Reading & Writing Across Curriculum

Why Do Students Need Help With Reading?

Every student comes into the classroom with different reading abilities, and many students come to college under prepared for its reading demands. Schema theory explains how students read, and, by identifying this, how they can become better readers.

Schema Theory

Schema is the knowledge and experience stored in your brain throughout your life that helps prepare you to understand new material.
Schema gives you a model for coping with new tasks or experiences.
Most of us don't realize how much we have already stored in our memories, or how we draw upon it when we deal with new situations or challenges. Example: Schema tells us to pick up the phone when it rings.
As we learn more, we add to our knowledge, or develop our schema.


The schema development net is a visual representation of this theory. In example A, the net has wider gaps (less developed), so the tennis ball (information) can get right through. This represents a student who has little background knowledge about a text, so many of the unknown concepts may slip by. However, in example B, the net is much closer together (more developed), so the ball (information) is less likely to get through, representing a student who has more experience with the concepts in the text, so the information is more likely to be understood and retained.  The more experience and background knowledge a student has with the topic at hand, the easier it will be for him or her to comprehend the material.

Schema Development Net

“Illustration of Schema Theory.” Chart. 1995.  Teaching Children to Be Literate: A Reflective Approach. By Anthony V. Manzo and Ula Casal Manzo. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1995. 61. 

Schema in Reading

In reading, just as in life itself, we need to find ways to use our schema.
It's easier to understand a passage we read if we can draw on what we know about the subject or topic of the passage we are reading.
This schema theory raises the question: how do we activate the knowledge we aren't sure we have when we are about to read something new?


Strategies for Activating Schema

Here are some ideas for helping your students build and activate their schema.

Prediction: Making guesses about what will happen or what will be said in a text when we predict, we are using what we do know and forming expectations about what will follow.
Pre-Reading: Looking over the text, reading the first and last lines of a paragraph to inform an idea about what you will be reading and to activate your schema.
Visualization:Creating mental pictures or images based upon the words you are reading.
Comprehension Monitoring: Checking or noticing what we are doing when we read and also being aware of how we do it (also called metacognition or thinking about how you thing).
Previewing: A method of assessing your needs before starting to read by deciding what the material is about, what needs to be done, and how to go about doing it. It is formulating a reading strategy and then reading to meet those goals. To preview, look over the material, think and ask yourself direct questions like: What is my purpose for reading? How is the material organized? What will be my plan of attack?
Coding: Putting the text into your own words-- taking notes on a reading, commenting to yourself on what you just read, underlining a quote and explaining why you think it is important.
Recall: To preview what you have read, to think about important points you have read, to connect what you have read to other experiences in order to increase comprehension.


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This page was created by Meghan Swanson. This information was reproduced from Elena Cole's instructional aid and used with permission.

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Toby Bielawski
RAW Coordinator


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Originally created by
Karin Spirn and
Meghan Swanson

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Page last modified: May 13, 2016