The Schema Theory

Schema theory is an explanation of how readers use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from the text (Rumelhart, 1980). The term “schema” was first used in psychology by Barlett as “an active organization of past reactions or experiences” (1932, p.201). Later, schema was introduced in reading by Rumelhart (1980), Carrell (1981) and Hudson (1982) when discussing the important role of background knowledge in reading comprehension (all cited in An, 2013).

The fundamental principle of the schema theory assumes that written text does not carry meaning by itself. Rather, a text-only provides directions for readers as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own previously acquired knowledge (An, 2013).

According to schema theory, comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. Efficient comprehension requires the ability to relate the textual material to one’s own knowledge. As Anderson (1977, p. 369) points out, “every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well”. Reading comprehension operates in two directions, from bottom to the top and from the top down to the bottom of the hierarchy. Bottom-up processing is activated by specific data from the text, while top-down processing starts with general to confirm these predictions. These two kinds of processing are occurring simultaneously and interactively, which adds to the concept of interaction or comprehension between bottom-up and top-down processes (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983. Cited in An, 2013).


Content Schema

Content schema refers to “background knowledge of the content area of the text” (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983, p. 80). It contains conceptual knowledge or information about what usually happens within a certain topic, and how these happenings relate to each other to form a coherent whole.  It is an open-ended set of typical events and entities for a specific occasion. For example, the schema for going to a restaurant would include information about services, menus, ordering dishes, paying the bill (giving a tip), and so on. Content schema is largely culture-specific. Therefore, the cultural schema is usually categorized as a content schema.

Formal Schema

formal schema refers to the “background knowledge of the formal, rhetorical organizational structures of different types of texts” (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1983, p. 79). In other words, formal schema refers to the knowledge of the ways in which different genres are presented, with reference to Richards et al. (2000, p. 405), point out that schema or macrostructure refers to file underlying structure which accounts for the organization of a text or discourse. Different kinds of texts and discourse (e.g. stories, descriptions, letters, reports, poems) are distinguished by the ways in which the topic, propositions, and other information are linked together to form a unit. This underlying structure is known as formal schemata. For example, the schema underlying many stories is: story = setting (state+state) + episodes (events) +reaction. That is, stories consist of a setting in which the time, place, and characters are identified, followed by episodes leading towards a reaction. Different genres have different structures. Lack of such kind of knowledge also contributes considerably to the problems in reading comprehension.

Linguistic Schema

Linguistic schema refers to the knowledge about vocabulary and grammar. It plays a basic role in a comprehensive understanding of the text. Eskey (1988, p. 94) claims that “good readers are both decoders and interpreters of texts, their decoding skills becoming more automatic but no less important as their reading skill develops”. This is because that “Language is a major problem in second language reading and that even educated guessing at meaning is no substitute for accurate decoding” (Eskey,1988, p. 97). In other words, successful comprehension of any text is impossible without effective decoding skills.

Cultural Schema

Richard et al. (2000, p.117) define culture as “the total set of beliefs, attitudes, customs, behavior, social habits, etc., of the members of a particular society”. Rivers and Temperly (1978, p.202) call cultural knowledge “socio-cultural meaning” which is “meaning which springs from shared experiences, values and attitudes”. Studies by Johnson (1981) and Carrell (1981), have shown that the implicit cultural knowledge presupposed by a text interacts with the reader’s own cultural background knowledge of content to make texts whose content is based on one’s culture easier to read and understand than syntactically and rhetorically equivalent text based on a less familial, more distant culture. Furthermore, different groups may interpret the same texts differently, as is showed in the study by Steffenson et. al. (1979). It is important to be sensitive to cultural differences, particularly, of the target culture, and without such cultural awareness, there may be no efficient and total comprehension.