Assignment On Schema Theory and its impact on current approaches of Reading

The term schema was first used by Piaget in 1962. Later this theory was developed by R.C. Anderson, a respected educational psychologist. This learning theory views organized knowledge as an elaborate network of abstract mental structures which represent one’s understanding of the world.
According to the schema theory, comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. If a British reader walks past a newspaper stand and sees the headline ‘England in six wicket collapse’ he or she will almost certainly guess that the England cricket team has been beaten in an international match. This guess will be based on the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of newspaper, their experience of how headlines are constructed, their understanding that wicket is a cricketing term, and their knowledge that England has not been doing too well in the sport lately. If the reader then goes on to buy the newspaper he or she will use all this pre-existing knowledge to predict the relevant article’s contents both before and during the reading of it. However, a reader who did not have such pre-existing knowledge (because he or she did not know anything about cricket, for example) would find the reading task more difficult. What the example suggests is that- understanding a piece of discourse involves much more than just knowing the language. In order to make sense of any text we need to have ‘pre-existent knowledge of the world’ (Cook 1989 : 69). Such knowledge is often referred to as schema (Plural Schemata).

Schema theory is based on the belief that “every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well” (Anderson et al. in Carrel and Eisterhold 1983 : 73). Thus, readers develop a coherent interpretation of text through the interactive process of “combining textual information with information a reader brings to a text” (Widdowson in Grabe 1988 : 56). Reader’s mental stores are termed ‘schemata’ (after Bartlett in Cook 1997 : 86) and are divided (following Carrell 1983a) into two main types : ‘content schemata’ (background knowledge of the world) and ‘formal schemata’ (background knowledge of rhetorical structure). Each of us carries in our heads mental representations of typical situations that we come across. When we are stimulated by particular words, discourse patterns, or contexts, such schematic knowledge is activated and we are able to recognise what we see or hear because it fits into patterns that we already know. As Chris Tribble points out, we recognise a letter of rejection or a letter offering a job within the first couple of lines (Tribble 1997 : 35). When we see a written text our schematic knowledge may first tell us what kind of text genre we are dealing with. Thus if we recognise an extract as coming from a novel we will have expectations about the kind of text we are going to read. These will be different from the expectations aroused if we recognise a piece of text as coming from an instruction manual. Knowing what kind of text we are dealing with allows us t predict the form it may take at the text, paragraph and sentence level, key words and phrases alert us to the subject of a text, and this again allows us, as we read, to predict what is coming next. In conversation a knowledge of typical interactions helps participants to communicate efficiently. As the conversation continues, the speakers and listeners draw upon various schemata- including genre, topic, discourse patterning and the use of specific language features- to help them make sense of what they are hearing. As with readers, such schemata arouse expectations which allow listeners to predict what will happen in the conversation. Such predictions give the interaction a far greater chance of success than if the participants did not have such pre-existing knowledge to draw upon.