Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Contextual Knowledge Reduces Demands on Working Memory during Reading

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Contextual Knowledge Reduces Demands on Working Memory during Reading

Article excerpt

An experiment is reported in which young, middle-aged, and older adults read and recalled ambiguous texts either with or without the topic title that supplied contextual knowledge. Within each of the age groups, the participants were divided into those with high or low working memory (WM) spans, with available WM capacity further manipulated by the presence or absence of an auditory target detection task concurrent with the reading task. Differences in reading efficiency (reading time per proposition recalled) between low WM span and high WM span groups were greater among readers who had access to contextual knowledge relative to those who did not, suggesting that contextual knowledge reduces demands on WM capacity. This position was further supported by the finding that increased age and attentional demands, two factors associated with reduced WM capacity, exaggerated the benefits of contextual knowledge on reading efficiency. The relative strengths of additional potential predictors of reading efficiency (e.g., interest, effort, and memory beliefs), along with knowledge, WM span, and age, are reported. Findings showed that contextual knowledge was the strongest predictor of reading efficiency even after controlling for the effects of all of the other predictors.

Theoretical arguments, as well as intuition, suggest that the more we know about a particular topic, the easier it is for us to understand and remember texts drawing on this knowledge (e.g., Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995; Vicente & Wang, 1998). For example, when one buys a new cell phone to replace an older one, one can read the procedure for setup fairly quickly because one can draw on prior knowledge of how to perform these operations. With prior knowledge, not only can one read these new instructions more quickly, but one can also remember their content more accurately than if one did not have this prior knowledge.

A considerable amount of research has shown that knowledge supports reading comprehension and memory for text (e.g., Adams, Bell, & Perfetti, 1995; Chiesi, Spilich, &Voss, 1979; Means & Voss, 1985; Moravcsik & Kintsch, 1993; Rawson & Kintsch, 2002; Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, & Voss, 1979; Summers, Horton, & Diehl, 1985; Taylor, 1979; Voss, Vesonder, & Spilich, 1980). In addition, there is evidence that knowledge reduces the time required to process the text as measured by reading speed (Kaakinen, Hyönä, & Keenan, 2003; Miller & Stine-Morrow, 1998; Sharkey & Sharkey, 1987; Smith & Swinney, 1992; Wiley & Rayner, 2000). To the extent that prior knowledge allows an individual to both read a text more quickly and recall more of what has been read, one can describe the knowledgeable reader as being more efficient.

Knowledgeable readers make implicit decisions regarding time allocated to the text and the resulting memory representation-essentially, a speed-accuracy trade-off (see Carver, 1990). For example, one knowledgeable reader may allocate a good deal of time in order to obtain an exceptional memory representation, whereas another may prefer to read more quickly and settle for an average memory representation. Both of these individuals, however, will have greater reading efficiency relative to the individual who lacks relevant background knowledge. Individuals without the benefits of knowledge will be faced with similar trade-off decisions but will undoubtedly have to spend more time reading and still will not be able to achieve the crisp memory representation of their high-knowledge counterparts. We were interested in examining the effects of knowledge on such trade-offs. Formally, we define reading efficiency as the amount of time spent reading a text per unit of information recalled (see Hartley, Stojack, Mushaney, Annon, & Lee, 1994; Meyer, Talbot, & Florencio, 1999; and Stine & Hindman, 1994, for similar approaches).

The primary goal of the present study was to elucidate the effects of contextual knowledge on reading efficiency. …

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