Using Metacognition and Schema Theory to Teach Reading Skills

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor


© 2014

As educators, we realize the many positive outcomes for students who read recreationally (see The Reading and Writing Connection and The Forget Kale or Chipotle Peppers-the Best Way to Learn English Quickly is Reading Method), but what happens when students cannot read well at a college level?  ACT’s most recent annual report, The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013, found that 44% of students tested were prepared to meet the demands of college reading.   This number may mean that over half of students, or 56%, enrolled in our classes are not able to effectively read and understand their college texts, assignment directions, and academic research materials.  Understanding complex research methodologies and study designs, compiling literature reviews, and processing scholarly research articles are tasks that they may find too challenging.  Low reading levels negatively impacts their writing as they cannot use outside sources in their own writing if they do not understand them.   They are not able to adequately process their texts and source materials, so they cannot see how they fit in with their own ideas. This often leads to unsuccessful paraphrases, lack of integration of source material, and plagiarism.

As educators, it is up to all of us to help students improve their literacy skills. As the United States Department of Education (2006) noted, “If students cannot read close to grade level, the biology textbook, the math problems, the history documents, the novel—all will be beyond them.”  Early in my career as a college educator, I taught  developmental reading courses, and while I taught many techniques and strategies for reading and comprehending college texts and academic materials, I found that two fairly simple strategies worked extremely well for my students.

First, I encouraged students to take charge of their reading experiences. I reminded them that reading is an active meaning-making experience.  I talked to them early and often about metacognition and demonstrated it by monitoring my own reading comprehension out loud.  I also discussed setting aside enough time for reading and gave them the general formula of multiplying the number of credit hours of each of their courses by 2-3 to figure out how many hours they should be reading course materials per class each week.  This helped them set realistic expectations and actually allot the necessary amount of time to adequately comprehend course materials.  I also talked to them about minimizing the distractions around them, reminding them that if they tried to read in a room where children were playing loudly, or the television was blaring, these distractions would likely demand their attention, leaving their ability to concentrate on their reading compromised.

Secondly, I talked to students about prior knowledge and schema theory in reading.  I taught them that schema theorists suggest that we process new information by considering how it fits in with our prior knowledge on a topic. We talked about how, when we encounter new information, either through reading or other learning experiences, we examine how the new information meshes with our existing schemata on the topic, and we rearrange or reconstruct our schemata to accommodate the new information.  I demonstrated schema theory in reading comprehension by having students complete KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, and What I Learned) charts in class. I also helped them to understand that, if their schemata on a topic were limited, extra processing time may be needed and encouraged them to expand and build on their prior knowledge by reading vicariously and seeking out other learning experiences.

These strategies worked well for my developmental reading students, and, along with other techniques we reviewed in class, helped them improve their reading skills. What methods have you found successful in improving students’ abilities to read and comprehend their texts in order to write about them?


ACT. (2013).   The condition of college & career readiness 2013. Retrieved from

United States Department of Education. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Retrieved from

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4 Responses

  1. starknotes says:

    One way that helped “break the ice” in classes I’ve taught in the past is to say that it’s okay for us not to understand the reading at times. When students felt like they could actually say, “I don’t get it,” then we could start a conversation about what was confusing. Usually during those conversations the student would articulate what she didn’t understand about the reading, realizing that she knew more about the subject matter than she initially thought. This lightbulb moment inspired confidence among students to say what confused them, which then led toward learning moments.

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