Schemata and Listening Comprehension

The effectiveness of pre-listening activities to activate schema 

Listening is an important skill in second language acquisition, research, teaching, and assessment. It is a complex process and plays a significant role in the process of interlanguage development.  Since its importance in language learning and acquisition has been understood well recently, the importance given to listening comprehension in second language pedagogy has largely increased.  Acquiring good listening skills in second language has been one of the main concerns of language teaching. Krashen’s emphasis on the role of comprehensible input was partly responsible for the importance given to listening comprehension.

Listening is now considered as an active skill that involves many processes. According to Byrnes (1984) listening is a “highly complex problem-solving activity”.  It has been hypothesized that background knowledge and schemata plays a significant role in the comprehension of this highly complex problem-solving activity. In this paper, the role of schemata in L2 listening comprehension is investigated. The following literature reviews attempt to demonstrate and support the hypothesis.

One of the important theories of learning is called schema theory, which has used in many studies as it has a great unique impact. This is because of its influence on perception and learners’ memory. The significance of schematic knowledge is now widely acknowledged in foreign language teaching and many researches in the schema-oriented area of ESL/EFL teaching have been carried out. This theory has various definitions and the three types of schemata are content, formal, and cultural which are closely related to learners ‘ reading and listening comprehension in acquiring L2.

During the 1970s, listening pedagogy largely emphasized bottom-up linguistic processing. It is during this period that cognitive psychology began to focus on the individual as an active processor of linguistic input.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the status of listening began to change since applied linguists began to benefit from the findings of cognitive psychology. They borrowed the concepts bottom-up and top-down processing from the fields of cognitive psychology and applied them to language learning. So they started to argue that both language schema and knowledge schema are crucial for enhancing comprehension. This led to an awareness of the significance of background knowledge and schema in comprehension. As a result, it can be asserted that since the 1980s, listening pedagogy has focused on the linguistic aspects of comprehension to schema-based view which stresses the importance of activating learners’ background knowledge.

Schema theory is used by cognitive psychologists to explain the psychological process involved in understanding and knowing.  The role of background knowledge in language comprehension has been formulized as schema theory. (Bartlett 1932; Rumelhart 1980 cited in Carrell and Eisterhold, 1984)    According to schema theory, comprehending a text requires more than linguistic knowledge. A text, either spoken or written, does not by itself carry any meaning, Comprehension, that is understanding words, sentences, entire texts, is an interactive process between the reader’s background knowledge and the text. The listeners or readers retrieve or construct meaning from their own, previously acquired knowledge. The reader’s background knowledge, data structure of general ideas stored in memory and the previously acquired knowledge structures are called schemata.According to such a principle, meaning exists neither in oral nor in written language itself. It is in the reader’s or listener’s mind.

Schema theory deals with the listening process, during which listeners are engaged in the process of constructing meaningfrom the text they listened to based on their expectations, inferences, intentions, prior knowledge. Liisteners combine their previous experiences and pre-existing knowledge with the text they hear. Schemata decides on how listeners recognize information. In fact, listening comprehension is the result of the interaction between “bottom-up” and “top-down” listening skills. Listeners process a listening text through bottom-up and top-down processes. They decode, that is construct a message from sounds, words, and phrases through bottom-up skills by relying on their linguistic knowledge. They also make inferences about what the speaker intended through top-down processing.

According to Carrel and Eisterhold (1984) schemata involved in comprehension can be categorized into two major types: Formal schemata are the background knowledge of formal, rhetorical organizational structures of different types of texts. Formal or rhetorical rhetorical schemata refer to the article genre, and discourse structure knowledge, such as fables, poems , drama and other genres whereas Content schemata are the the background knowledge of the content area of the text.

 Today, researchers consider the role of schematic knowledge as one of the factors affecting comprehension. However, schema-theoritical studies in L1 listening comprehension has dealt with on limited themes: the effects of visual and verbal organisers, pre-established background knowledge, story schemata, and imaginary training on comprehension, recall, and learning. (Long, 1989)  Applications of schema theory to L2 listening, on the other hand, has remain largely unexplored.  Only a limited number of research deals with the importance of schema-based theory in the L2 listening pedagogy.

The importance of comprehensible input as a necessary factor in L2 language learning is documented in the SLA literature. Krashen (1982) argued that the most effective way to teach a second language is to give learners large amounts of comprehensible input in an environment of low anxiety. Berne points out that “familiarity with passage content facilitates L2 listening comprehension.” (1985)  Likewise, Johnson claims that providing students with background knowledge facilitates learning and understanding of unfamiliar texts (Johnson, 1982).  Activating students’ stored knowledge structure (schemata) to enhance comprehension and creating new schemata is important.  Zeng (2007) posits that listening teaching process is an information processing and storage process during which students need to apply the available knowledge of the language, background knowledge and listening material interaction. Actually, each new experience modifies our existing schemata. If faced with an unfamiliar culture or discourse community, we create a new schema. This creation or modification of schemata is an essential part of the listening process if the listener has indeed ‘learnt’ from an event.  According to Kemp (2010) however, the effect is likely to be cumulative. This is perhaps one reason why some teachers mistakenly believe that listening is merely a matter of practice.

According to Zhang (2006), schema theory provides strong evidence for the effectiveness of pre-listening activities.  Pre-listening tasks are often designed so as to build or activate the learners’ schemata. They also build up their expectations for the coming information, and provide the necessary context for the specific listening task. This is because it is assumed that if the listener does not possess the relevant schemata or does not activate the schemata, comprehension cannot be fulfilled.  They both provide an outline for listening to the text and teach cultural key concepts.

In L2 listening research, there are some empirical studies that focus indirectly on the relationship between background knowledge and L2 listening comprehension.  Students experience difficulties as they progressed in their second language. According to Rumelhart (1997) the accumulation of schemata contributes most to efficient comprehension and retention of new listening material.  Valeri Ruhe explored how graphics can facilitate the second-language lecture comprehension process. She suggests that graphics do more than activate a schema in the prelistening stage. They can also be used in the listening stage to enhance listening comprehension. Ruhe’s study suggests that graphics-based strategies can be effective in improving listening comprehension. The graphics helps learners match the visual information with the audio.  Ruhe research indicates the importance of graphics-based strategies to support the teaching of lecture comprehension.  Visual organizers Mueller (1980) investigated the effects of visual contexts on listening comprehension in beginning students of German. He found that the students who had the contextual visual before hearing the passage scored significantly higher on the recall measure than those in the visual-after and the no-visual groups. His study also points out that the proficient learners have higher linguistic abilities and therefore they need fewer visual contextual cues to activate their appropriate schemata.  Weissender, (1987) on the other hand, indicates the importance of both textual and content schemata in a study of intermediate and advanced learners’ comprehension of Spanish language newscasts. He found that both textual and content schemata help activate comprehension of the new data. Bacon’s (1992) research regarding the effect of background knowledge during listening process found learners benefit from previous knowledge during listening.  She reported that successful listeners tended to use their personal, world, and discourse knowledge while less successful listeners either built erroneous meaning from their prior knowledge or ignored it altogether.

Markham and Latham (1987) used passages to understand the effect of religious background in listening comprehension and their data shows that religious background influences listening comprehension. The participants in their experiment were much successful in remembering about the passage that related to their own religion. The results revealed that both religious background knowledge and captions contribute substantially to the comprehension of university-level ESL students. The findings of Sadighi (2006) regarding the supportive role of background knowledge are consistent with the findings of the majority of L2 listening studies. He also concluded that activating students background knowledge provided better comprehension.  Chiang and Dunkel (1992) have shown that topic familiarity enhances listening comprehension for low-level second-language learners. Visually based contextual clues such as pictures and video have been found effective in activating background knowledge and improving comprehension. A study by Baltova (1994) investigated the role of video and/or sound in the processing of aural French as a second language in grade-eight core French. Results indicate visual cues were informative and enhanced general comprehension.  Berne (1995)  compared the effects of different pre-listening activities on the listening comprehension performance of adult learners of Spanish as a Foreign Language. While these findings are subject to several limitations, they suggest two possible While these findings are subject to several limitations, they suggest two possible Zeng  (2007) found that university students could achieve better progress in listening ability once some major obstacles in the listening procedure are removed through successful activation and extending of schemata pertaining to L2 listening comprehension.



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Carrell, Patricia L and Eisterhold Joan. (1983). Schema Theory and ESL Reading Pedagogy.
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Kemp, Jenny. (2010). The Listening Log: motivating autonomous learning. ELT Journal, 64/4.


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Mueller, G. A. (1980). Visual contextual cues and listening comprehension: An experiment.
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Markham, P. L., & Latham, M. (1987). The influence of religion-specific background
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Tang, C.M. (1991). The role and value of graphic representation of knowledge structures in

ESL student learning: An ethnographic study. TESL Canada Journal, 9, 29-38.

Sadighi, F. Sare, Z. (2006) Is Listening Comprehension Influenced by the Background 
            knowledge of the Learners? A Case Study of Iranian EFL learners. Linguistics Journal,

Weissenreider, Maureen. (1987). Listening to the News in Spanish. Modern Language Journal,
            71, 18-27.


Zhang, Wu-ping. (2006). Effect of Schema Theory and Listening Activities on Listening
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Zeng,  Ya-jun. (2007).  Schema theory and its application in teaching listening for

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4 thoughts on “Schemata and Listening Comprehension

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  4. This is the fourth time. I liked this article, I found it very interesting and complete about the schema theory. Thanks

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