Narrative schemas: conceptualising classroom reading

Reading a set text with a group of students in a classroom is both a highly familiar staple of school English, and a relatively odd type of reading experience. That is, if we think about other contexts in which we read and discuss texts, such as at a book group, out with friends, curled up with the cat on the sofa, or even in a university seminar it’s very rare:

  1. that we do both the ‘reading bit’ and the ‘discussion bit’ at the same time, or even toggle between the two; and,
  2. that people within a group are at different points in their reading of the text.

Situations do arise every day where we may begin discussing a book with someone, only to discover that one has finished it whereas the other has not, but consider what typically happens then. Readers will often engage in a checking procedure in order to establish whether they are both speaking from a similar point of text knowledge and, if an imbalance is discovered, we tend to either disengage from the conversation or else carefully moderate what we say or hear, depending on which side of the imbalance we are on. Common phrases we might hear or use in such scenarios include:

  • “let’s talk about it when you’ve finished”
  • “where are you up to, what’s happening at the moment?”
  • “I’m just at the bit where…”
  • “has anything thing happened [in this place/to this character/in relation to this topic]?”
  • “no spoilers please!”
  • “don’t ruin it”
  • “don’t say anything about the ending!”

In the Higher Education context this imbalance is simply resolved. If the book in question is one which everyone is supposed to have read before the seminar or lecture, which is typically the case at least in UK universities, then students who don’t finish in time are faced with a choice: go to class and risk finding out about the ending, or skip class and finish the book instead. The same is not true in our secondary schools, and here English teachers in particular are faced with a problem: how do you, as a re-reader of a text, teach – or indeed talk at all – about a book which, for most of the time you study it with a class, they haven’t read all the way through?

This problem can be described – and importantly explained – more precisely using ‘schema theory’. The notion of schemas crops up in various academic disciplines and has been discussed in relation to the psychology of reading literature since as early as the 1930s (Bartlett 1932). Schema theory makes simple claims about how our background knowledge is organised in the mind, and how we retrieve relevant information as and when we need it, without having to wade through other elements of our knowledge which are of no use to us in a given moment. When I’m in a clothes shop, for instance, I draw on my ‘clothes shop schema’ to make sense of my surroundings: I know that I’m able to try on clothes, but only in the fitting room, I know that if I want to take an item with me when I leave I must go to a till and pay for it. When new information is added to a schema, this is a process called ‘accretion’ (Stockwell 2002: 80). I might go to a particular shop where you can only take a limited number of items into the fitting room at a time: when this happens I ‘accrete’ my ‘clothes shop schema’ and this information will then be available to me on future trips. Often, we have to adjust our existing knowledge in light of new information we encounter: this is called ‘tuning’ (Stockwell 2002: 79). ‘Tuning’, in essence, is what happens when our existing knowledge interacts with our newly accreted knowledge.

The key thing about schemas is that they are unique to the individual (Stockwell 2003). We all have a schema, our own understanding, of what constitutes a fairytale, for example, and these schemas may be broadly similar for individuals who belong to the same community or culture (Stockwell 2002). However, based on the unique composition of our personal experience of fairytales, each of our schemas will be slightly different because we will have accreted different things and tuned that knowledge in different ways.

We can apply this model to reading in a group, including the school classroom, using the idea of ‘narrative schemas’ (Mason 2014; Giovanelli and Mason 2015). As a teacher reading a set text with a group, you and every student in the room will have a unique ‘narrative schema’ for the text. This narrative schema is each person’s available mental version of the novel, which is the resource they will draw on as they read, think about, talk about or write about it. When planning tasks or discussing the text with students, therefore, it’s useful to bear in mind that as a re-reader of the text, your narrative schema will:

  1. Be much more richly accreted than your students’ narrative schemas;
  2. Contain accreted elements from points in the text that your students have not yet read.

As the class progresses through the novel each person will all accrete their narrative schema, not only from their own reading but also from any other knowledge about the text they encounter. Crucially this can include what a teacher (or peer) says about the text.

As a person reads, they ‘tune’ incoming elements of the story against the information they have already accreted in their narrative schema. This is why readers don’t like spoilers and tend to avoid engaging in conversations with people who have read more of a text than they have. If another reader tells you a plot point you have not yet read about for yourself, you accrete that information before you were supposed to and then cannot help but tune the remainder of your reading in light of that knowledge. In other words, premature accretion disrupts personal response (Giovanelli & Mason 2015). This is the key distinction between reading a text for the first time and re-reading it thereafter: as a first time reader you accrete your narrative schema as you go, any reading thereafter is tuned against your existing narrative schema.

Narrative schemas help us to describe more precisely the challenge that English teachers face on a daily basis: how to manage your own rich narrative schema as you guide students to accrete their own, without imposing interpretations or revealing forthcoming text knowledge which will ultimately tune students’ narrative schemas away from their own reading of the text towards learning yours instead.


Bartlett, F. (1932) Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Giovanelli, M. & Mason, J. (2015) ‘ “Well I don’t feel that”: Schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom’, English in Education 49(1): 41-55.

Mason, J. (2014) ‘Narrative’ in P. Stockwell & S. Whiteley (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.175-94.

Stockwell, P. (2002) Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Stockwell, P. (2003) ‘Schema poetics and speculative cosmology’, Language and Literature 12(3): 252-71.



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