Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effect of Discourse Structure on Depth of Semantic Integration in Reading

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Effect of Discourse Structure on Depth of Semantic Integration in Reading

Article excerpt

Published online: 17 September 2013

# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract A coherent discourse exhibits certain structures in that subunits of discourses are related to one another in various ways and in that subunits that contribute to the same discourse purpose are joined to create a larger unit so as to produce an effect on the reader. To date, this crucial aspect of discourse has been largely neglected in the psycholinguistic literature. In two experiments, we examined whether semantic integration in discourse context was influenced by the difference of discourse structure. Readers read discourses in which the last sentence was locally congruent but either semantically congruent or incongruent when interpreted with the preceding sentence. Furthermore, the last sentence was either in the same discourse unit or not in the same discourse unit as the preceding sentence, depending on whether they shared the same discourse purpose. Results from self-paced reading (Experiment 1) and eye tracking (Experiment 2) showed that discourse-incongruous words were read longer than discourse-congruous words only when the critical sentence and the preceding sentence were in the same discourse unit, but not when they belonged to different discourse units. These results establish discourse structure as a new factor in semantic integration and suggest that discourse effects depend both on the content of what is being said and on the way that the contents are organized.

Keywords Semantic integration . Discourse structure . Within-unit structure . Between-unit structure

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An important process during natural language comprehension is the establishment of meaning in a discourse context. In order to understand natural discourse comprehension, it is necessary to know how the comprehender integrates local information into the preceding discourse context and what factors affect this integration process. A substantial body of literature has been devoted to the investigation of how readers interpret upcoming information with the preceding discourse context. However, linguistic studies have long suggested that discourse effects involve not just what the preceding sentences were about in the discourse context, but also how the discourse is organized. In the present study, we examine the role that discourse structure has in influencing semantic integration.

Semantic integration in discourse context

A number of ERP studies have examined how local information is related to general discourse context (Camblin et al. 2007; Filik and Leuthold 2008;Georgeetal.1999;Haldetal. 2007; Nieuwland and Van Berkum 2005, 2006; Nieuwland, Van Salmon, and Pratt 2002; Van Berkum et al. 1999, 2003, 2005). Conflicts between discourse context and local information result in an N400 effect for inappropriate words, as opposed to appropriate words. The N400 is a centro-parietal negativity, peaking around 400 ms post-stimulus-onset. The amplitude of N400 is sensitive to the ease with which words are integrated into the previous context. It was first reported by Kutas and Hillyard (1980) for semantic anomalies in sentence context. Generally, semantically incongruous words elicit larger N400s than do semantically congruous words. This is referred to as an N400 effect (for a review, see Kutas and Federmeier 2000). Van Berkum et al. (1999), for example, investigated discourse- and sentence-dependent anomalies in two ERP experiments. In Experiment 1, participants were presented with short stories. The last sentence of the stories contained a critical word that was always coherent in the local sentence context but was either discourse congruous or discourse incongruous. It was found that as compared with discourse-congruous words, discourse anomalies elicited a large N400 effect. In Experiment 2, the same sentences were presented in isolation. The results showed that the N400 effect found in Experiment 1 was much reduced. …

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