1.1 - Reading as a Complex Cognitive Process
Learning Objectives: When you finish Mod 1.1 you should be able
to answer the following questions:
What is reading?
What are the cognitive factors that affect reading comprehension?
What is schema? How do we activate schema? Why is activating
schema an important pre-reading activity?
How does schemata influence comprehension?
What is metacognition?
What are the three stages of reading?
What Is Reading?
Reading is described in many ways by different people. Some describe it as a thinking
(cognitive) process. Others say it is the
reconstruction and interpretation of meanings behind printed symbols. Still others say it is the process of
understanding written language. All these explanations of reading are accurate. Despite continuing
disagreement about the precise nature of the reading process, there are some points of general agreement among reading
One such point is that comprehension of written material is the purpose of reading. In fact, we consider reading
comprehension and reading to be synonymous because when understanding breaks down reading actually has not
occurred. Perhaps more than any other, the word "meaning" appears in definitions of reading. Readers are involved in
constructing meaning from text.
What is fluent reading?
During the reading process, there is an interplay between the reader's preexisting knowledge and the written content.
Fluent reading is an active process in which the reader calls on experience, language, and prior knowledge to
anticipate and understand the author's written language. Thus, readers both bring meaning to print and take meaning
The nature of the reading process alters as students mature. In the early stages of
reading, word identification requires a reader's concentration. Eventually, however, readers are able to use their
reading ability (ability to interpret written language) for pleasure, appreciation, knowledge acquisition, and functional
purposes. Thus, reading competence has many faces. Proficient, fluent readers locate materials and ideas that enable
them to fulfill particular purposes, which may be to follow directions, to complete job applications, or to appreciate
Shakespearean plays. In addition, fluent readers adjust their reading style as they move from narrative to expository
content. Finally, they read with various types of understanding - literal,
affective, interpretive, critical, and creative.
What are the cognitive factors that affect reading comprehension?
interest and motivation are fairly obvious, but ...
What is Schema? How
do we activate schema? Why is activating schema an important
educators (constructionists) argue that knowledge (or learning) is constructed from experience and stored in memory as opposed to knowledge
being absolute and absolute meaning existing on a page. We all have a uniquely personal store of knowledge gained
through a lifetime of experiences.
This stored knowledge along with its storage structure is called schemata. This term is often used in its singular form - schema - that refers to an organized chunk
of knowledge or experience, often accompanied by feelings or emotions associated with experience at the time the
information was stored. For example, when someone mentions the word "exams," your mind begins searching all the
related information stored in memory. That information may include specific information you learned for exams,
feelings associated with exams, or even sounds associated with taking an exam.
When students have little or no schema (background knowledge or
prior experience) for a subject, comprehension is greatly impaired. Sometimes referred to as
the filing system your brain uses to catalog information, schema is also often compared with the files on a computer
and the storage system by which those files are organized in the computer's memory. This theoretical construct of
cognitive structure again argues for reading as a meaning making activity that is unique to the individual -
idiosyncratic. Comprehension does not proceed independently of a reader's fund of related experiences
knowledge or schemata.
To understand the importance of your schema to your comprehension, read the following paragraph and try to
determine (comprehend) what is being described.
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, but
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, this is
a part of life. (Bransford and McCarrell, "A Sketch of a Cognitive Approach to Comprehension" 1974)
What was the procedure being described?
Schema theory then establishes our first prerequisite for reading comprehension: Does the reader have schemata
(background knowledge) relevant for understanding the text? For more information on the power of schema check out:
How Does Schemata Influence Comprehension?
Constructionists and reading theorists argue that schema is the driving force in the comprehension process. That it is
this, more than any other process or cueing system that will
make or break comprehension. The degree to which new,
incoming information is consistent with the expectations generated from existing schemata determines the presence
or absence of comprehension. In other words, the degree of "fit" between new information and prior knowledge
determines the ease, difficulty, or lack of comprehension. So the richer the existing knowledge structure, the better
the comprehension of new information. This holds true, of course, not only for reading and writing, but also for all
types of communication.
is also very important that this existing knowledge structure,
schema, on the particular subject of, and on topics related to,
the new information be immediately accessible. Learning takes
place when new information is connected to existing schema, and
this is accomplished much more efficiently if the existing
knowledge has been very recently reviewed. When we activate
schema we take time prior to reading to think, to remember, to
review everything we already know about this topic. In this way,
that information is in the forefront of long term memory rather
than buried under a mountain of more recently acquired or
activated schemata. This is why activating schema is such an
important pre-reading activity.
Learning, then, is the accumulation of ever more rich knowledge structures.
Schemata is a system of categorizing and making sense of the world around us, the surrounding environment. It is
the filing system in your head and all the information stored there - everything you know and the horse it rode in on.
Assimilation fits new information into existing schemata. The richer the schemata, the more able the reader/learner
will be to fill in gaps by interpreting, reading between the lines, supplying missing information, making inferences, etc.
When new information is assimilated, the schemata grow richer.
Accommodation becomes necessary if wrong information or none existed in schemata to begin with. Accommodation
means adjusting or modifying existing schemata to accept radically new or discordant
information, e.g., cats without tails/
neutered cats still spray/ decoding does not equal reading/ bumblebees don't sting. When you accommodate, you
throw out misconceptions and restructure schemata .
Another possibility is that the new information will be ignored or rejected if it doesn't fit into the individual's
prevailing view of the world. Without guidance or additional
input, students' misconceptions may override information presented in the text.
Assimilation and accommodation are, of course, dependent upon an individual's existing schemata. Assimilation is also
made easier if the material matches the student's cultural perspective. Other major factors, which influence
comprehension, are interest and motivation. Much-studied topics, they have repeatedly been shown to have a direct,
positive impact on comprehension even when prior knowledge is low.
What is Metacognition?
Another important concept related to the development of fluent reading is that of metacognition or metacognitive
awareness. Simply stated metacognition is knowing about knowing, thinking about thinking.
knowing "what we know" and "what we don't know." Just as an executive's job is
management of an organization, a thinker's job is management of
thinking, a learner's job is management of learning. The basic metacognitive strategies are:
- Connecting new information to former knowledge.
- Selecting thinking strategies deliberately.
- Planning, monitoring, and evaluating thinking processes.
A thinking person is in charge of her behavior. She determines when it is necessary to use metacognitive strategies. She selects
strategies to define a problem situation and researches alternative solutions. She tailors this search for information to constraints of time and energy. She
monitors, controls and judges her thinking. She evaluates and decides when a problem is solved to a satisfactory degree or when the demands
of daily living take a temporary or permanent higher priority. Learning how to learn, developing a repertoire of thinking processes which can be applied to solve problems, is a major goal of education.
Metacognitive activities, of course, vary according to the current cognitive processing task. For example, a student who
is engaged in metacognition and critical thinking might be thinking about her thinking while she is thinking in order to
improve her thinking. Luckily for us, metacognition as applied to the reading process is a slightly less layered process.
Fluent readers might be thinking about their reading (comprehension and processing) while they are
reading in order to improve their reading.
As students transition from learning to read to reading to learn, reading is no longer an end in itself. Instead, learning
specific information and then using that information to perform some task becomes the goal of reading. This type of
reading involves a number of complex activities such as understanding and remembering the main idea of the
selection, monitoring comprehension and learning, and knowing when and how to use fix-up strategies when there is a
breakdown in comprehension.
What are the Three Stages of Reading?
Our exploration of the reading process organizes itself most naturally into an
examination of three phases: pre-reading, active reading, and post-reading.
|| Schema Theory
Set purpose for reading
What do I know?
What do I want to know?
| Active Reading
|| Influence of Schemata on Comprehension
fix-up strategies as needed
Am I understanding?
If not, what should I do about it?
Am I fulfilling my
What have I learned?
changes/improvements are needed in my reading
In later modules, we will be taking another, more detailed look at these stages.
to Module 1.2