Unlock Your Brain: Activating Schema

Hi everyone! It's Melissa from Don't Let the Teacher Stay Up Late, and I'm so excited to share my first post on this blog. For those who don't know me, I've been teaching for 8 years in a small county near Richmond, VA. This is my second year as the Title I Reading Specialist for grades 3-5, but I spent most of my time in fourth grade. I love working with older kids and focusing on comprehension skills.

Today I want to share one of my favorite words: SCHEMA. When I began my master's program four years ago, I had never heard of the word. It's just a fancy word for prior knowledge, but it sounds so much more fun! As strong readers, it's not something we really think about because it just comes naturally to us. However, we got that way from LOTS of practice.

I like to teach schema at the very beginning of the year, and yes, I use the word schema because the kids think it's a cool word, too. Plus I tell them they can go home and teach their parents a new, fancy word. When I introduce it, I explain that schema just means "what we already know". I tell them it's like our brain is a filing cabinet and certain words tell our brain to pull out a file. Then I usually say "dinosaur" and ask them to tell me what things they thought about. They give a lengthy list (I don't write it down, but I would if the kids were a little younger). Then we discuss where they learned this information. I only said one word, but they were able to give me plenty of information.

After they have an understanding of what the word means, I show them how it applies to reading. I choose a book, and we activate our schema (I pretend to turn a key on my brain to open the filing cabinet) on the topic. I recommend beginning with a nonfiction book, and it's important that the topic is one your students are comfortable with. As they call out information, WRITE IT DOWN! You can have them write it on a sticky note and sort the information into categories, or you can just list the information. Then I show the students the book cover. That may jog their memory for a little more information.

I explain to the students that they will need this information to help them read the book. Sometimes it will help them understand words that are unfamiliar (context clues). Other times it will clear up information that the author doesn't completely explain (making inferences). I tell the students that good readers use their schema all the time. Before we read, I have them explain to me what schema means. I see a lot of them "unlock their brains".

The most important step is to begin every story that you read with the class by activating their schema. This doesn't have to be long, but they need PRACTICE!! This won't become a habit without a lot of modeling and practice. It's also important because there will be times when students don't have sufficient background knowledge, and they will need help BUILDING their schema.

A few recommendations for quick prior knowledge checks:

  • sticky notes
  • 20-30 seconds to share one fact with a buddy
  • draw three names to share one fact
  • short journal writing for morning work

Since this is my second year in this position, I've been able to see how much some of my students have retained from year to year. They don't always remember the word, but all I have to do is "unlock my brain" and they know exactly what to do. I've noticed that they are more engaged in the topic from the beginning, and it makes teaching future skills a lot easier!

What is your favorite book to practice activating prior knowledge?


  1. I love the word schema as well, and my 3rd graders think it is such a fun word to say! At the beginning of the school year, my reading series includes the selection, Alexander Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday, by Judith Viorst. This is a great book to activate students' prior knowledge. I like to read other Alexander stories by Judith Viorst to go tie into the one in our reading series. The 3rd graders always find a way to relate to Alexander!

    1. Sarah-You are so right! What a great way to introduce/continue to work on SCHEMA!

  2. Children so love to use big words! I love your idea of "unlocking your brain". So cute! I can so picture students doing it!
    Reading Toward the Stars

  3. Fabulous teaching strategies, Melissa! I missed this post somehow, and just now caught it. I love when my kids use the word, schema, too. They feel so grownup! Goes well with metacognition. :-)