A little theory
Schema theory seeks to explain how we are able to cope with our constantly changing daily environment. Obviously, we do not see each circumstance as unique and unfamiliar. We are quickly able to recognise familiar elements and patterns (schema) in the activities unfolding around us. This enables us to behave correctly in situations as diverse as a history class, a fast food restaurant, or crossing a busy street in a large city in a foreign country.
This remarkable ability to make sense out of our ever-changing surroundings clearly depends on memory. We are somehow able to extract just those elements from our huge store of experiences, facts, smells, tastes—everything we call memory—to allow us to make at least an
educated guess as to what is occurring around us. And this memory comes to us not in random bits and pieces, but in an organised form, allowing us to almost immediately distinguish a marriage ceremony from a courtroom trial, or a bus station from a school.
The same process makes reading possible. With remarkably few words, a good writer can evoke vast amounts of stored information from readers’ memories, allowing them to make sense of what is written on the page. Of course, this is far from a perfect process as readers may lack the appropriate schema or apply a schema other than the one intended by the writer. Here is where we — the Educational Services Department (ESD) — have a role to play.
Much of our work in the ESD deals with the application of schema theory to newspaper reading and teaching. In some cases, it means helping readers and teachers build schema where none exists. In other cases, it means helping them draw on schema they already have. And in many cases, it means helping them select the most appropriate schema in situations where several potentially conflicting schema exist and thereby prevent misinterpretation. You will see examples of all of this in Tips on reading the Bangkok Post.
Essentially we deal with two broad categories of schema: text schema and content schema:
|Newspaper writing is remarkably consistent and experienced readers have well developed expectations for the style of writing to be found in each section of the newspaper. The styles of news writing, feature writing and opinion writing are easily described and readers can develop effective strategies for dealing with these styles. (See Style of the news story, Reading feature stories and Opinion writing.) Helping them to do so is a big part of our job.|
|Newspaper content is equally consistent. Only a limited number of topics
(important elections, bad storms, championship boxing matches, etc.) are generally considered newsworthy and each has distinctive characteristics. They have their own typical settings, sequences and characters with discernable roles. And they are often described using a limited set of high-frequency words and phrases. We have defined these consistencies for a range of common news stories and organised them into teaching materials. Some of this appears on this website and more will follow. (See Common news stories.)|
Thus schema theory, with its focus on underlying patterns and consistencies, offers the teacher clear shortcuts for familiarising students with the style and content of the daily newspaper. But this should not be done in isolation. Teachers should encourage students to read the newspaper regularly because that is the only way they can truly develop the background and expectations necessary to genuine comprehension.