We investigated how the updating of spatial situation models during narrative comprehension depends on the interaction of cognitive abilities and text characteristics. Participants with low verbal and visuospatial abilities and participants with high abilities read narratives in which the protagonist's motions in a fictitious building were either highly predictable or very hard to predict. In Experiment 1, high-ability readers updated spatial situation models only if the protagonist's motions were hard to predict, whereas low-ability readers did so only if the motions were highly predictable. In Experiment 2, facilitated integrative spatial processing compensated for the low-ability participants' resource limitations. As a result, both ability groups updated spatial situation models with hard-to-predict protagonist motions. These results highlight the interactions of cognitive abilities and text characteristics in spatial situation model updating.
There is wide agreement in text comprehension research (Zwaan & Radvansky, 1998) that understanding a text involves the construction of representations at different levels of processing (e.g., Gernsbacher, 1990; Graesser, Milels, & Zwaan, 1997; Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994; W. Kintsch, 1998; van Dijk & W. Kintsch, 1983; Zwaan, Langston, & Graesser, 1995). The representation of the text surface and the prepositional representation of the text's meaning (text base, or text representation) represent features of the text itself, whereas the situation model, or mental model, represents aspects of the situation the text is referring to (Garnham & Oakhill, 1996). Constructing a valid and coherent model of what the text is referring to is assumed to be a core process of understanding a text, in that the situation model integrates text information with the reader's world knowledge. Furthermore, most researchers agree that these constructive processes interact with representations of the pragmatic communicative context, text genre, reader's goals, and text quality (Graesser et al., 1997). Especially the latter factor produced some (at first glance) counterintuitive effects in that under specific circumstances, deficient expository texts led to a better understanding than did less deficient texts. For example, E. Kintsch (1990) reported that more knowledgeable and more skilled readers wrote better summaries of a poorly organized text than of a well-organized one. Presumably, reading a poorly organized text required more active processing for the text information to be integrated with the reader's background knowledge. A well-organized text might obviate this deep integration, however, in favor of a superficial understanding of the text (cf. Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989; Mannes & W. Kintsch, 1987). Likewise, McNamara, E. Kintsch, Songer, and W. Kintsch (1996) found that high-knowledge eighth-grade readers benefited more from a minimally coherent version of an expository text than from a fully coherent version. McNamara and W. Kintsch (1996), as well as McNamara (2001), replicated these results for adult readers' comprehension of expository texts. They also provided evidence from reading times for the claim that lack of coherence forced high-knowledge readers to engage in compensatory integration of world knowledge, in order to bridge coherence gaps. Depending on the difficulty of the texts, McNamara et al. (1996) and McNamara (2001) found beneficial effects of less coherent texts in tests that tapped either situation model information or text base information.
The present study was an attempt to extend this research in three directions. First, the above-mentioned studies compared "good" expository texts with "bad" ones. Narrative texts, however, are expected to be coherent, and usually authors are motivated to avoid coherence gaps, except when they wish to produce specific effects, such as surprise or astonishment. Therefore, it would be informative to test whether the compensatory effects found by McNamara and her colleagues also occur with narrative texts that differ in ease of processing, although they have the same degree of coherence. …