Learning to read and write – a schema

Developing a schema for learning to read and write

I’ve been thinking for some time about the usefulness of schema theory in helping us to understand better how we teach young children to read and spell when they enter school.

Let’s start by asking what a schema is. According to Kirschner and Hendrik, a schema is a ‘way of organising knowledge; a mental structure of already learned and available knowledge, skills, and even ideas that is used for organising and perceiving new information’. How Learning Happens*.

In our everyday experience, we will encounter situations, what Mica R. Endsley* refers to as those in which we ‘develop a set of prototypical situations or schemas’. Such schemas are mental models or ‘patterns consisting of the state of each of the relevant elements for that schema or situation type’. What we are doing all the time, writes Endsley is ‘pattern matching between the current situation and the schema’ and it is this that enables us to be able instantly to recognise different classes of situations. Endlsey describes it as the ‘Oh, this is what happened last month’.

In one of his lectures on the work of the Swiss scientist Jean Piaget, Jordan Peterson talks about the ‘transformation of knowledge structures’ and how infants produce a representation of the world which is ‘low resolution but quite tool-like’: the tool works in the world even if the representation is crude or even incorrect.

Of course, as Peterson implies above, schema patterns are not static; they can be highly dynamic and in quite an exciting way. When our understanding comes butting up against the boundaries of our own thinking in a way in which the mental model we have currently is at odds with the reality of a new situation, we have either to abandon what we previously believed or we have to accommodate to a new and more sophisticated way of thinking. In so doing, the structure of our schema is transformed.

As an example, I’m thinking here about our early understanding of how the sun appears to rise and set. As we have known since Copernicus, the sun doesn’t either rise or set; it remains immobile and it is the rotation of the earth that creates the illusion that it is the Sun that is moving.

As Peterson says, these knowledge structures are low resolution and they become, over time, more sharply defined as the process of assimilation takes place and the detail of the schema is filled in. And this process continues until something happens. Usually, the something that happens is when our thinking crashes up against the boundaries of our present understanding to contradict our previous view of the way in which the world works. In that circumstance, to enhance the model or schema, one has to change it completely, a process Piaget called accommodation. Furthermore, the new schema should be better than the old one in that it includes what the previous schema covered and extends into new territory, which is how you know it is better.

So, assimilation happens through a series of micro alterations – filling in the detail of the knowledge structure – and accommodation involves the transformation of the knowledge structure itself.

The way this works in regard to learning to read and write is that the child enters school and has all sorts of everyday, common or garden ideas about how reading works. And these ideas are grounded in reality. After all, they’ve been around long enough to have seen lots of people reading in all sorts of different situations. For the most part, their ideas about what reading is will have been picked up from parents, nursery, relatives and the like and will almost certainly resemble something like the understanding humans had of the daily appearance of the sun before Copernicus posited another model. The problem is that they are almost always wrong and it is our job as teachers to scientifise their understanding.

At some point, what beginning readers have to accommodate to is the alphabetic principle: the idea that units of print map to sounds in speech. And the place for the beginning reader to start is with one-to-one correspondences between sound and print. I’ve argued that this is best achieved through the procedure of word building, a process in which children are taught through a carefully structured activity that, in English, sounds can be represented by letters, one at a time, from left to right across the page. Some children will already tacitly know this from having been read to in nursery, by parents/carers, and so on. Nevertheless, from word building and from writing very simple three-word CVC sentences in the beginning stages of learning to read and write, orientation is made explicit: letters or single-letter spellings represent sounds in speech.

It is through word-building that young children can be taught explicitly the concept that we can spell sounds with spellings of one letter. In fact, this understanding develops over time and with practice as we teach code knowledge incrementally, step by step, one sound-spelling correspondence at a time. With practice, new conceptual and factual knowledge is internalised (the micro additions).

How would this work in practical terms? To reduce cognitive load to a minimum, we introduce only three sound-spelling correspondences (SSCs) in the context of a real word in a lesson template that then remains constant. Having taught three SSCs, we can add one more at a time progressively in what has now become a process of assimilation. And this process goes on until all the single letter spellings in the alphabet have been introduced, all of them in the context of real words.

In practical terms and to make the example clear, we would teach ‘mat’ on the first day and follow that by adding on the following day < s > for the sound /s/ and build ‘sat’. After adding in < i >, we’ll have taught five sound-spelling correspondences, after which it’s simply a matter of adding in the rest of the one-to-ones. All of this takes place in the context of real words and thus makes the process representative of the task (learning to read and write) as a whole.

This is exactly what Paul Kirschner was advocating in his talk at the researchEd conference in London last year: present the simplest, most complete example – in this case, the word and a word with which the novice learner is familiar (‘mat’ or ‘sat’).  Now, add complexity, one piece at a time. In parallel, the procedural elements of word-building – the skills of segmenting and blending – are practised to automaticity.

This isn’t, of course, the whole story. The subject of the next post: accommodation, the next step.

*Kirschner, P.A. and Hendrick, C., (2020), How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice, Routledge, p.6