Building Comprehension for Reading Novels: The Prereading-Schema Building Process

By Anderson, Nancy A.; Hite, Clare E. | New England Reading Association Journal, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Building Comprehension for Reading Novels: The Prereading-Schema Building Process


Anderson, Nancy A., Hite, Clare E., New England Reading Association Journal


Anderson (2005) speaks to the woes of being expected to comprehend a challenging book with no scaffolding by the teacher.

My eighth-grade English teacher assigned the class to read Ivanhoe (Scott), a book with a medieval setting first published in 1820. My library copy had no illustrations - not even on the cover! While slowly reading the first page, I asked myself, "What the heck are they talking about?" I reread the first page. I knew the meanings of nearly all the words, but I could not decipher the sentences. I looked at the back and saw the book was 352 pages! In tears, I went to my older (and smarter) sister and said, "I can't understand this!" She gave me a brief description of the plot and told me to reread the first page once more. This time, when I started reading, I knew where and when the story took place and who the main characters were, and things began to make sense. When I finally finished the book, I actually liked it! (p. 19)

Anderson's initial dislike of the book was due to being overwhelmed because of her lack of background knowledge. The teacher had failed to help her students develop sufficient background knowledge to read and enjoy Ivanhoe. Fortunately, Anderson had an older sister who had already read the book, but it is not likely all the students in that class had someone to help them.

Schema and reading comprehension

If readers have little or no prior knowledge of a book's subject, comprehension and enjoyment are impaired. In order to interact meaningfully with text, a reader must bring something to the reading process. Cognitive psychologists call this something schema, a system of cognitive structures that are stored in memory and are abstract representations of events, objects, and relationships in the world (Harris & Hodges, 1995). In order to comprehend - and therefore fully enjoy - a book, readers must be able to connect new information in the text with their network of prior knowledge.

As readers acquire new information, it is either assimilated into, or accommodated by, their existing schemata - the individual bits of stored knowledge that are interconnected and intertwined. Reading then becomes an active process of constructing meaning (Anderson, Spiro, Sc Anderson, 1978; Anderson 8c Pearson, 1984). The purpose of this article is to describe and model a comprehension strategy that secondary and postsecondary students can initiate on their own to build schema for enjoying a new novel.

In the case with Ivanhoe, the reader started with an insufficient schema for comprehending the text. However, comprehension can also be impaired when readers fail to activate the relevant schemata they already possess (Levin & Pressley, 1981; Pressley, Wood, Woloshyn, Martin, King, & Menke, 1992). Schemata assist readers in comprehending a new piece of text, and then readers integrate the newly comprehended material into their existing schemata in an ever-developing process. The greater the experience base (both direct and vicarious) that the reader can actively draw upon, the richer the person's comprehension and enjoyment of a book will be.

Anderson (2004) hypothesized that schemata serve six functions in the reading process:

* To provide ideational scaffolding for assimilating new information;

* To help allocate attention selectively;

* To assist in inferring beyond the literal level;

* To allow searching one's memory in an orderly manner;

* To help summarize information being read; and

* To permit reconstruction of inferences

Strategies used by effective readers

In his review of over 170 studies, Aaron (1997) identified seven processes of effective reading. Two of the most critical were prereading processes: activating relevant schemata and making predictions. He noted that effective readers constantly engage themselves in the reading process. Effective readers scan the text before reading and mentally predict what it might be about. …

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