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Literacy Across Cultures Spring/Summer 2000 4/1

Selection of Reading Texts: Moving Beyond Content Schema

Maya Khemlani David & Lynne Norazit
Faculty of Languages and Linguistics
University of Malaya
Kuala Lumpur


Since the late 1960s, a number of theorists (i.e. Goodman, 1970; Smith, 1978) have developed interactive theories of reading which place great importance on the role of the reader and the knowledge s/he brings to bear on the text in the reading process. These interactive theories, which now dominate reading research and strongly influence teaching practice, draw heavily on schema theory.

Schema theory proposes that readers possess different conceptual frameworks, called schemata, which they bring to the reading of a text and which they use to make sense of what they read. Such schemata are used by readers in interactive bottom-up and top-down processing. Schemata provide a framework for readers to check their understanding of the text, fill in information gaps within the text, and clarify ambiguities (Steffenson & Joag-Dev, 1984). Efficient readers use prior knowledge of content and textual features stored in schemata to make meaning out of the text (Rumelhart, 1977; Goodman, 1984).

Two types of schemata most often discussed in reading research are formal schemata and content schemata. Formal schemata are higher order structures containing knowledge of rhetorical organization structures, including knowledge of the general properties of text types and differences in genre (Carrell & Eisterhold, 1988). The other type of schema which a reader brings to a text is content schema, the knowledge relative to the content domain of the text. Content schemata themselves can be classified into different types. One which has attracted growing interest is the culture-specific content schema (Carrell, 1988; Carrell & Eisterhold, 1988). Several studies of second-language speakers and reading comprehension indicate that prior cultural experiences are extremely important in comprehending text (Anderson, 1979; Johnson, 1982; Steffenson & Joag-Dev, 1984). In fact, Brown et al. (1977) and Pearson and Gordon (1979) argue that students with greater prior knowledge comprehend and remember more.

A now famous study by Steffenson and Joag-Dev (1984), based on schema theory, demonstrates the effect of cultural background on reading comprehension. In the study, subjects from Indian and American backgrounds were asked to read and recall two texts describing an Indian and American wedding respectively. The texts were presented in the form of letters, a common genre familiar to the students, and were similar in terms of structural complexity (i.e. length and syntax). It was predicted that subjects would :

1) recall more of the native than the foreign text,
2) produce more expansions as a result of "remembering" items which were not mentioned in the text but were culturally appropriate and consistent with it, and
3) make more distortions of the foreign text.

The types of errors made by the subjects with the foreign texts confirmed the researchers' three predictions and suggested that the subjects made these errors because they were unable to call on relevant cultural content schemata to check their understanding of the text. The writers concluded that an important part of reading comprehension is cultural knowledge — readers will understand a text better if they share the content schema assumed by the writer but will distort the text if there is no shared schema. They note that interference occurs at all levels — affective, denotative and propositional. Steffensen and Joag-Dev point out that the findings illustrate the importance in the reading classroom of the careful screening of texts. They suggest that to facilitate a reader's comprehension of a text the teacher must first identify sources of interference, then contrast this with what is already known and finally provide enough context for the reader to understand what still remains unfamiliar.

Teaching Dilemma

Findings such as these, while useful, present reading teachers with a paradox. If cultural unknowns are a sure source of misunderstanding in the reading classroom, then it can be argued that only texts that deal with known aspects of culture should be used in the reading classroom. Malaysian researchers Osman (1984) and Koh (1985), for example, have emphasised the importance of selecting texts that are within known world/cultural knowledge. However, one of the benefits of reading is to open new worlds and new cultures to readers. If teachers constantly select texts that are within the known schemata of students merely to facilitate students' reading process, teachers are not doing them justice. Although such selective choice of texts may facilitate the reading process, it does in no way open up new worlds and new experiences to them.

Real world needs underlie these theoretical and pedagogical issues. In a multiracial, multiethnic, multireligious country like Malaysia it is vital that people learn about each other's culture. This is true for members of the Islamic cultural majority as well as the minority cultures, and one should not assume that by living together in the same country that people have gained sufficient cultural knowledge about each other. Although it could be expected that the minority non-Muslim student in Malaysia has the schema to access a text on the Islamic world, this may not always be the case. For example, a number of Chinese and Indian students attend primary vernacular schools where the medium of instruction is Mandarin and Tamil respectively, and where the vast majority of the student population are also ethnically Chinese and Tamil. Thus, there may not be many opportunities for them to interact with their Malay-Muslim counterparts. This may also be compounded by their living in an area where the residents are predominantly non-Muslim. For minority and majority students alike, their first meaningful interaction might only occur when they proceed to secondary or tertiary level education. Knowledge of each group's world view facilitates understanding, which in turn can result in more conducive relationships and communication between peoples of different cultures and religions. Challenging stereotypical generalizations that make "others" appear more "other" can be aided through reading — reading about cultural unknowns.

An Approach to Selecting a Text

Once a teacher accepts that using literature as a means of teaching culture is beneficial, the question remains of choosing appropriate texts and teaching techniques. We propose that while text selection can be difficult, it can be made easier if certain aspects of the texts and their readers are taken into account. We will discuss these criteria as well as strategies and techniques which can be used once a text is selected to help students get a fuller understanding of the text they read.

Burmeister (1987, p. 31) notes that "there is a definite interaction between factors found in written materials and factors found within the person who is reading." He suggests that apart from familiarity with content, knowledge of text construction, and possession of reading skills, there are certain features of a text and of the person reading it which facilitate understanding. These include: (a) paragraph organization, (b) word choice and sentence structure, (c) interest in the text, (d) presentation of the text (e.g. quality of illustrations, size of print etc.), and (e) motivation for reading the text.

Understanding the overall organisation of the text can also facilitate students' comprehension of a text on an unfamiliar topic. Urquhart (1992, p. 161-186) has investigated two types of text organization — organization according to time order and organiz-ation according to space order. His findings suggest that texts that conform to rhetorical organization patterns such as temporal and spatial order and cause and effect are easier for readers to recall and thus have a higher degree of readability. In short, structural features provide a scaffolding that can help readers to gain access to texts on unfamiliar topics, while interest and motivation can keep them on task.

Using an approach combining Urqhardt's findings on text organization and readability, Burmeister's criteria to guide text selection, and the additional factor of genre and readability, we will show by using a sample text how a suitable text dealing with a subject not well understood or perhaps completely unknown to the target reader can be selected. Also, we will discuss specific pre-teaching activities to provide/develop cultural background information so students can be prepared to read it with understanding.

The sample text and the pre-teaching activities for it were chosen to specifically familiarize Chinese minority students with aspects of the world view of the Islamic majority, but this is not to imply that learning about other cultures is something only minority learners must do. It must work both ways, and the approach and techniques discussed can be applied to any text, including one to teach, for example, Islamic students about the culture of any of Malaysia's minorities.

The text chosen to demonstrate this is Abu-Lughod's (1993) Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories, an anthropological study of the Bedouin community in Egypt presented through the rhetorical style of spoken narrative. Specifically, it will be used to exemplify how Muslim attitudes to a topic of current interest in the non-Muslim world, polygyny, can be made accessible to the non-Muslim reader. The topic of polygyny is selected as many in the non-Islamic world tend to have a negative view of such an institution. Opening the Islamic world view to non-Muslim readers will enable them to learn that it is an institution that "does not necessarily bring the pleasure for husbands that Western and non-Muslim fantasies about harems suggest" because there is discord even within the Islamic world as "some turn to the Qu'ran to justify polygyny as Islamic, while others use the same passage to condemn the practice as not favored by God" (Abu-Lughod, 1993, p.19).

Despite the geographic distance between Malaysia and the Middle East, this text about Bedouin women has been selected to open new worlds to Malaysian Chinese and Indian students as Muslims, regardless of where they live, practice common basic principles of the Islamic faith.

Synopsis of the Sample Text

The text selected for discussion is taken from the chapter on polygyny (Chapter 2) and is titled "Cousins". The chapter was chosen because it deals with three of the main issues central to Bedouin women's lives — polygyny, cousin marriage and child marriage — which may cause problems for readers unfamiliar with Bedouin or Islamic culture. Briefly, in this passage Sagr and Gateefa, two of the writer's main informants, are talking to the writer about the early days of their marriage. Sagr explains how he came to marry Gateefa, and subsequently, his other two wives. Gateefa, who is 15 years younger than her husband and also his first cousin (their fathers were brothers), was promised to him at birth by her father. However, her father died when Gateefa was still very young and her mother took her back to live with her own relatives. Contact between the families was still maintained but to Sagr, Gateefa remained a small, albeit affectionate, child. After several attempts to marry other women were unsuccessful (they were claimed by their own cousins), Sagr's own relatives strongly advised him to marry Gateefa, arguing that if he did not, she would go to strangers. Although Sagr maintained that Gateefa was too young for marriage, he finally gave in to his relatives' arguments. Ironically, on the wedding day itself, the brothers of a woman for whom he had already paid the bride price, but who had then been claimed by one of her cousins, Saffiya, came to say that their kinsman had now released her, and that the marriage could take place after all. Sagr accepted their proposal, promising to come for Saffiya in a few weeks. (Gateefa was little more than a child at the time and the marriage was not to be consummated until some time later.) Later, after Gateefa had produced several daughters, Sagr took a third wife, Azza, the reason being that he wanted sons. But he also justified his action by saying that "It's not just me — everyone has two or three wives." (95). Yet, as Gateefa points out, Azza has also only given him daughters, and has been a source of strife within the family. Sagr is now separated from Saffiya , although he maintains contact with her, but Azza still remains. However, it is Gateefa who, in Sagr's words, is "the mistress of my house, she's the one with the last word, her requests are the ones honored" (94).

Factors in Selecting a Text

Text Organization
The text selected is a narrative. Abu-Lughod says of her book, "It is made up of conversations, narratives, arguments, songs, reminiscences …that these (Bedouin) women shared with each other..." (Abu-Lughod, 1993, p.6-7). As Urquhart has pointed out, texts which follow temporal order, of which narratives are a common example, are easier to read, so by selective use of writing genres such as autobiographies, ethnographic studies or oral histories, reading can be facilitated. As a genre, narratives are the most familiar and possibly the most engaging for readers, and life stories make for interesting reading. Because narratives are commonly encountered in any language, readers' formal schema for this genre should be adequately developed.

The sample text, with a few exceptions, closely follows a strictly temporal order. Thus, in terms of text organization, the sample text would be expected to have a high level of readability, which in turn should help maintain interest in reading it.

The Effect of Structural Features on Interest
Interest is important in reading but is difficult to assess beforehand. What the teacher finds interesting may not interest the student and vice versa. However, one researcher, Flesch, maintains that the interest level of a text can be partially assessed in terms of its structural features. He suggests that the number of personal words (e.g. pronouns and people's names) and personal sentences (spoken sentences, etc.) within a text contribute to its interest level (Flesch, cited in Burmeister 1978, p.38).

The sample text is a good example of a text with a high interest level according to Flesch's criteria, as it contains a large number of personal pronouns and people's names, and it also consists of large chunks of conversation (i.e. personal sentences), being a record of the conversations which the researcher had with her informants.

It is generally assumed that the shorter the sentence, the simpler it is to decode. Similarly, word difficulty is usually determined by word length (in terms of number of syllables) and ,again, shorter words are regarded as being simpler. Over the years various readability formulae have been developed based on these two parameters, for example Rudolph Flesch's "Reading Ease" Formula (see Burmeister, 1978, p. 34) and Edward Fry's "Graph for Estimating Readability — Extended" (p. 35). Another readability formula which is based on the same parameters and is very simple to use is the Fog Index, referred to in Alderson and Urquhart (1992, xxii). The formula is as follows:

No. of words+No. of 3 syllable wordsx100 x 0.4
No. of sentences + No. of words 1

A score of 12 indicates that the text is "easy" (for someone who has achieved an undergraduate level of reading ability), 13-16 undergraduate level, and 16+ postgraduate level. This formula is particularly suitable for the analysis of the sample text as it measures difficulty in terms of suitability for tertiary students and within the context of reading in L2. The figure of 12.7 resulting from calculation of the Fog Index for the sample text indicates that it is structurally "easy" for undergraduate readers. If proper names with three syllables are included, the resulting level of difficulty is slightly higher —13.27— which means that the text falls into the "undergraduate" category.

Although readability formulae are useful, they can be time consuming to do, and those who do not wish to assess a text using a readability formula may instead wish to use a cloze test based on a small section of the text to get a determination of the text's readability. Even before calculating a readability score or giving a cloze test, a text can be subjected to a general analysis of vocabulary and sentence level variables that can give the teacher an idea of how difficult it will be to read. These variables are present in any text, but will be discussed as they relate to the sample text. Regarding one important factor, the complexity of the words in the sample text, it can be seen that the reader has few technical or anthropological terms to decode. In general, most of the words used can be found in everyday use and, apart from those that are specific to Islam, would require little or no explanation. Also, the incidence of words with three or more syllables or more than two morphemes is also low. At the sentence level, most of the sentences are fairly simple in structure as would be expected in a text that is basically conversational in style. Clauses are joined by simple connectors such as "and" and "but" or connectors like "because" which indicate basic relations such as cause and effect.

Physical Presentation of the Text
The physical presentation of the text itself, such as the size of print and presence of illustrations, also affects how readers perceive the difficulty of what they are reading, or about to read. The cover of the book from which the sample text is taken shows a picture of young Bedouin women at work. Not only does it serve to awaken interest in the content of the book, it also suggests that the book itself would not be too difficult to read. The rest of the text is not overly illustrated but the print is a comfortable size to read. There are clear sub-headings and, because a substantial part of the text consists of reported conversation, the book has more the appearance of a selection of short stories, which in a way it is, than an authentic non-simplified anthropological text.

Motivation to Read
A factor that plays a significant role in reading is motivation (see Frager, 1993; Shirley & Reynolds, 1988). All of the factors cited above can increase motivation to read. Still, it is well known that the best way to create motivation for reading is by the choice of an interesting and readable text. A potentially motivating and interesting text can give readers motivation to continue their efforts to over-come a lack of content schema for a particular text.

As motivation for reading is a characteristic of the reader rather than the text itself, and as such is difficult to evaluate for practical purposes, gauging the potential motivation students will have for reading the text can be done by judging how closely the subject connects to the lives of the readers. For example, one can generally predict readers will have a higher motivation to read about current social issues that have a strong potential effect on them or someone they know. In this particular case, the selected text deals with an issue that has been the source of much debate in Malaysia recently. Furthermore, if the text is being used for tertiary students as is anticipated, they are of an age when the issue of relationships and marriage is particularly relevant.

Preparing the Reader

The discussion of Writing Women's Worlds suggests that it is a text which is well within the reading capabilities of tertiary students for whom English is a second language, even though they may not have an adequate schema for its content. However, this may not always be enough for full comprehension of the text. For any such text the teacher may still need to provide some content. When a text that is not within the learner's schema is selected, teacher input and teaching strategy can also facilitate reading comprehension. The pre-reading stage is a common time for this kind of activity. (For post-reading activities, see Alvermann & Hynd, 1989 and Morrow & Weinstein, 1986).

For our sample text, let us assume that we have a class of first year undergraduates from a Chinese background with only a cursory knowledge of Islam. The first step then would be to provide them with some Islamic schemata by explaining to them the specific verse from the Qu'ran which deals with polygyny which, incidentally, is also quoted in the book:

If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them) then only one… (Qu'ran 4:3)

For modern non-Muslim readers, an explan-ation of the historical necessity for polygyny and the restrictions placed on its practice will probably be necessary if they are going to read the sample passage with any kind of sympathy. Information about the Bedouin way of life and the role of the family in maintaining this way of life would also be important. The concept of family unity and cooperation should not be an alien one to most Asian students, although the way it is expressed may differ slightly from culture to culture. Certain aspects of Islam, such as fasting and the significance of fasting as an indicator of maturity would also need to be discussed before ap-proaching the text in greater detail.

Coming to the text itself, there are three possible aspects of Bedouin marriage customs that students might have difficulty comprehending. They are child marriage, cousin marriage and polygyny. Sometimes drawing on the readers' knowledge of their own cultural history may help the learner access and develop the schemata for understanding the text even though there may be differences in terms of specifics. For example, non-Muslim Chinese learners of English could draw on their rich cultural tradition with its system of concubinage for an understanding of polygyny even though the status of the concubines used to be less than that of senior wives, unlike in Islam where all wives are meant to be treated equally. Non-Muslim Chinese students' knowledge of these inequalities in status might in fact make them even more under-standing of Gateefa's privileged position than the Muslim reader. Even the reasons given by Sagr for his several marriages would be understandable within the Chinese tradition being expressions first of his desire for a son and second his desire for status. An understanding of traditional culture could also provide an insight into both child and arranged marriages. Not too long ago, girls were married once they reached puberty and they generally did not select their own marriage partners.

On the other hand, cousin marriage is completely alien to traditional Chinese culture, where marrying someone with the same family name was taboo. Even today, some parents still disapprove of such a marriage. In this case, the fact that there is a complete contrast between Chinese culture, which encourages exogamy, and Bedouin culture, which encourages endogamy, can also be used to provide schemata for understanding the reading passage. In fact, the reader already has the schemata, because what s/he is reading is the opposite of what he already knows. By highlighting oppositions the teacher can further help the reader to understand what he is reading. On the other hand, the reasons for these differing approaches to the selection of a marriage partner are similar. Marriage is a means of establishing economic and social bonds for both cultures. However, for the Bedouin it is the consolidation of relationships between relatives which is of primary importance while for the Chinese, marriage creates ties with the non-family members of the community.

After pre-reading preparation, students should be much better prepared to read the selected text with greater understanding. Once the reading begins, the teacher can continue to stimulate learner motivation and interest by the use of appropriate general teaching methodologies, techniques and aids.


It is sometimes desirable for students to be given reading material on unfamiliar topics, particularly if we want them to eventually see reading in a foreign language as a purposeful and intrinsically interesting activity which can enable them to gain knowledge of the world beyond their own experience. This is especially important in multicultural nations like Malaysia. This paper has suggested that unfamiliar material/text can be used successfully in the classroom and has proposed ways for teachers to select texts carefully and provide readers with adequate support both before and during the reading process. The reading teacher can make use of texts which are of fairly interesting and simply written genre as in oral discourse or autobiographies. In addition, the reading teacher can make use of other aspects of the text itself, such as text organization and presentation to help the readers decode the text. This entails providing readers with appropriate schemata by developing information during pre-reading activities and also attempting to activate what readers may already know about the more general aspects of the topic or other related topics e.g. in this case readers should already have a schema for marriage but they may be unfamiliar with different types of marriage customs. By building on the contrasts and comparisons which exist between what the readers find in the text and what they already know the teacher can facilitate the reading process.

The reading teacher need not be constrained by constantly having to select text which matches the content knowledge of the students. The teacher has to move away and beyond known schemata in selecting texts. In this way, new cultures can be made known to students of English.


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Maya Khemlani David and Lynne Norazit can be contacted at: Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Prof. David can be reached by e-mail at <>.

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Literacy Across Cultures
Spring/Summer2000 4/1