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1.1 Background to the Study

It is so disheartening to note that the general performances of second language learners‟ reading comprehension are declining. Hence, government, language teachers, parents and public examination bodies are seriously frowning at the situation. The situation has been one of the disturbing aspects of the Nigerian educational system today. Language learning includes four dimensions: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

The present study focuses on the dimension of reading as it relates to schema theory. Reading can be seen as a receptive behavior in knowledge acquisition. Effective reading strategies help build reading meta-cognition and increase reading comprehension. Reading comprehension has been regarded as an important academic language skill (Grabe and Stoller, 2001; Gu, 2003) and has received a lot of attention in second language teaching.

It is essential particularly to many English as a foreign language learners that rarely have a chance to speak English in their daily lives (Richards and Renandya, 2002; Razi, 2010). The present study is intended to determine the effect of schema (background knowledge) on second language learners‟ performance in reading comprehension. Reading comprehension is a function of the nature of the text itself and of the extent to which the reader possesses, uses, and integrates pertinent schemata.

Background knowledge in reading is a complicated, active thinking mental activity, a thinking process involving experience, ability to predict, verify and acknowledge information according to readers‟ previous information, knowledge and experience, and also an interactive language communication between readers and the writer through text. Learners‟ background knowledge (schemata) has greatly been taking attention in recent theories of second language learners‟ reading potentials. Hence, it is regarded as one of the significant theories of learning.

It has been the subject of considerable studies because of its impact on perception and memory. In the same vein, schemata are the underlying connections that allow new experiences and information to be aligned with previous knowledge (McCarthy, 1991:168). Coherent relationships are required to make sense out of a text. Hence, schemata can be categorized into three types-content, formal, and abstract/linguistic. They are all in any text and a reader‟s experience affects interpretation. Not possessing the proper schema or being unable to activate it leads to inaccurate constructs. Readers may benefit from either being more prepared for a text or the text itself could be modified for easier comprehension (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1983).

Prior knowledge is used to complete, and enrich the reader‟s mental representation of the text (Rapp & Van Den Broek, 2005). Thus, the importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension is indisputable. In order to understand language, a reader must utilize direct and implicit information. Direct information refers to words written down, while implicit information includes knowledge of structures and words of a language in a text and knowledge of the discussed topic and certain experience (Smith; 1985 cited in Yu-hui, 2010).

Reading comprehension over the years, has been approached from different angles-Bottom-up Model, Top-down Model, Interactive Model. Bottom-up Model emphasizes that reader, taking reading materials as information input, starts from letters and words recognition and then combine information continuously to accomplish reading activity. In this model, readers‟ implicit information, that is, one‟s knowledge and life experience, is neglected.

The Top-down model takes concept theory as basis, and points out that readers predict reading materials according to previous syntax and semantic knowledge and make confirmation and modification during reading process. The model assumes that reading process is based on readers‟ previous knowledge and is a circulating process of predicting, verifying and confirming. Under the guidance of this model, teachers would pay much attention to students‟ previous knowledge, that is, implicit information in the reading process and overlook basic language knowledge teaching.

Reading comprehension is commonly known as an interactive mental process between a reader‟s linguistic knowledge, knowledge of the world, and knowledge about a given topic. For instance, Nuttall (1996) as cited in Pratami (2011) believes that reading comprehension is a process of activating the knowledge of the word combined with the appropriate cognitive skill and reasoning ability to get ideas from the print. That is, the transfer of a message from writer to reader.

As a way of buttressing and concurring to Nuttall‟s (1996) claim, it therefore, means that the relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension is schema theory. Hence, this research work is strongly inspired by questions language teachers do ask concerning the performance of students in reading comprehension. Questions like: Why do students read so poorly? What are the factors responsible for such reading performance? How can I as a teacher help the students to overcome this weakness? These and many other questions have strongly inspired the researcher in researching on the effect of schema theory (background knowledge) on second language learners‟ performance in reading comprehension.

The ability to comprehend what one reads is essential but struggling to understand everything and all kinds of materials equally is not a good way to apply one‟s knowledge (Aliyu, 2001). Reading comprehension is the most practical way of assessing how much of the English forms second language learners can realistically wrestle with. Students who can read can equally communicate easily with the minds that are not within the immediate environment. This implies that reading comprehension depends on the students and the readability of the text.

Within the schema-theoretic framework, the process of interpretation is guided by the principle that all new information is sampled against some existing schema. What students already know about a topic of a text, as well as getting familiar with the words and sentence structures used in the text plays important role in reading comprehension. In other words, during the reading comprehension process, the reader is actively trying to make sense of the relevant written text by integrating previous relevant experiences (schemata) with the text information.

Hence, some of the advantages that can be taken from schema theory are: Schemata help the students to connect their idea with past experience, or background knowledge towards reading text. The second is that it helps the students in understanding and interpreting new things based on the existing schema in mind. And the third is that it helps students to understanding not only things and experiences, but also, the language describing the things and experiences, including written and spoken form.

Comprehension is, consequently, a matter of activating, re-elaborating or constructing a schema that provides a coherent explanation of the relations between the objects and events mentioned in a discourse. Schemata are thus, necessary for comprehension. Rumelhart (1980) as cited in Yu-hui et al (2010) proposed three possible reasons why students cannot understand a text: first, students lack proper schema.

Under this condition, students cannot understand the meaning contained in the text at all. Second, students may possess adequate schema, but the author does not provide enough clues to activate the schema. Therefore, students still cannot get the meaning. If adequate clue is provided, students can understand the text. Third, students interpret the text in a consistent way but deviate from the author‟s intention.

Under this condition, students seem to understand the text but misunderstand the author‟s intention. So, it will be better if the students have capability in interpreting the author‟s intention deeply and also the students have more vocabulary items to deny misunderstanding of the author‟s purpose or the information that is given by the author in the text. It is based on Rumelhart‟s (op.cit) points of view that this work investigates the effects of schemata (activated schemata) on the reading comprehension ability of junior secondary school two students in Zaria.

Also, empirical research conducted by Plastina (1999) has proved that most of the teachers are not trained to a level that they are equipped with the skill of teaching students to activate their schemata while reading. As a result, the objective of teaching reading comprehension becomes impeded leading to a breakdown of students‟ reading comprehension ability. Also, reading comprehension is a language tool used in testing comprehension. Students should be taught how to activate and use their schemata when reading any text. Empirical research, much of which has taken place in the context of “schema theory”, has demonstrated that the comprehension of a text is significantly affected by the reader‟s relevant background knowledge of the content area of the text


From the above, it is crystal clear to note that this research is borne out of the researchers‟ hue and cry over the dismal poor application of schema to reading leading to a low performance of second language learners‟ reading comprehension. This unfavorable situation has spurred-up the researcher into investigating whether activating background knowledge (schemata) could have any effects on secondary school English learners performance in reading comprehension in Zaria Educational Zone.


1.2 Statement of the Problem

Reading is one of the language skills, and reading comprehension is a part of overall language proficiency. It is necessary for teachers of English as a second language to cultivate students‟ English reading skills by providing them with effective reading strategies such as cognitive reading strategies and meta-cognitive strategies in class. A number of studies on second language learning reading shows some common obstacles encountered by learners.

Most students at the secondary school level are uninterested in reading and this is attributed to their inability to apply their schema while reading and this has led to poor reading habit (Agumanu; 1980, Ikonta; 2004 and Odumuh; 2004). As such, scholars like Akinbode (2006) observe that most of them perform poorly in reading comprehension and essay writing. According to teachers of English in a second language context like Nigeria, students read very slowly perhaps because of their inability to relate their previous experience or failure to activate their schemata (linguistic, content or formal schema) to the present text that they are reading.

They do not know how to guess the meaning of the unfamiliar words. Most of them adopt the „word by word‟ reading strategy for interpreting a text. Though, they understand the meaning of each word in a text, they are not able to comprehend the whole meaning of the text (Cooper, 2000).This could perhaps, be the reason why Chia (2001), reports that some students have no problem with understanding both words and sentence structures of the paragraph, but they cannot reach satisfactory interpretation of a text.

He stressed further that most of college students rely too much on bottom-up processing of individual words and analyzing sentence structures, but do not apply top-down processing for the overall view of the text. This resulted from lack of appropriate instruction and practice on the parts of the teachers to the students in applying reading strategies. This of course have accounted for poor reading attitude culminating into poor performance in general.

Most students have no motivation for reading and do not have efficient problem-solving ability in reading comprehension. Similarly, most students lack clear and specific objectives for reading. They enter the reading class with the phobia that reading is difficult and will not be able to read. The fact that they already have a language they use for communication further compound the problem.

Studies by White, Graves and Slatter (1990) have shown that poor readers often lack adequate vocabulary (linguistic schema) to understand what they read from a text. Consequently, reading is difficult and tedious for them. This probably may be the reason why Hart and Risely (2003) observed that young students who do not have enough vocabularies or effective word-learning strategies often struggle to achieve comprehension. Their poor experiences with reading and linguistic schema set them into a cycle of frustration and failure that continue throughout their

schooling. However, if schemata are not acquired in great enough quantity, they may tend to be frequently absent leading a child or a reader to think that his or her knowledge is not relevant even in those cases where it might be. In the same vein, even when an individual has a rich store of schemata, it is unreasonable to think he or she will have a prepackage knowledge structure for every situation that may be encountered. Sometimes knowledge structures will have to be built (or at least altered) to fit the demands of a given situation. Succintly put therefore, this study specifically seeks to tackle the problems stated below:

  1. Most students at the secondary school level are uninterested in reading and they have poor reading habit. This could be as a result of their poor knowledge of linguistic, content and formal schema.
  2. Some students read very slowly possibly because of their inability to relate their previous experience or failure to activate their schemata to the present text that they are reading
  3. Most students do not know how to guess the meaning (using their linguistic schema) of the unfamiliar words. They rely too much on bottom-up processing of individual words.
  4. Most students have no motivation for reading and do not have efficient problem-solving ability (schema step by step procedure for solving problems) in reading comprehension.
  5. Most students lack clear and specific objectives for reading as such they tend not to task their schema while reading.

Considering the above issues, it would be necessary for second language learners to be equipped with schema theory technique of reading comprehension because if they are good at using effective reading technique, they may become active, strategic, and independent readers who can adjust their strategies to different reading situations, evaluating their products and behaviors for full comprehension. Hence, the main focus of this research is to determine whether the low performance of secondary school second language learners‟ in reading comprehension can be improved if their schemata are properly activated and utilized when confronted with a reading comprehension task.

1.3 Objectives of the Study

The main objective of this study is to find out the effect of schema theory on junior secondary school English learners performance in reading comprehension. The specific objectives are to determine the effect of schemata on second language JSS Two learners performance in reading comprehension at the:

  1. literal level of comprehension.
  2. inferential level of comprehension.
  • critical evaluation level of comprehension.

1.4    Research Questions

Referring to the primary objectives of the study, the main research questions raised are as follows:

  1. What is the effect of schema theory on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for literal comprehension?
  2. What is the effect of schema theory on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for inferential comprehension?
  3. What is the effect of schema theory on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for critical evaluation comprehension?

1.5 Research Hypotheses

Taking all the afore-mentioned research questions into account, the following hypotheses were formulated for the study:

  1. Schema theory has no significant effect on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for literal comprehension.
  2. Schema theory has no significant effect on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for inferential comprehension.
  3. Schema theory has no significant effect on second language JSS two learners‟ reading for critical evaluation comprehension.

1.6 Significance of the Study

The study is intended for second language learners to learn to activate and use their schemata when reading any piece of discourse as it would aid easy understanding of the text being read. Thus, language teachers must bear in mind that schema theory should be „functionally‟ beneficial in their teachings and could help their students in learning more about any written piece of discourse. As such the findings of this work could shed more light on better ways to improve second language learners reading comprehension in secondary schools. By taking these key issues into consideration, learners‟ level of reading proficiency may remarkably be upgraded. In the same vein, the result of this research is expected to be useful for lecturers, students, textbooks writers and curriculum planners in the following ways:

  1. For reading lecturers/second language teachers, knowledge of the schema theory would become teaching technique in increasing students‟ reading competence and can make students interested in reading comprehension. These are expected to make teaching and learning of reading comprehension in schools easier for the language teachers and their students
  2. For students, knowledge of the study would greatly motivate them to develop their reading ability and as well learn to activate their encyclopedic knowledge especially in improving their reading comprehension. In the same vein, students could learn from this study that each type of reading requires specific skills and styles. Reading for inference demands a different style from reading for critical analysis and so on. This again, implies that their performance in reading comprehension would come out colorful.
  1. For textbooks writers, knowledge of the study would help them incorporate schema theory in reading comprehension properly especially when designing and writing any reading comprehension discourse of any kind. This they can achieve via thorough study of the concept and the importance attached to the concept in the study of reading comprehension.
  2. For curriculum planners/developers, the significance of the study is enormous because the result of this study would help them to design the curriculum that will reflect the objective and purpose of teaching reading comprehension via schema theory. This could equally bring about a rapid improvement in the performance levels of second language learners‟ in reading comprehension. The study would equally guide them in re-examining the contents of the English language syllabus with a view to taking care of the techniques of teaching reading comprehension.

1.7 Scope and Delimitation

The scope is delimited to junior secondary school two students in Zaria Local Government. The assumption is that they are already in secondary school and assumed to be more matured in terms of reading of different materials. In the same vein, students at this stage are expected to have been taught reading using other methods. As such, it may help the present study to test learners‟ ability to comprehend a text by teaching them reading comprehension via schema theory, then presenting questions to assess if they understood what they read.

The study is limited to two public secondary schools in Zaria Local Government Area of Kaduna State. These are: Government Junior Secondary School, Aminu and Government Junior

Secondary School, Gyellesu. The researcher is compelled to select two schools because the research involves teaching, monitoring and marking of scripts. Secondly, the subjects represent not only the population of the two secondary schools but also the entire population in Zaria Local Government. The “Hat and Draw” method of selection was employed to avert being bias either by selecting schools because of proximity or choice but minding the rules of giving equal opportunity for every school to be selected as propounded by statisticians like Imosili (1996) and Bello and Ajayi (2000).


Chapter one presented the background to the study. It explored the four dimensions of language paying attention on the aspect of reading from which schema theory sprang. Three specific objectives, three research questions and three corresponding hypothesis were stated. Problems such as disinterestedness of students in reading, inability of students to activate their schemata while reading, failure of students to spell out clearly their objectives of reading, students poor use of their linguistic schema in guessing the meaning of unfamiliar words rather they rely too much on bottom-up processing of individual words; most students have no motivation for reading and do not have efficient problem-solving ability in reading comprehension were raised for the study.


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