Activating Student Schema

Graphic - schemaSchema reflects how individuals perceive the world and the things around them. It implies that a person’s prior knowledge is essential in order for him or her to fully comprehend a concept. By connecting learning to a student's prior knowledge you are enabling students to call upon their own, unique pathway to acquire new information. According to Roe, Smith, and Burns (2008), “Schemata are a person's organized clusters of concepts related to objects, places, actions, or events. Each schema represents a person’s knowledge about a particular concept and the interrelationships among the known pieces of information” (p. 212).

When students are confused by a concept, their learning and growth is hindered. We need to engage them as much as possible in order to assist their development. Activating student schema means putting things in context—and by doing so, you will encourage your students’ exploration of the material. Student engagement requires intellectual involvement with the content or active construction of understanding. When student schema is activated, students are more likely to become invested participants capable of broad, deep thinking.

There are four situations that are typically encountered when teaching a concept. Let’s use the example of beginning readers to illustrate each one.

  1. A student has the concept, but needs the label. (The student knows what an elephant is, but he needs help decoding the word.)
  2. A student has the label, but needs the concept. (The student has phonetically worked out and correctly said the word “interview,” but she doesn't know the meaning of the word.)
  3. A student has the label attached to the wrong concept, and the misconception must be corrected. (A student knows that the word “spring” means something that is wound up to power his toys, but is confused when the story mentions the deer sipping from the spring.)
  4. A student has neither the concept, nor the label. (The student does not know the word or its meaning, and will need help to define the concept and attach it to the label.)

Understanding schema theory is helpful when selecting appropriate resources. If students do not have enough prior knowledge or schema for a particular story or subject, they will not be able to relate to the material. When students are able to relate to the learning, they are better able to explore content and mentally engage in rigorous, meaningful thought.

Before introducing new material to your students, question them to find out what they know about the subject. Then help them build the necessary schema through discussion. Encourage them to initiate or adapt activities and projects that will enhance their understanding.

Watch the video below entitled Word Study in Action: Activating Prior Knowledge. 


Roe, B. D., Smith, S. H., & Burns, P. C. (2008). Teaching reading in today's elementary schools (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.