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Schema Theory

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 9 months ago

Amanda Hatten

Maleesa Redish

Raiza Garcia





Structure of the Schema Theory

Schema Effects Comprehension

Modifying a Schema

Inferencing- A Key Process

The Role Attention Plays

Schema Influences Memory


External Links



Schema theory is vital to developing comprehension in reading. When students access prior knowledge, their comprehension ability is so much greater than it would be without any prior information or motivation to read. By scaffolding learning and using what the students already know, educators are providing students with a gateway to understanding far more than they would be capable of without unlocking their mental filing cabinets.


Structure of the Schema Theory

All schema is rooted in additional schemata and contains what Anderson described as subschema. When schema is activated it involves the relationship of how the different knowledge parts stored connect to make meaning of text. These parts have been referred to as "nodes", "variables",or "slots" (Anderson & Pearson, 1984). When the schema is activated these parts are filled with some prior knowledge. This prior knowledge is made up of their own personal knowledge of the world. Personal knowledge is created by a readers culture. A hypothesis presented by Reynolds, Taylor, Steffensen, Shirley, and Anderson in 1982 stated that "culture influences knowledge, beliefs, and values; and that knowledge, beliefs, and values influence comprehension processes" (p.354). Once one schema part is activated it is likely that these parts will remind the reader of more schema parts. There is a strong interconnection between each of the parts of the schema to represent the whole schema a reader activates when encountering text.The most important aspect of the schema theory as it relates to comprehension is "seeing the significance of the parts to the whole" (Anderson & Pearson,1984).


Schema Effects Comprehension

In an experiment done by Bransford and Johnson in 1973 they found that schemata has strong effects on comprehension. Thier study "demonstrated an extreme case of inadequate comprehension due to a failure of a relevant schema to be activated"(p. 287). The subjects tested in the study did much better on recall of the passages when their prior knowledge was activated. The subjects that had little or no prior knowledge did poorly on the comprehension recall of the passage. This study helped to prove that appropriate schema of a topic helps the reader make meaning of the text or vocabulary involved in a text. (Freebody & Anderson, 1983). Additionally, Anderson, Spiro, and Anderson (1978) note that "the schemata a person already possesses are a principal determiner of what will be learned from a new text" (p. 439). This is logical in the case of students with different background knowledge. Decoding abilities are essential, but will not increase comprehension without a strong foundation for the new information to build upon.


Modifying a Schema

According to Anderson, schema is constantly modified. As an individual gains knowledge their mental filing cabinets begin to reorganize, routinely re-arranging, adapting, and restructuring concepts based on what is being learned and experienced. Not only is schemata modified by being continuously reorganized within the mind, but it also grows larger and becomes more specific and detailed from moment to moment as new information is received. When new information is presented to a reader that is reliable or credible to the reader they modify their existing schema. Most readers will check their exisiting schema of the content presented and check that the new information is consistent with what has already been stored in their schemata. The reader makes the decision to either add the information to the schema or reject the information as conflicting information with what the reader believes to be true (Anderson & Pearson 1984).



Inferencing- A Key Process

Prior knowledge (organized into schema) has been proven to have a significant influence over comprehension. A students ability to make sensible inferences tells us that the student has made connections with the text and is comprehending what is being read. It has been shown that while high achieving readers tap prior knowledge to make inferences, poor readers often have trouble applying prior knowledge to form inferences(Carr & Thompson, 1996)and comprehend text. Anderson and his colleagues believe that inferences can be made at two different times during the reading process. They can be made when the reader is actually decoding or when they are searching their memory for more information. Anderson identified four kinds of inferences that are made during the reading comprehension process. The first type of inferences are the kind that the reader narrows the schema down to decide which schema would be appropriate for the text at hand. The second kind of inference Anderson calls the process of instantiating slots within a particular schema. The reader is filling a slot of missing information with an appropriate schema. “The reader can also fill the slot by assigning default values.” The fourth type of inference involves the reader drawing their own logical conclusion based on the knowledge provided. This inference is used when there is a lack of knowledge written in the text. Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, and Goetz in 1977 described the role of inferencing in the schema-theory stating, “First, schema selection is often based upon inference, then the schema one selects influences the amount and nature of recall, and once a schema has been selected, even by inference, it will drive other inferences, particularly slot-filling inferences”(p.270). Surprisingly, age can play an active role in ones ability to make sensible inferences. Researchers have argued over why age is related to the inference process and some believe as humans get older they have more schema to choose from to draw more inferences (Anderson & Pearson, 1984).



The Role Attention Plays

One theory Anderson used in 1984 to describe the relationship between schema and attention plays a significant role in comprhension of text. Anderson suggest that a reader is more likely to remember and learn something from the text if they think it is important. "The readers selectively attend to important elements in the text" (p.272). This theory involved three steps to which the new schema presented is processed and stored. The first step is the reader judging the importance of the text. The reader pays extra attention to the schema that exceeds the level of importance. These schema that have the extra attention in turn are learned better and remembered better. There have been empirical studies that have tested this selective-attention model. In 1979 Rothkopf and Billington completed three experiments involving reading with selective-attention on high-school students. The students were given learning objectives to memorize and study before they were given a reading passage. The data concluded the students who were given the learning objectives prior to the reading spent more time on the sentences that were relevant to those learning objectives. They also spent less time on sentences that did not involve one of the learning objectives compared to students who did not have any objectives before the reading. The researchers also followed the eye-patterns of the readers and reported these patterns to be consistent with the reading-time spent on certain sentences. The students who were given the learning objectives prior to the passage learned and remembered more information relevant to those objectives then the rest of the passage (Anderson & Pearson, 1984).


Schema Influences Memory

Since schemata is essentially the organization of ones knowledge, memory plays a vital role in the schema theory. Humans learn many concepts each day, some which are revisited regularly and some of which are stored in the back of the mind for later use. Since all previous knowledge is not used on a day to day basis some of the information that is learned is also forgotten. For this purpose, think of forgotten information as memory loss (the information still exists, but you have to find it). Though adequate prior knowledge may exist, the memory may need to stirred in order for it to resurface. Studies have shown that subjects who are prompted by examiners to activate relevant schemata often perform higher on comprehension activites than subjects who are required to activate thier own relevant schemata (Carr & Thompson, 1996). As an educator we must be aware of this fact and be sensitive to the likely hood that even if a child has adequate prior knowledge in a subject area they may need assistance recalling information that they already know in order to apply it to new information as it is learned. Anderson attempted to answer the question of how a person's schema influences memory. He came up with three different possible answers. The first one he labeled the retrieval-plan hypothesis which involves a "top-down" search of schema in the memory. The reader is activating general schema related to the information in the text and connecting the schema to the concepts presented. The second hypothesis Anderson described is the output-editing hypothesis. This involves the reader selecting or rejecting information presented based on their own schema already created in their memory. The third hypothesis Anderson created was the reconstruction hypothesis. "According to this hypothesis, the person generates inferences about what must have been in the passage based on his schema and aspects of the passage that can be recalled" (p.281).




Below you will find an sample schema theory of the term "egg". This illustrates how a person's memory influences their comprehension and links to many other areas. This diagram was produced from the below listed external link for Lingalinks.




In comprehending text, much more goes on in the brain than simple decoding. The reader must visit several previous learning experiences to fully comprehend what they are reading, and this builds a strong foundation for true comprehension to occur. If students are not motivated to read or do not have enough background knowledge, they will likely have poor retelling abilities. Their mental filing system must be unlocked, organized, and re-arranged to bring forth the knowledge they will need to succeed. When the reader has the information they need before opening the book and looking at the text, they will be far more successful.




Anderson, R., Pearson, P. (1984. A Schema-Theoretic View of Basic Processes in Reading Comprehension. Technical Report No. 306.


Anderson, R., Spiro, R., Anderson, M. Schemata as Scaffolding for the Representation of Information in Connected Discourse. American Educational Research Journal. (15) 3.


Carr, S. & Thompson, B. (1996). The Effects of Prior Knowledge and Schema Activation Strategies on the Inferential Reading Comprehension of Children With and Without Learning Disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly. Vol. 19.


Freebody, P., Anderson,R. (1983). Effects of Vocabulary Difficulty, Text Cohesion, and Schema Availability on Reading Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly. (28)3.


Reynolds, R., Taylor, M., Steffensen, M., Shirey, L., Anderson,R. (1982). Cultural Schemata and Reading Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly. (27)3.

External Links


LinguaLinks Page

This is a Lingualinks page about schema theory, including a diagram of a sample schema. It also has a link to cognitive theories of learning.


Schema Theory for Dummies

This site gives a brief history of the development of schema theory, along with some real-world examples of how schema theory influences brain activity. The text is easy to understand and discusses how researchers came to understand this theory.


The Organization of Knowledge

This link connects to a well-developed site that is part of a working paper. It includes research by Anderson and Pearson, as well as an example of a restaurant schema.


Schema Theory-based Pre-reading Tasks

This link connects to an article on the using schema theory-based pre-reading tasks to motivate learners and bring forth prior knowledge for ESL students.


A Review of Theorists

Several theorists have contributed over time to the development of schema theory. This site gives a brief history of the impacts each researcher contributed to it's development.



Comments by Suzanne Pfeiffer

The first sentence of Structure of the Schema Theory needs more definition. Linking schemata to the supplemental page you created would be helpful here and also defining subschema with a supplemental page would help clarify the term.

A table would be helpful in the Inferencing Section – organize the “four kinds of inferences that are made during the reading comprehension process” into a table so the information can be accessed easily.

You currently have a period after “text” and after your cite: This study helped to prove that appropriate schema of a topic helps the reader make meaning of the text or vocabulary involved in a text. (Freebody & Anderson, 1983).

The fourth sentence of Schema Effects Comprehension should read … vocabulary involved in a text (Freebody & Anderson, 1983).

Also, your schema theory sample of the term "egg" is not loading.

Overall I think the page is organized well and provides good, accurate information. I would like to see more information of how schema theory affect comprehension.


Comments by Cynthia Boles


Well, Suzanne covered much of what I wanted to say. However, I do have a few suggestions.


Under the section entitled, Inferencing, was there any research about the role that developmental stages(in relation to age)play in one's ability to make sensible inferences?


"Studies have shown that subjects who are prompted by examiners to activate relevant schemata often perform higher on comprehension activites than subjects who are required to activate thier own relevant schemata." It might be helpful to talk about some ways that educators can help activate prior knowledge.


One proofreading item: the word their is misspelled in the paper as "thier."


Overall, I think your page is well written and very informative. Good job ladies!

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