Introduction to Building and Activating Schema
What is schema and how does it relate to reading comprehension?
Why do we teach the strategy of Building and Activating Schema?
How do we teach the strategy of Building and Activating Schema?
The Sample Lesson: Notice New Learning

What is Schema and How Does It Relate to Reading Comprehension?
image002Our schema is the map we have in our minds about a topic. It’s made up of our background knowledge – everything we know and think we know – about that topic. We use our schema to put new information into a meaningful context, to help us remember and understand it. When we read, “John cut his meat into small pieces,” we can infer that John used a knife because our schema about meals supplies the missing information. Because he had a similar experience, a first grader better understands Trevor’s worries as he listens to a read-aloud of Trevor’s Wiggly-Wobbly Tooth. (See inset). Their interests and passions help young children digest complicated information. For example, most primary teachers have witnessed children who can learn from difficult texts about prehistoric creatures because they are voracious consumers of everything related to dinosaurs.

Our schema also leaves us open to misconceptions. A cautionary tale about schema is found in Leo Lionni’s picture book, Fish is Fish. When Fish, who has never left the water, listens to his friend Frog’s descriptions of inhabitants of land, he imagines them all as versions of fish: cows as spotted fish with udders and birds as fish with wings. Children collect all sorts of misconceptions as they navigate their worlds, and, like Fish, what they already know is always the filter through which they begin to explore new information.

image005We have schema for genre as well as for content. Some young children understand fiction better than nonfiction because they’ve been read many stories, and have formed a schema for story structure. Whether they can name story elements or not, they expect characters, setting, and events. They follow the story more easily than they navigate a nonfiction text, which might be organized through a variety of less familiar text structures.

image006We develop schema through our experiences in the world – who we know, where we go, what we do. We also build it through reading, listening, and viewing a variety of media. Just as each of us has a different genetic profile, we each bring different schema to our literacy pursuits in and out of school.

Why do we teach the strategy of Building and Activating Schema?

“There is a virtual consensus that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension.” (Neuman, Kaefer, and Pinkham, 2014 – see Suggested Readings). Numerous studies over the past forty years have shown that our brains learn by connecting the new to the known; we always use what we bring as readers to our understanding of the text. As the research about schema began to influence pedagogy, often teachers were advised to frontload a great deal of information about the topic to children before they read. In extreme cases, the time spent building background even exceeded the amount of time spent reading, and there was little new to learn from the text when it was eventually read. In recent years, concern over this imbalance unfortunately sometimes led to denying the crucial role of background knowledge in effective reading.

Rather than subscribe to either of these extremes, we take a strategic approach. We work to teach children how to build and activate background knowledge themselves, both before and during reading. Our goals are for children to recognize that:

  • What we already know helps us understand as we read; as many teachers tell their students, “search through your mental filing cabinets and find anything useful.”
  • Connecting our own life experiences to a text usually makes reading more satisfying, meaningful and pleasurable.
  • We aren’t “bad readers” when there are gaps in our understanding as we read. We just may need to do what proficient readers do: search for and find more background knowledge to fill in the gaps.
  • Our thinking and understanding change as we read. We adjust misconceptions we may have had before we read and incorporate new ideas into our ever growing background knowledge.


How do we teach the strategy of Building and Activating Schema?
Teaching children to build and activate their background knowledge usually includes some or all of the following:

  • Making simple personal connections. We often begin by reading aloud fiction picture books image010about friends, families, and the ups and downs of children’s daily lives. These provide many opportunities to model our own personal connections and how those connections make the stories more meaningful and pleasurable for us. Then we invite the children to turn and talk about their own connections, and eventually to jot them down in writing or drawing. (See text box.) These connections help us build empathy for characters as they go through a gamut of emotions, and relate lessons learned to our own experiences. This process is especially powerful for children who come to school without having had many hours of being read to by an adult. They quickly learn that books are not collections of strange squiggles on the page, but relate directly to their own lives.
  • Weeding out distracting connections. Over time, children learn to make relevant connections, but they don’t all start out that way! Often we hear choruses of “I have a cousin named Alexander” or long stories that wind their way far off track (although some of these actually do have relevance we never would have suspected without following the trail!). Sometimes we can minimize these “distracting” connections simply by paying less attention to them and redirecting the conversation, while highlighting more meaningful connections to the whole class. You will see Ms. Whitman do this several times during the second grade sample lesson for this strategy. For example, as students turn and talk about volcanoes, she honors their connections of hot lava to hot wings and hot sauce, but immediately redirects them to thinking about whether the lava might be dangerous. Some teachers model making their own digressive connections, and then think aloud, “But that doesn’t help me understand the story! I won’t bother to write that down.” In Reading with Meaning, Debbie Miller suggests a mini-lesson in which she lists all the connections made to a topic, and then with the students decides which are helpful and which are not. (See Suggested Readings.)
  • Celebrating background knowledge. We confirm that all of us bring important background knowledge with us to the classroom when students share topics on which they are experts, from playing soccer to brushing their teeth. This can be done through expert books (See Primary Comprehension Toolkit), how-to writing, and/or class presentations. Sometimes we kick off this exploration of students’ expertise with a read-aloud about children’s talents, such as Crow Boy by Taro Yashima or Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, both of which provide excellent opportunities for a variety of personal connections as well.
  • Sharing what we know or think we know. We can effectively begin a unit of study about a image013science or social studies topic by having children turn and talk about what they already know or think they know about the topic, and then sharing and/or charting their responses. We are careful to include “what we think we know” to set up the expectation that we will read to confirm or revise our initial knowledge. We teach children what a misconception is, and model our delight when we recognize that we have had and corrected a misconception of our own. Children soon follow suit, telling us “I used to think _____, but now I know ______.”
  • Noticing how we build schema and how it helps us understand information we read. image015“Today’s new knowledge is tomorrow’s background knowledge.” We take to heart this powerful statement by P. David Pearson. When children don’t know anything about the topic, we respond enthusiastically, as Ms. Whitman does in the sample lesson, “So you’re going to learn a lot today, aren’t you!” Click on the video clip to watch a short example of how the teacher models how what we learn each day, through books, videos, field trips, or discussion with each other, transforms into background knowledge that we use from that day forward.
  • Noticing new learning. All our work in teaching children about their schema culminates in image017helping them to learn independently. One of the most significant practices is “Merge Thinking With New Learning” from the Primary Comprehension Toolkit. We teach children to learn by noticing when something they read is new knowledge for them. This requires them to think about what they are reading, not just pronounce the words. We show them how we recognize new learning when our inner voice says, “Wow” or “Cool” or “I never knew that….” One child’s new learning may already be background knowledge to another, so learning becomes personalized and relevant to every student as they determine what they are learning for themselves. We post every child’s new learning on an anchor chart so that they can all learn from one another. (The Sample Lesson for this strategy explores this practice.)
  • Building schema about genre. As we study different genre in reading and writing, we note image019the characteristics of each genre so that children develop a mental map – a schema – that helps them to navigate fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. In nonfiction, we emphasize how to use text features, so that students are prepared to learn from all the sources of information in the text.

To learn more about the strategy of Building and Activating Schema, including lessons supporting many of the practices discussed above, see Suggested Readings.

The Sample Lesson: Notice New Learning

Apryl Whitman at Arden Elementary School in Columbia, SC, teaches her second graders how to image022notice, record, and react to their new learning as they read. The lesson is situated in the early phases of a science study of states of matter. Ms. Whitman uses a book about volcanoes for her interactive read-aloud. Then she provides a choice of appealing books for collaborative practice that also illustrate how matter changes form, such as From Milk to Ice Cream. The children have previously learned to monitor their inner conversations and record their thinking on sticky notes. They have also learned about various types of text features found in nonfiction texts.


image024The information in the National Geographic for Kids Volcanoes book includes dramatic photographs and useful diagrams, headings, and captions to support learning about the complex process of a volcano’s eruption and its effects. Ms. Whitman models how she recognizes new learning, and how she thinks about it in order to know that she actually understands it, not just regurgitating the words on the page. She provides lots of time for the students to turn and talk, and then to jot down their own new learning. Then she sends them off to practice with books they choose.

Noticing new learning places the responsibility for learning squarely on students’ shoulders. Rather than simply responding to the teacher’s questions about information in the text, the children are the ones who have to figure out what they are learning. This process encourages them to think more deeply about the information in the text. Through diagrams, analogies, drawings and writing, the children express what they are learning and make it their own in many creative ways.

PLC Facilitators: Click here for Facilitator Notes.