reading

Novices' problems with scientific text

This is the last part in my series on understanding scientific text. In this part, as promised, I am going to talk about the difficulties novices have with scientific texts; what they or their teachers can do about it; and the problems with introductory textbooks.

The big problem for novices is of course that their lack of knowledge doesn’t allow them to make the inferences they need to repair the coherence gaps typically found in such texts. This obviously makes it difficult to construct an adequate situation model. Remember, too, that to achieve integration of two bits of information, you need to have both bits active in working memory at the same time. This, clearly, is more difficult for those for whom all the information is unfamiliar (remember what I said about long-term working memory last month).

But it’s not only a matter a matter of having knowledge of the topic itself. A good reader can compensate for their lack of relevant topic knowledge using their knowledge about the structure of the text genre. For this, the reader needs not only to have knowledge of the various kinds of expository structures, but also of the cues in the text that indicate what type of structure it is. (see my article on Reading scientific text for more on this).

One of the most effective ways of bringing different bits of information together is through the asking of appropriate questions. Searching a text in order to answer questions, for example, is an effective means of improving learning. Answering questions is also an effective means of improving comprehension monitoring (remember that one of the big problems with reading scientific texts is that students tend to be poor at judging how well they have understood what was said).

One of the reasons why children typically have pronounced deficits in their comprehension monitoring skills when dealing with expository texts, is that they have little awareness that expository texts require different explanations than narrative texts. However, these are trainable skills. One study, for example, found that children aged 10-12 could be successfully taught to use “memory questions” and “thinking questions” while studying expository texts.

Moreover, the 1994 study found that when the students were trained to ask questions intended to access prior knowledge/experience and promote connections between the lesson and that knowledge, as well as questions designed to promote connections among the ideas in the lesson, their learning and understanding was better than if they were trained only in questions aimed at promoting connections between the lesson ideas only (or if they weren’t trained in asking questions at all!). In other words, making explicit connections to existing knowledge is really important! You shouldn’t just be content to consider a topic in isolation; it needs to be fitted into your existing framework.

College students, too, demonstrate limited comprehension monitoring, with little of their self-questioning going deeply into the material. So it may be helpful to note Baker’s 7 comprehension aspects that require monitoring:

  1. Your understanding of the individual words
  2. Your understanding of the syntax of groups of words
  3. External consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the knowledge you already have
  4. Internal consistency — how well the information in the text agrees with the other information in the text
  5. Propositional cohesiveness — making the connections between adjacent propositions
  6. Structural cohesiveness —integrating all the propositions pertaining to the main theme
  7. Information completeness — how clear and complete the information in the text is

Think of this as a checklist, for analyzing your (or your students’) understanding of the text.

But questions are not always the answer. The problem for undergraduates is that although introductory texts are presumably designed for novices, the students often have to deal not only with unfamiliar content, but also an approach that is unfamiliar. Such a situation may not be the best context for effective familiar strategies such as self-explanation.

It may be that self-explanation is best for texts that in the middle-range for the reader — neither having too little relevant knowledge, or too much.

Introductory texts also are likely to provide only partial explanations of concepts, a problem made worse by the fact that the novice student is unlikely to realize the extent of the incompleteness. Introductory texts also suffer from diffuse goals, an uneasy mix of establishing a basic grounding for more advanced study, and providing the material necessary to pass immediate exams.

A study of scientific text processing by university students in a natural situation found that the students didn’t show any deep processing, but rather two kinds of shallow processing, produced by either using their (limited knowledge of) expository structures, or by representing the information in the text more precisely.

So should beginning students be told to study texts more deeply? The researchers of this study didn’t think so. Because introductory texts suffer from these problems I’ve mentioned, in particular that of incomplete explanations, they don’t lend themselves to deep processing. The researchers suggest that what introductory texts are good for is in providing the extensive practice needed for building up knowledge of expository structures (and hopefully some necessary background knowledge of the topic! Especially technical language).

To that end, they suggest students should be advised to perform a variety of activities on the text that will help them develop their awareness of the balance between schema and textbase, with the aim of developing a large repertory of general and domain-specific schemata. Such activities / strategies include taking notes, rereading, using advance organizers, and generating study questions. This will all help with their later construction of good mental models, which are so crucial for proper understanding.

References: 

  • Baker, L. 1985. Differences in the standards used by college students to evaluate their comprehension of expository prose. Reading Research Quarterly, 20 (3), 297-313.
  • Elshout-Mohr, M. & van Daalen-Kapteijns, M. 2002. Situated regulation of scientific text processing. In Otero, J., León, J.A. & Graesser, A.C. (eds). The psychology of science text comprehension. Pp 223-252. Mahwah, NJ: LEA.
  • King, A. 1994. Guiding Knowledge Construction in the Classroom: Effects of Teaching Children How to Question and How to Explain. American Educational Research Journal, 31 (2), 338-368.

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Understanding scientific text

In the last part I talked about retrieval structures and their role in understanding what you’re reading. As promised, this month I’m going to focus on understanding scientific text in particular, and how it differs from narrative text.

First of all, a reminder about situation models. A situation, or mental, model is a retrieval structure you construct from a text, integrating the information in the text with your existing knowledge. Your understanding of a text depends on its coherence; it’s generally agreed that for a text to be coherent it must be possible for a single situation model to be constructed from it (which is not to say a text that is coherent is necessarily coherent for you —that will depend on whether or not you can construct a single mental model from it).

There are important differences in the situation models constructed for narrative and expository text. A situation model for a narrative is likely to refer to the characters in it and their emotional states, the setting, the action and sequence of events. A situation model for a scientific text, on the other hand, is likely to concentrate on the components of a system and their relationships, the events and processes that occur during the working of the system, and the uses of the system.

Moreover, scientific discourse is rooted in an understanding of cause-and-effect that differs from our everyday understanding. Our everyday understanding, which is reflected in narrative text, sees cause-and-effect in terms of goal structures. This is indeed the root of our superstitious behavior — we (not necessarily consciously) attribute purposefulness to almost everything! But this approach is something we have to learn not to apply to scientific problems (and it requires a lot of learning!).

This is worth emphasizing: science texts assume a different way of explaining events from the way we are accustomed to use — a way that must be learned.

In general, then, narrative text (and ‘ordinary’ thinking) is associated with goal structures, and scientific text with logical structures. However, it’s not quite as clear-cut a distinction as all that. While the physical sciences certainly focus on logical structure, both the biological sciences and technology often use goal structures to frame their discussions. Nevertheless, as a generalization we may say that logical thinking informs experts in these areas, while goal structures are what novices focus on.

This is consistent with another intriguing finding. In a comparison of two types of text —ones discussing human technology, and ones discussing forces of nature — it was found that technological texts were more easily processed and remembered. Indications were that different situation models were constructed — a goal-oriented representation for the technological text, and a causal chain representation for the force of nature text. The evidence also suggested that people found it much easier to make inferences (whether about agents or objects) when human agents were involved. Having objects as the grammatical subject was clearly more difficult to process.

Construction of the situation model is thus not solely determined by comprehension difficulty (which was the same for both types of text), but is also affected by genre and surface characteristics of the text.

There are several reasons why goal-oriented, human-focused discourse might be more easily processed (understood; remembered) than texts describing inanimate objects linked in a cause-effect chain, and they come down to the degree of similarity to narrative. As a rule of thumb, we may say that to the degree that scientific text resembles a story, the more easily it will be processed.

Whether that is solely a function of familiarity, or reflects something deeper, is still a matter of debate.

Inference making is crucial to comprehension and the construction of a situation, because a text never explains every single word and detail, every logical or causal connection. In the same way that narrative and expository text have different situation models, they also involve a different pattern of inference making. For example, narratives involve a lot of predictive inferences; expository texts typically involve a lot of backward inferences. The number of inferences required may also vary.

One study found that readers made nine times as many inferences in stories as they did in expository texts. This may be because there are more inferences required in narratives — narratives involve the richly complex world of human beings, as opposed to some rigidly specified aspect of it, described according to a strict protocol. But it may also reflect the fact that readers don’t make all (or indeed, anywhere near) the inferences needed in expository text. And indeed, the evidence indicates that students are poor at noticing coherence gaps (which require inferences).

In particular, readers frequently don’t notice that something they’re reading is inconsistent with something they already believe. Moreover, because of the limitations of working memory, only some of the text can be evaluated for coherence at one time (clearly, the greater the expertise in the topic, the more information that can be evaluated at one time — see the previous newsletter’s discussion of long-term working memory). Less skilled (and younger) readers in particular have trouble noticing inconsistencies within the text if they’re not very close to each other.

Let’s return for a moment to this idea of coherence gaps. Such gaps, it’s been theorized, stimulate readers to seek out the necessary connections and inferences. But clearly there’s a particular level that is effective for readers, if they often miss them. This relates to a counter-intuitive finding — that it’s not necessarily always good for the reader if the text is highly coherent. It appears that when the student has high knowledge, and when the task involves deep comprehension, then low coherence is actually better. It seems likely that knowledgeable students reading a highly coherent text will have an “illusion of competence” that keeps them from processing the text properly. This implies that there will be an optimal level of coherence gaps in a text, and this will vary depending on the skills and knowledge base of the reader.

Moreover, the comprehension strategy generally used with simple narratives focuses on referential and causal coherence, but lengthy scientific texts are likely to demand more elaborate strategies. Such strategies are often a problem for novices because they require more knowledge than can be contained in their working memory. Making notes (perhaps in the form of a concept map) while reading can help with this.

Next month I’ll continue this discussion, with more about the difficulties novices have with scientific texts and what they or their teachers can do about it, and the problems with introductory textbooks. In the meantime, the take-home message from this is:

Understanding scientific text is a skill that must be learned;

Scientific text is easier to understand the more closely it resembles narrative text, with a focus on goals and human agents;

How well the text is understood depends on the amount and extent of the coherence gaps in the text relative to the skills and domain knowledge of the reader.

References: 

Otero, J., León, J.A. & Graesser, A.C. (eds). 2002. The psychology of science text comprehension.

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Speed Reading

  • Speed-reading courses generally make extravagant claims that no independent research has justified.
  • However, speed-reading courses can improve your reading skills.
  • Speed-reading courses principally improve reading by teaching you how to efficiently skim.

Speed-reading techniques

Like many memory improvement courses, speed-reading programs tend to make inflated claims. Also like memory programs, most speed-reading programs proffer the same advice. In essence, speed-reading techniques involve the following components:

  • learning to see more in a single eye fixation
  • eliminating subvocalization ("saying" the words in your head as you read them)
  • using your index finger as a visual guide down the page
  • active reading

How reading works

The first thing you need to understand about reading is that it proceeds in jerks. Though we might think our eyes are traveling smoothly along the lines, this is an illusion. What happens is that the eyes gaze steadily for around 240 milliseconds (for a college student; less practiced readers take longer) and then jerk along (during which nothing is registered), then stop again. We "read" during the eye fixations.

Now the duration of these fixations is not hugely different between readers of different abilities - a first-grade child takes about 330 ms, which is not a vast difference when you consider the chasm between a first-grade reader and an educated adult. What does change significantly is the number of fixations. Thus, to read a 100-word passage, our first-grade reader takes some 183 fixations, while our college reader takes only 75. From this, it is calculated that the first-grade reader is taking in 0.55 of a word in each fixation (100/183), while the college reader is grasping 1.33 words in each fixation (100/75). And from this, the reading rate is calculated. [These figures are of course only indicative - different types of reading matter will obviously produce different figures; the degree to which comprehension is emphasized also makes a difference].

This is not, of course, the whole story. We also can pick up some information about letters on either side of the fixation point - about 10 to 11 letter positions right of the fixation point (or left, if you're reading in a script that goes from right to left) for specific letter information, and about 15 positions for information about word length.

It is these facts that set bounds on how fast a person can read. It has been calculated that, even being very generous with the figures (reducing the duration of fixation to 200 ms; using the upper limit of how many letters we can see at one time), the upper limit for reading speed would be about 900 wpm.

How speed-reading works

This, then, is one of the things speed-reading programs aim to tackle - to increase the span of letters you can see in one fixation, and to alter the number of fixations. It is not, however, clear that (a) you can in fact train people to increase this span, or (b) it would be useful to do so.

What research does show, is that speed readers, while they don't change the length of their fixations, do significantly differ from normal readers in the pattern of their jumps. One researcher concluded from the pattern of eye movements, that speed-readers are in fact skimming.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with skimming. Indeed, it is an extremely valuable skill, and if you wish to improve your skill at skimming, then it may well be worthwhile for you to use a speed-reading program to do so. On the other hand, there is no particular evidence that such programs do anything more than modestly improve your skimming skills.

Testing speed-reading skills

One study compared expert speed-readers against other groups of superior readers. While the speed-readers were fastest (444 words per minute - a respectable speed (250 wpm is average) but nowhere near the claims made by many of these programs), their comprehension was relatively low (71%). [1]

Interestingly, the speed-readers' speed was about twice that when they knew their speed was being tested but their comprehension would not be. In other words, like the rest of us, they slowed down markedly when they wanted to understand what they were reading (and what otherwise is the point of reading something?)

Well, actually, there is one circumstance when you read and do not look to understand or retain what you read - which brings us back to skimming.

So, how did our speed-readers compare on skimming skills? Two tasks were used to assess these:

  • to pick the best title to passages presented at rates of 7500, 1500 and 300 wpm
  • to write summaries of 6000-word passages presented at 24000, 6000, 1500 and 375 wpm

The speed readers were in fact no better than the other groups at picking titles, and though they were best at writing summaries when the passages were presented at 1500 wpm, they were no better than the others at the other rates of presentation. In an extra test of recall of important details, the speed readers in fact did worst.

Reading for understanding

Please don't mistake me, I am not condemning speed-reading - merely their often extravagant claims. Learning to skim (if you have not developed this skill on your own, and many have) is clearly worthwhile. Learning not to subvocalize - yes, I think there's value in that too. I cannot speak to any research, but I know from my own experience that when I am reading slowly, either because the material demands the effort or because I wish to make the book last longer, I make myself 'hear' the words in my head. Subvocalization does slow you down - if you wish to read faster that you can speak, you need to discard the habit.

And lastly, active reading. Well, that deserves a whole chapter of its own. So for now, for those who don't know what it means, I shall simply define it. Active reading is about thinking when you read. It is about asking yourself (and the book) questions. It is about anticipating what is going to be said, and relating what you read to what you already know, and making inferences about what you've read. Active reading is about understanding, and thus it is an essential part of reading to remember.

So that too, is a very useful skill.

This article originally appeared in the July 2002 newsletter.

References: 

  • Underwood, G. & Batt, V. 1996. Reading and understanding. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Crowder, R.G. & Wagner, R.K. 1992. The Psychology of Reading. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.
  1. Carver, R.P. 1985. How good are some of the world's best readers? Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 389-419.

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