Activating Schema

Activating Schema

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Activating schema is a concept that revolves around accessing the individual learner’s prior knowledge of the information being learned. If an internet search is made on activating schema, the first page displays various articles on schema and the instruction of reading. Does this mean schema can only be applied to reading? No. Educators are free to apply theories to the classroom any way they see fit. Educators should freely explore the realms of learning, and this type of self research can help the educator grow professionally, while understanding student learning on levels never considered. Tesol Class wants to take the liberty of  applying activating schema across the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) as opposed to the common interpretation.

The purpose of activating schema is to have the learner recreate an experience so new information can be associated with what is already known. Since students come from different backgrounds with different experiences,  the past becomes the glasses in which learners view the world and what they are learning.

When to activate schema?

Activating schema should occur at the beginning of the lesson. The educator should plan the schema activity before the teaching portion of the lesson. Whether this is the first segment of the lesson plan, or after the review segment, is up to the educator.

What are some problems with activating schema?

Some problems that are associated with activating schema are the students may not have any experience with the intended instruction. For example, an educator in New York City may have problems activating schema about everyday life in a rural farming town.

Another problem might be the student’s understanding of the background knowledge is not in line with the lesson. For instance, if an adult class studies a  lesson on monogamy and the benefits to society, but some students are hard-line polygamists, then there is going to be some issues the educator will have to consider when building the lesson and schema activity.

The four skills and when can it be used?

Reading: This can be used with all levels of reading from children to adults. If children are going to read a book about taking care of pets and loving them properly, then the educator may start by asking students questions like:

  • Do you have a pet?
  • What kind of pet?
  • How do you show the pet love?
  • Does your pet make a mess?

These questions will allow the children to think of their personal association with pets, so they can frame the information in a prior understanding of what is coming. Also, introducing pictures can really aid this activity.

Writing: Writing is another skill that the activation of schema is generally applied. High school students may have to write a dialog about restaurants and receiving bad service. The students may have experienced this in the past, so the educator asks them to think:

  • Have you ever received back service in a restaurant?
  • How did you feel?
  • How did you handle the situation?
  • Did you handle it correctly?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • What’s the best way to handle problems?

After having the students talk about their own experiences, the educator has the students, in pairs, create a story of two superheroes receiving bad service in a restaurant and how they react. The students now have a frame of reference regarding problems and can creatively combine that with superhero attributes to produce some creative pieces of writing.

Listening: Listening is a skill in which activating schema is not normally promoted, but it’s easy to implement. If the listening lesson is about ordering food at a restaurant, then the educator can first play the background sounds of a restaurant and have the students guess what sounds they are hearing. After the students guess the sound, the educator can then ask the students to talk about the steps of entering a restaurant, being seated, and ordering food. After the students have talked about the information which they know from personal experience, the educator has the students listen to the dialog and asks question.

  • What did the hostess ask when the couple entered the restaurant?
  • How did the couple respond?
  • Where did the couple want to be seated?
  • What did the waiter say when he first approached the table?

This can have many more questions and students will already know part of the answer from experience, so the listening and understanding of information becomes easier for the students.

In addition, covering key vocabulary words can be beneficial for activating schema in a listening activity.

Speaking: Speaking is the skill where activating schema may be a little difficult for certain aspects. Grammar classes may be difficult to activate schema, but with grammar classes, the educator can create activities to test the students understanding of the grammar concept which may be related back to personal experience. It can be tricky depending on the complexity of grammar. The past tense may be easy, but modals might be a little more difficult.

However, task-based learning, discussions, and debates fit very well into the activation of schema theory.

Task-based learning: The educator wants to instruct a lesson regarding an injury and going to the doctor to describe what is wrong. The educator can do the same as in the listening section and have the students talk through the steps, or the educator can give the students a list of  key vocabulary words and elicit what the topic is about. The vocabulary words should instinctively create knowledge of the topic because the student has experienced the meanings in a specific situation. For example, bone, broke, x-ray, cast, ground, jump, etc…

Discussions/debates: If the educator is instructing university students and the topic is how to tell other people bad news, then the spectrum of bad news needs to be narrowed down. Bad news could consist of one’s dog dying, being rejected from a favorite school, the opposite sex only wanting to be friends or a family member having a terminal disease. Therefore, a good schema activity may be needed to help students understand what will be the discussed.

The focus will be rejecting someone who likes you. As university students, they will probably understand  this concept well. Have the students view the picture below and talk about what they see and know from the picture. Then read the students this short blurb.

Schema activation

Fred and Terry are out on a blind date. Fred is obsessed with fishing and talks about it non-stop, but Terry doesn’t understand fishing so she is bored. Fred doesn’t take a break from talking through dinner and coffee. Terry tries her best to remain pleasant in this uncomfortable situation. On the other hand, Fred is having a blast and thinks this is the best date he has ever been on. At the end of the night Fred asks Terry out for a second date, how does she respond?


Some questions:

  • Why does Fred think the date is going so well?
  • What does Terry’s smiling mean?
  • Why is Terry trying to remain pleasant?
  • What should Terry say to being asked out again?

Here the students will have to understand that signals were misinterpreted, Terry didn’t want to offend Fred, how these situations are uncomfortable, and how to tell bad news without hurting feelings.  The educator can provide instruction on ways to let others down, or have a class debate about the proper way to let others down easily. The key is allowing the students to be personally involved with understanding the subject matter and discuss it.

*It should be noted that stories like this can focus on information told in the story or information the students understand from reading between the lines. This depends on the focus of the lesson and what the educator is trying to accomplish as activating schema is harvesting what the student already knows.

Methods to activate schema.

Reading texts


Vocabulary words

Listening to sounds

Oral stories

Authentic materials (maps, menus, newspaper articles, etc..)

Final Thoughts

Although schema is mainly applied to reading, there is no reason activating schema can’t be applied to any of the other four skills. Allowing students to personalize the information is a strong concept to assist learning in a context void of the ability to physically recreate. Prior knowledge of events in the native language (L1) can provide that missing context needed to learn the target language (L2).

However, educators must be aware of what the students possibly have or have not experienced when constructing a lesson with a schema activity. A group of seven-year old students will have no understanding of calling a travel agency and ordering tickets to go to Rome, so a schema activity or a lesson about traveling abroad would be pointless. There are times when the lesson is age appropriate and the schema activity is appropriate, but the students haven’t experienced the situation or have a drastic view that distorts what the teacher is trying to produce.

Ultimately, activating schema is a winning situation for students as it enables them to personalize the information as it is connected to real experiences. It’s a win-win situation for the student and the educator.