge absorbing words. However, what's happening in the brain is much more complex than that.

Reading, Pam argues, is actually an interaction of the words themselves combined with the schema an individual brings to the table. That's why Seth's comprehension of a story about an outdoor pool will likely be more thorough than his understanding of a story about backyard shrines, unless the story is explicit in describing more about shrines.

Pam explains that linguists and psycholinguists are also interested in schema theory and its implications for literacy. We create meaning when we read, she says. And researchers in those fields want to understand how words on a page can impact the way we create meaning.

Seth asks his mom to explain that topic more. How does a person ''create meaning'' when they are just reading someone else's words in a text?

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