Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Reading Both High-Coherence and Low-Coherence Texts: Effects of Text Sequence and Prior Knowledge

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Reading Both High-Coherence and Low-Coherence Texts: Effects of Text Sequence and Prior Knowledge

Article excerpt

Abstract Previous research (e.g., McNamara, Kintsch, Songer, & Kintsch, 1996) has demonstrated that high-- knowledge readers learn more from low-coherence than high-coherence texts. This study further examined the assumption that this advantage is due to the use of knowledge to fill in the gaps in the text, resulting in an integration of the text with prior knowledge. Participants read either a high- or low-coherence text twice, or they read both the high- and low-coherence texts in one order or the other. Reading the low-coherence text first should force the reader to use prior knowledge to fill in the conceptual gaps. However, reading the high-coherence text first was predicted to negate the necessity of using prior knowledge to understand the low-coherence text when the latter was presented second. As predicted, high-knowledge readers benefited from the low-coherence only text when it was read first. Low-knowledge readers benefited from the high-- coherence text, regardless of whether it was read first, second, or twice.

One of the most important vehicles of knowledge acquisition is text. Texts are our most important means of conveying new information to others and are integral to our system of education. Indeed, understanding text comprehension, and moreover, understanding the processes involved in learning from text, are among the most important endeavours challenging cognitive scientists today. Early research in cognitive psychology indicated that prior knowledge was a driving factor in text comprehension (e.g., Bransford & Johnson, 1972). Research has since confirmed the importance of prior knowledge to reading comprehension across a wide variety of situations (e.g., Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979; Spilich, Vesonder, Chiesi, & Voss, 1979; Voss, Vesonder, & Spilich, 1980). Prior knowledge is assumed to be necessary for the reader to fill contextual gaps within the text and to develop a global understanding, or a situation model of the text (e.g., Kintsch, 1988). With less prior knowledge, the reader's comprehension is primarily dependent on the information provided explicitly within the text. Given that texts rarely spell out everything needed for successful comprehension, using prior knowledge to understand text is critical.

A second factor that influences text comprehension is the structure of the text. For example, increasing the coherence of a text improves performance on text comprehension measures such as recall and multiple-choice questions (e.g., Beck, McKeown, Sinatra, & Loxterman, 1991; Britton & Gulgoz, 1991). Text coherence is the extent to which the relationships between ideas in a text are explicit. Text modifications that increase coherence range from low-level information, such as identifying anaphoric referents, synonymous terms, or connective ties, to supplying back-ground information left unstated in the text. Thus, coherence essentially refers to the number of conceptual gaps in a text. A high-coherence text has fewer gaps and thus requires fewer inferences, rendering the text easier to understand.

INTERACTIONS OF TEXT COHERENCE AND READERS' KNOWLEDGE

Improving text coherence can help the reader. However, the benefits of coherence depend on the reader's prior domain knowledge (McNamara & Kintsch, 1996; McNamara, Kintsch, Songer, & Kintsch, 1996). McNamara et al. (1996) presented eighth-grade readers with either a high- or low-coherence biology text and assessed their comprehension in a variety of ways. Readers who knew little about the text domain benefited from a high-coherence text, regardless of how comprehension was measured. In contrast, high-knowledge readers benefited from a low-- coherence text, but only according to a subset of the measures. There was little effect of text coherence in terms of high-knowledge readers' memory for the text as reflected by their text recall and accuracy on fact-based questions that relied on single ideas from the text (and not relations between ideas). …

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