An ELT Glossary : Schema

  • Definition : A schema (usual plural : schemata) is a mental representation of a situation, topic etc which creates expectations and aids (or may aid) interpretation of similar contexts. 
  • Example: My "exam schema" includes candidates sitting at individual tables in silence, a clock on the wall, an invigilator present etc . However, this is  culturally determined and reflects my experience with British style exams. An Italian's "exam schema" might be of an oral interview by a panel of teachers, watched by other students.
  • Example : My schema for "weddings" includes church /white dress / rice etc. Therefore if I hear "There were loads of pigeons in the churchyard pecking up the rice", I will assume a wedding has taken place.
  • Example : I'm interested in astronomy and read quite a lot of popular science magazines like "New Scientist" and "American Scientific" for articles on the subject. I can usually follow them, but if I were reading a paper in a scientific journal, I'd be unlikely to understand it. My background knowledge (schema) of the specific topic would be insufficient to allow me to follow and interpret the argument. 
  • As the above examples show, your schema of a subject affects your top-down processing of what is said. If for eg cultural reasons, or because you lack technical knowledge, your schema for the topic is different from the speaker's/writer's, comprehension problems may arise.

  • In the classroom,  relevant schemata can be activated prior to a reading or listening activity by eg asking learners to predict from the title or a brief description of the context what it will be about, what will happen, what people will do/say etc. This can either aid top-down processing, or bring out any differences in cultural expectations which are liable to impede comprehension, allowing the teacher to deal with them.
  • Further reading :  Cook, G.  Schemas  ELTJ - Key Concepts in EFL