Significant considerations in esl/efl literacy
Theories of reading and their implications to the
teaching of reading in esl/efl classes & the place of
schemata theory on foreign language reading
by Hasan Bilokcuoglu
According to Yule (1985) it is people who make sense of what they read and hear and the concept of coherence is not something existing in the language, but something which is existing in people. They try to get to the point of interpretation which goes hand in hand with their knowledge of the world, i.e., experience of the way the world is. Actually, it is argued that our ability of making sense of what we perceive or experience in the world is probably bigger than the ability of the general ability towards sensing of what we read or hear.
For Cook (1989), "the mind stimulated by key words or phrases in the text or by the context that activates a knowledge schema." What Cook tries to imply here is that we do not necessarily deal with conscious process, but rather with automatic cognitive responses given to external stimuli. Schemata are activated in one of two following ways according to this view:
• New information from the outside world can be cognitively received and related to already known information stored in memory through retrieval or remembering. In this case, new concepts are assimilated into existing schema which can be altered or expanded;
• New information can be represented new mental structures. In this case, in absence of already existing schemata, new knowledge builds up new schemata.
2.3. The schema theory
Considering the place of background knowledge in language comprehension has led to a formalisation of what is called schema theory. According to schema theory, a text can only lead directions for readers (or listeners), but how they ought to retrieve or build up meaning depends on the previously acquired knowledge. Clearly, this previously acquired knowledge is called background knowledge, and according to Bartlett (1932), Adams and Collins (1979), and Rumelhart (1980), the previously acquired knowledge structures are called schemata. Schema theory is the result of the search for making out the correlation between background knowledge and comprehension. This model tries to describe and help us to understand the process of cognition, and it puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of the learners' background knowledge within psycholinguistic model of reading. Goodman (1970) points out that, reading can be regarded as a psycholinguistic guessing game. In this model, the reader does not use all the information available for him/her, but only enough to select and predict a language structure which is decodable. To be able to do this, schema model (background information) becomes a vital factor. For instance, students having western background learn English in a faster way, rather than those without such background. This process that Goodman (1970) suggested can be viewed in the figure below.
As it is seen in the figure, schema theory can be regarded as a model that claims comprehending a text goes through an interactive process between the readers' background knowledge and the text itself.
Widdowson(1983) expresses that as follows;
''They (people) reflect the experiences, conceptual understanding, attitudes, values, skills, and strategies... (We) bring to a text situation''. Therefore, schemata have been called 'the building blocks of cognition'. (Rumelhart, 1980).
Schema theory, which is a technical term used by cognitive scientists to describe how people process, organize, and store information in their heads, is based on the notion that 'every act of comprehension involves one's knowledge of the world' (Anderson, 1977).
Similar to Anderson, Smith (1994) underlines:
'Everything we know and believe is organised in a theory of what the world is like, a theory that is basis of all our perceptions and understanding of the world, the root of all learning, the source of hopes and fears, motive and expectations, reasoning and creativity. And this theory is all we have. If we make sense of the world at all, it is by interpreting our interactions with the world in the light of our theory. The theory is our shield against bewilderment'.
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