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The importance of schema

June 6, 2012

Schema is an abstract, generalized mental representations of our experience that help us understand new experiences. It includes content schema, which is knowledge about a topic, and discourse schema, which is knowledge of how a type of discourse works.  In listening, schema helps us interpret and assign meaning to the speech we hear.  For example, at a birthday party, if you hear someone say “ha…,” your birthday party schema will help you guess that the speakers is beginning to say “happy birthday.”

There is a great illustration of schema from Bransford and Johnson:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important bu complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life. (p. 722)
Not sure what this passage is about?  Click here for a hint that will activate your schema.

Now look at this…
I love this ad as an example of the importance of schema in listening comprehension. Notice how your interpretation of the story changes at the end of the ad: KAYAK.COM – GRANDFATHER AD

Implications for L2 Listening

From the illustrations above, you can see how a listener’s background knowledge contributes to comprehension.  Schema helps us predict content, interpret word meaning, and make sense of discourse. Pre-listening activities — such as looking at pictures, reviewing known information about a topic, brainstorming vocabulary — can help learners “activate” their schema and be better prepared to understand what they hear.

Bransford, J.D., & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 717-726.

From → Meaning

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