Schema Theory and Reading Comprehension

Updated on January 23, 2017

The Schema Theory

Schema theory is an explanation of how readers use prior knowledge to comprehend and learn from text (Rumelhart, 1980). The term "schema" was first used in psychology by Barlett as "an active organization of past reactions or experiences" (1932,p.201), later schema was introduced in reading by Rumelhalt (1980), Carrell (1981) and Hudson (1982) when discussing the important role of background knowledge in reading comprehension (all cited in An, 2013). The fundamental principle of the schema theory assumes that written text does not carry meaning by itself. Rather, a text only provides directions for readers as to how they should retrieve or construct meaning from their own previously acquired knowledge (An, 2013).

According to schema theory, comprehending a text is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. Efficient comprehension requires the ability to relate the textual material to one's own knowledge. As Anderson (1977, p.369) point out, "every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well". Reading comprehension operates in two directions, from bottom up to the top and from the top down to the bottom of the hierarchy. Bottom-up processing is activated by specific data from the text, while top-down processing starts with general to confirm these predictions. These two kinds of processing are occurring simultaneously and interactively, which adds to the concept of interaction or comprehension between bottom-up and top-down processes (Carrel and Eiserhold, 1983. Cited in An, 2013).

The Three Levels of Comprehension

Reading comprehension is the ability to process information that we have read and to understand its meaning. The three levels of comprehension are the literal level, inferential level and the critical/evaluative level.

  1. The Literal Level: It is simply what the text says and what actually happens in the story. This is a very important level of understanding because it provides the foundation for more advanced comprehension. It focuses on reading the passages, hearing the words or viewing the images. It involves identifying the important and essential information. With guidance, students can distinguish between the important and less important ideas.
  2. The Inferential Level: It involves determining what the text means. Determining inferential meaning requires you to think about the text and draw a conclusion. , the focus shifts to reading between the lines, looking at what is implied by the material under study. It requires students to combine pieces of information in order to make inferences about the author's intent and message. Guiding students to recognize these perceived relationships promotes understanding and decreases the risk of being overwhelmed by the complexities of the text being view, heard or read.
  3. The Critical Level: In this level we are analyzing or synthesizing information and applying it to other information. Understandings at the literal and interpretive levels are combined, reorganized and restructured at the critical level to express opinions, draw new insights and develop fresh ideas. Guiding students through the applied level shows them how to synthesize information, to read between the lines and to develop a deeper understanding of the concepts, principles, and implications presented in the text.

For Example: The Story of The Piped Piper

Long ago, far away in the country, the people of a small town had an infestation of rats. The people of the town could not handle the rats any longer so they urged their mayor to do something about the infestation. In discussion with his men, the mayor had a visitor at the door. It was a strange looking man with a pipe who said that said he was the Piped Piper and he can get rid of the rats for the town. His terms were that the mayor pays him one hundred dollars ($100) if he does. The mayor wanted to pay him five hundred dollars ($500) but the piper was satisfied with the $100. The piper blew his pipe and the rats followed him out of the town. The town’s people no longer had a rat problem. The mayor then refused to pay the piper so he played his pipe once more and this time, took the town’s children; never for their parents to see them again.

Questions for Each Level of Comprehension

  1. What problem where the people of the town facing? (Literal)

  2. Why were the women, children and babies crying? (Inferential)

  3. What would you if rats infested your home? (Critical)

  4. Describe the man that was standing at the door when the mayor opened it. (Literal)

  5. Why did the rats run after the Piped Piper? (Inferential)

  6. How would you have reacted if you were the Piped Piper and the mayor refused to pay you after your work? (Critical)

Comprehension Skills

  1. Sequencing: Sequencing refers to the identification of the components of a story, such as the beginning, middle, and end, and also to the ability to retell the events within a given text in the order in which they occurred. The ability to sequence events in a text is a key comprehension strategy, especially for narrative texts.
  2. Graphic Organizer: A graphic organizer, also known as knowledge map, concept map, story map, cognitive organizer, advance organizer, or concept diagram, is a communication tool that uses visual symbols to express knowledge, concepts, thoughts, or ideas, and the relationships between them. With the use of a graphic organizer, the children should be given an activity where they are required to state the before, during and after occurrences with Piped Piper in the story. They should recall the main points of what happened before the Piped Piper, what was happening while the Piped Piper was in the town and what happened after he left.


An, S. (2013). Schema Theory in Reading. Changchun University of Science & Technology, Changchun, China. Academy Publisher Manufactured in Finland.

Example of Comprehension Graphic Organizer

Example of Comprehension Sequencing

6 Questions | Fun Reading & Writing Comprehension Strategy For Kids

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        C. Bodnarchuk 

        10 days ago

        It is so important to ensure as educators we are asking our students all three levels of questions, and not just the literal and inferential.

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        Shelagh Gay 

        2 weeks ago

        As a teacher, I can use the different ways of comprehending text, literal, inferential and critical, for really focused assessment on their comprehension skills. Understanding what knowledge they bring to the text via their schema, would also help to evaluate their comprehension

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        4 months ago

        I think that the background knowledge the readers bring to the story allows them to get a complete picture of what is happening in the story and not just the words that they are reading or the visuals that they are seeing.

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        Areola Titilayo 

        5 months ago

        Thanks for the post! I need explanation on the types of schemata especially textual schemata.

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        11 months ago

        I agree with the schema theory idea of the text not having meaning on its own. It is so shaped by the reader that meaning is created from what they do with the text and their experiences. I appreciate you putting into a clear format the three different levels of comprehension and for sharing the comprehension skills and resources! Thank you!

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        muhammad ilyas 

        15 months ago


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        20 months ago

        I very much agree with this theory. I think students think that the words in the book or on the page are going to magically produce meaning for them when really it is their past experiences and knowledge which will unlock that meaning and deeper comprehension. Great strategies and questions that demonstrate that shift between the 3 levels.

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        23 months ago

        I absolutely love the questions for each level of comprehension! They provide a distinct difference between literal, inferential, and critical tiers. I see a lot of these same types of questions in Fountas and Pinnell's guide.

        As far as the use of graphic organizers, I've seen some reluctance in my junior students who would prefer to communicate their understandings orally as opposed to a written format.

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        2 years ago

        I have some ELL students in my class this year. While they can decode words well they struggle to remember what has happened in the stories we are reading. We have been using these kinds of graphic organizers to help them hold onto what we read. Thanks for confirming that we are on the right track.

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        2 years ago

        I believe it is so important to guide students as they move from the literal level to the inferential level, and get them to the critical level. Most are good at the literal level but it gets much more difficult to get through the inferential level. This is where teachers need to provide rich comprehension activities that push students past making inferences to being able to analyze, synthesize and apply.


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