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A Schema Theoretic View

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English Language has been widely spoken and used all over the world. With the world becoming smaller due to globalisation, English Language has become the second language in Malaysia, used in everyday conversation among family, friends and colleagues. Therefore, English Language is a compulsory subject taught at all levels in every Malaysian school based on four skills, listening, speaking, reading and writing where reading plays an important role. In this essay, there were six studies on schema-theoretic view of reading in English as a second language in Malaysia.

Reading can be defined as an interactive process for reading to construct a meaningful presentation of text using their schemata. It is an important concept in EFL teaching and reading tasks are designed to activate the learners’ schemata. Reading usually is between the reader and the text. Therefore, for English learners, reading is a basic and important criterion to improve their reading ability. Reading comprehension is a purpose for the readers to get the correct message from a text written by the writer. It is also one of the main purposes of ESL teaching and learning.

Schema? What is schema? According to Abbas Pourhosein Gilakjani and Seyedeh Masoumeh Ahmadi cited in Anderson and Pearson(2011) that a reader’s schema or knowledge had already stored in their memory, function in the process of interpreting new information and allowing it to enter and become part of the knowledge store. They also stated that schema is an abstract knowledge structure and it was structured to represent relationships among its component parts. Schema is the plural form that refers to an individual’s background knowledge. A schema is also the singular forms that refer to one chunk of knowledge.

Meanwhile, schema theory is a reading process where readers combined their previous knowledge with the text they are reading. According to Rumelhart (1980), schema theory is basically a theory of how knowledge is mentally represented in the mind and used. A gestalt psychologist, Bartlett(1932) believed that our memories of discourse was constructive which uses information from the encountered discourse, together with knowledge from past experience related to the discourse to build a mental representation. All in all, schema-theoretic research highlights the readers’ problem related to absent or alternate schema, as well as no-activation of schema and the overuse of background knowledge.

Actually, this theory has come a long way throughout the history. It is said that schema theory is not a new idea by Tim Daly, because it have been mentioned during the Plato era. According to Parviz Ajideh (2003), Plato had elaborated the Greek tenets of ideal types as the perfect circle that exists in the mind but no one has ever seen. In 1781, Immanuel Kant, 18th century philosopher, developed the idea and introduced the word schema, where he speaks of the innate structure which organize the world. Therefore, the schema concept has already been found in his writings.

Then, Barlett developed the schema by proposing a completely new form of mental representation. It was unlucky for him because his proposal was made during the behaviourism period where mental existences were to be excluded from scientific psychology in 1920. But, he continued his study by gathering data on human memory. In 1932, Barlett published his book, Remembering, after he spent time interacting with Henry Head, a neurologist. In his book, Barlett presumed that a person understanding and remembrance of events is shaped by their prior knowledge. Due to lack of precise definition, his ideas were swept aside during the behaviourism period. Parviz Ajideh (2003) cited Khemlani and Lyne (2000) that since the late 1960s, a number of theorists had developed interactive theory where reading plays an important role of the reader and the knowledge he or she brings to bear on the text in the reading process.

In the study, Li Xiao Hui, Wu Jun and Wang Wei Hua mentioned that there are three main types of schema. They are formal schema, content schema and linguistic schema. Formal schema is the organizational forms and rhetorical structures of written texts which cover language, vocabulary and genre. It is divided into three components. They are language knowledge, genre knowledge and meta-linguistic knowledge. Aebersold and Field (1997) describe a language schema involves skills such as decoding words and organising grammatical structure. The language ability depends on a person’s age, their experience, their vocabulary size and their knowledge of textual conventions. It is said that the more language knowledge a person has, the quicker they process a given text. In other word, language knowledge is the ability that one brings from reading in the first language to reading in the second which means readers need to be able to read well in their first language (mother tongue) in order to read well in the second language.

Genre knowledge helps us better to predict what we are going to read about, how it will be organised and the kind of vocabulary and syntactic structures we are likely to encounter. For example, we can recognise a letter of rejection within the first couple of lines of a text. Meta-linguistic knowledge is a knowledge of how a language is structured which leads to an improvement in reading comprehension. Therefore, formal schema is described as abstract, encoded and internalized that guide expectation in the attempts to understand a meaning piece of language. Example: fictions, poems, essays, newspaper articles and so on. Next is on, content schema. Content schema refers to the background knowledge of the content are of a text or the topic a text talks about which includes subject knowledge, knowledge of the world and cultural knowledge. Subject knowledge is where we comprehend a text better if we have prior knowledge of the subject being discussed. It is because if someone without prior knowledge will face difficulty understanding a text. Knowledge of the world is described as a way of organising knowledge and experience in the brain. Knowledge of the world has to do with the way how our brain stores experiences. Cultural knowledge is about the effect of cultural norms on the recall of information. It is to help students overcome problems of comprehensions. Many studies mentioned that content schema influence their reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension is a very complex process and in order to grasp how readers make sense of written symbols. It is necessary that the process of reading comprehension and the role of factors leading to the product of this process be understand properly. Rumelhart (1980) believes that comprehension is the process of selecting the schema input information and variable constraints. Reading comprehension inputs some amount of information and then searches for the schema illustrating the information. Comprehension is said to generate when such schema are specified or slots are filled. It is believed that schemas in human’s mind have different levels and the comprehension process is bound to reflect the levels. Moreover, schema theory in reading comprehension is not confined to content information, whether relating to general knowledge or to knowledge of a specific subject area domain.

According to the schema theory, a text provides direction of meaning. It is the readers who employ their prior knowledge to construct meaning from the text. This suggests that comprehension is the result of reader-text comprehension. Nigel Scott cited in Anderson et al in Hudson (1982) mentioned that in the process of reading, comprehension of a message entails drawing information from both the message and the internal schema until sets are reconciled as a single schema or message. Therefore, the reading process involves the identification of genre, formal structure and topic which activate schema and allows reader to comprehend the text where comprehension may occur. There are researched mentioned that reading comprehension had a great impact on the theory of schema. Therefore, it is clear that schema plays an important role in reading comprehension in ESL teaching and learning.

Theorist believed that schema is a data structure of general ideas stored in memory which consists of variables and slots where the readers mind is depending on the activation of his or her brain schema which controlling structure in a basic moving pattern through models. These models describe readers of the native language that a thorough understanding is important before one understands the reading processes of second or foreign language readers and what researchers understand about second language reading based widely on their understanding of first language reading.

Psychologists has generally imposed that there are three models in reading process. They are the bottom-up model, the top-down model and the interactive model. As James Peterson cited in Carrell (1988) writes that a bottom-up model sees reading as decoding letters into words and words into sentences while in top-down model, reader’s background knowledge is stimulate by the visual cues from the text.

Gough (1972) is a significant psychologist of the bottom-up model. According to the bottom-up model by Gough, reading begins with the eyes identifying visual information from the reading text where visual information is picked up during the process of a fixation. Reading in bottom-up model perceived as a serial process which begins from left to right. Li Xiao Hui, Wu Jun and Wang Wei Hua of School of Foreign Languages, Wuhan University, Wuhan, China mentioned that bottom-up model holds the view that reading is a process of building symbols into words, words into sentences and sentences into the overall meaning, which reflects traditional attitudes toward reading. In this model, readers need to identify each letter from the lowest level, from which the letter are identified at a time. Then, the identification of letters is followed by sounds whew lexical items are identified through grapheme-phoneme correspondence and finally placed in the short-term memory. Here, words are analysed into phrases and sentences and the meaning of the text is expected to comprehend naturally as the code is broken based on the reader’s prior knowledge of linguistics like vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

This model is also called as the “outside in model” where readers begin from the print and work on the accurate identification of letters, words, phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs and their pronunciation. It is believed that meaning of the text and the successful of reading depends on the ability of the reader to decode it accurately where readers need to read word by word instead of meaningful chunk and pronounce all the words in the print before meaning can be achieved. According to Upton (1993), during the early stages as in the sixties and seventies, bottom-up models have had a great influence on conceptualizing L2 reading processes. But, this model is said to weaken the significance of reading comprehension because it focus more on the understanding of linguistic knowledge rather that schema. This is because reading comprehension is a receptive process while pronunciation is a productive process.

Thus, a good reading model needs to consider the decoding process as a contributing factor to reading. For this reason, top-down model accentuates the use of readers’ real world knowledge in memory. Here, readers will use their non-visual information to select minimum visual cues and meaning is achieved through the use of such higher level information. According to Goodman (1971) mentioned that reading is a psycholinguistics guessing game. It involves an interaction between thought and language. Goodman also mentioned that efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all elements but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right for the first time. It also needs interactive use of grapho-phonic, syntactic and semantic evidence to construct meaning. In top-down model, readers are engaged in a cycle of forming a hypothesis, sampling the input and testing it or re-hypothesising the hypothesis and sampling again.

The hypothesis procedure consists of five different processes which are recognition-initiation, prediction, confirmation, correction and termination. During the reading process, readers start reading by matching what they know with the meaning they derive from the text and make prediction based on the higher level and general schema. Then, they will sample the text by choosing the most productive language cues of the printed text and test their hypothesis. As a result, the top-down model can effectively account for skilled reading in both L1 and L2, however, just like the bottom-up model, top-down model also have their weaknesses. The readers may make a wrong guesses or over-reading and do not rely on their predictive skills to interpret texts. It also over-emphasises higher level skills. Therefore, comprehension reading may not be possible.

Besides, the bottom-up and top-down model, there is still a model which is influenced by the bottom-up and top-down model, namely, interactive model. The interactive model claims that prior knowledge and prediction facilitate the processing of input from the text. The interaction takes place in three levels. The levels are the interaction between lower-level and higher-level, between bottom-up and top-down processing and between the background knowledge posited in the text and the background of the reader. According to Rumelhart (1977), reading is at once a perceptual and a cognitive process which begins with a flutter of patterns on the retina and ends successfully with a definite idea about the author’s intended message. His statement is said to be similar to the view of Gough (1972) where reading begins with the eyes identifying visual information from the text.

Here, the most important construction process of meaning takes place where various source of knowledge both sensory and non-sensory come together at one place and reading process is the product of the simultaneous joint application of all the knowledge sources. Besides Rumelhart, Stanovich (1980,1981) states that interactive model assume that pattern is synthesised based on information provided simultaneously from severl knowledge sources. He elaborates the interactive model and integrates it with what is referred to as the compensatory assumption which states that a deficit in any knowledge sources result in a heavier reliance on the other knowledge sources regardless of their level in the processing hierarchy. That’s means that any type of knowledge may interact with any other types of knowledge at any stage when processing a text. Therefore until now, the interactive model is the most effective reading model because it is advocated by many researchers.

I believe that the three models mentioned earlier have their own strength in reading comprehension. It is necessary for the readers to recognize and understand the difference between the bottom-up and top-down model. Therefore, it is important for the reader to develop his or her own ideas and perspective on the process which will be a better guide in his or her study of reading. In the two models, they emphasize that background knowledge are important in both models. I agreed that students need background knowledge to understand the text, but they also need vocabulary and word recognition skills. If the students are discouraged from using dictionaries or asking someone the meaning, for sure, they will go in the wrong direction.

Therefore, learners are encouraged to use both, bottom-up and top-down model to help them understand a text. For example in a reading comprehension, learners use their knowledge to predict what will be in the text (top-down) and their understanding to guess meaning (bottom-up). Besides that, there is another model which is the interactive model. The model is a combination of top-down and bottom-up model. I found that the student who benefit the most from this model are those poor students who approached texts in a painful, slow and frustrating word-by-word manner. Thus, by improving their decoding skills, they are freed to concentrate on global meanings.

The implications that schema theory holds for the classroom generally depends on which view of schema theory you adopt. In general, the more schematic knowledge a reader brings to a reading passage the better he or she is able to make predictions and inferences about a text and the better he or she is able to comprehend it. The readers can only fully understand a text if they already know quite a bit of what in the text. In other words, if the reader is lacking the necessary schema required by a text or his schema is not sufficiently developed for a particular reading task, the ESL learner must deal with both the linguistic complexities of a text such as vocabulary and syntax, as well as, the content. Therefore, a teacher must be sensitive to potential comprehension difficulties which ESL readers may encounter with a text due to a lack of familiarity with the culture-specific content the text presumes.

Teaching the L2 students to read is not achievable by simply choosing any text or reading materials and expecting the students to make sense out of them. Teachers should realize that the extent to which L2 readers are familiar with the content of the text has a large impact on their reading comprehension. Teachers also should minimize their students’ reading difficulties by providing them with a familiar content which include cultural information. Selected reading material also must initiate the students’ schema for a better understanding of what is being read. Therefore, there are three main implications for teachers. Firstly, teacher must take account the knowledge on the written text is based. Secondly, if the reader is not actively using his or her background knowledge, part of the reading process in not taking place. Thirdly, teachers should have as their principal objective of development which the student can exploit whatever knowledge they may have. Thus, teacher must use their background knowledge to help them become a good reader.

According to Carrell and Floyd (1987), ESL teachers must provide the student with appropriate schema he or she is lacking and also teach them how to build bridges between a student’s existing knowledge and new knowledge needed for text comprehension. Therefore, there are three phases the teachers should engage their students in schema-activating activities during the reading process. The three phases are pre-reading phase, reading or while reading phrase and post reading phase for teaching reading comprehension. PRE-READING

The first phase, the pre-reading phase, is the most important phase for building background knowledge. This phase is important as it helps student to focus on the task at hand. It also encourages predictions to be made and tested and provides for gaps in background knowledge. Therefore, pre-reading phrases aimed to activate exciting schema, build new schema and provide information to the teacher about what the students know. According to Chastain (1988) cited by Praviz Adijeh that the purpose of pre-reading activities is to motivate the students to want to read the text and prepare them to be able to read it.

The pre-reading phase begins with the teacher introduce a keyword, concept or picture to stimulate a discussion. The students will say anything that comes in their mind or thought and have the information written on the board so that students can see the associations. By asking questions, students became aware of the associations. The students also have the opportunity to listen to other explanations and interact with other students. Pre-reading phase also can be as simple as having a discussion about certain topic. Thus, pre-reading activities can include assessing of prior knowledge, writing about your experience to the topic, asking questions based on the title, semantic mapping, making predictions, skimming for general ideas, reading the introduction and conclusion and also writing a summary of the article based on previewing. WHILE READING

The second phase is while reading or reading phase, where the students read about the subject. Here, in reading or while reading phase, students continue to build their own existing schema. Their knowledge of the subject becomes greater each time they read on the same subject. According to Pearson and Johnson, the questions should be textual explicit or schematically explicit. During reading, students are required to read the text for different purposes for example, for their vocabulary, main ideas, skimming, and scanning. The while reading activities consist of taking notes, reacting, predicting, selecting significant information, questioning the writer’s position, evaluating and placing a text within one’s own experiences. POST READING

The last phase of reading is post reading phase. In the post reading phase, teacher checks the students’ comprehension and retention of the information of a text that they have already tackled. the post reading phase can take place as a discussion or debate on the text or the issues raised in it. Readers can be encouraged to describe what they got from the text or how they interpret it. Students also could be asked to write comprehension questions for other students. Therefore, Carrell (1984) mentioned that post reading phase helps develop comprehension skills as well as encouraging a reader’s ownership of the text. The phase includes some activities, for instance, summarization or paraphrase, reflection, mapping, seeking feedback, journals, reading logs and note- taking. IDEAS ON ITS APPLICATION IN THE CLASSROOM

I believe that reading in the classroom has several specific features which make it different from real-life reading. First, it is time-limited. There are rarely English classes in which students do only reading comprehension activities. They are generally combined with speaking, listening, writing and grammar exercises. The duration of the lesson is also limited. Second, the text may not be one that students would normally choose to read outside the classroom and the material is always more difficult to understand if it is outside their personal taste, experience and interest.

But, I still believe that comprehension reading still can be conducted in ESL classroom. For example, during pre-reading stage, teacher can ask pupils to think of a name of a big animal (i.e whale). The pupils for sure will come out with the correct answer. Teacher asks the student to think the things they know about whale and what they are not sure of. In group, students write a list of what they know and not sure about the whale. In the second stage, students will be given a text on whale. Students are asked to find and compare their answer to the text and state what they are not sure of. In the last stage, pupils can be asked to write a letter to teacher on what they still not sure of the whale.


In conclusion, schema theory is described as theory of individuals’ prior knowledge which is classified into different types of knowledge. There is no doubt that schema has positively affected the educational field. Particularly, schema theory has great impact on teaching strategies of reading comprehension and listening process. Therefore knowledge of schema theory is of a specific importance to teachers who are accountable for recommending materials for reading instruction mainly on his or her ESL teacher’s ability to activate the student’s related schemata through classroom activities and teaching techniques. Finally, on my point of view I recommend that teachers should be aware before deciding on which reading and listening materials are to use in L2 classrooms.


1.Daly, Tim. Schema Theory : Getting into the Minds of Your Learners 2.Peterson, James. (1998). Schema Theory and its implications for the EFL classroom 3. Stott, Nigel. (2001).Helping ESL Students Become Better Readers: Schema Theory Applications and Limitations

4.Gilakkani, Abbas Pourhosein and Ahmadi, eyedeh Masoudeh.(2011). The
Relationship between L2 Reading Comprehension and Schema Theory : A Matter of
Text Familiarity
5.Xiao Hui, Lee, Jun, Wu and Wei Hua, Wang. (2007). Analysis of schema theory and
its influence on reading
6.Ajideh, Parviz. (2003). Schema Theory-based Pre-reading Tasks : A Neglected
Essential In The ESL Reading Class

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