James J. Jenkins (1995) Comprehending Comprehension. Psycoloquy: 6(26) Language Comprehension (6)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 6(26): Comprehending Comprehension

Comprehending Comprehension
Book Review of Gernsbacher on Language-Comprehension

James J. Jenkins
Psychology Department
University of South Florida
Tampa, Florida 33620-8200



Gernsbacher's book (1990) reports a ten-year series of experiments giving substance to the view that understanding a sentence requires the building of some sort of mental structure. The experiments are clearly described, counter-views are considered and dealt with, and research is integrated with that of other investigators. The bibliography is excellent. The experimental paradigm may be criticized as being mainly concerned with the disruption of processing and neglecting the facilitation of comprehension. Overall, however, the book is an impressive contribution to our knowledge.


comprehension, cognitive processes, sentence comprehension, psycholinguistics
1. About 30 years ago psycholinguists became convinced that understanding a sentence was not automatic but a complicated, constructive activity. Many experiments showed that listeners did not "store" words and sentences verbatim, but remembered gist, meanings and events. In the midst of widespread agreement, Swinney's research (1979) sounded a discordant note. He found that a homophone elicited all of its meanings even in an unambiguous context. This finding echoed the old tradition of automatic responding and posed difficulties for the notions of cognitive constructive activity. Gernsbacher's book (1990) encompasses both automatic and constructive activity, attempting to describe just what happens when the reader (or listener) attempts to construct meaning from sentences or picture stories.

2. The comprehension sequence consists of 1) laying a foundation, 2) mapping coherent information onto that foundation, and 3) shifting to build a new structure or substructure when the new information does not cohere. The cognitive mechanisms are enhancement and suppression. Poor comprehenders (of written, spoken, and pictorial materials) do not suppress materials that are irrelevant or of minor importance, and they fail to build optimal structures because they shift too often. Gernsbacher's claims are supported with ten years of experiments involving almost 3,000 participants.

3. It is easy to praise this book. The experiments are interconnected and reinforce each other. Procedures and materials are explicitly described. Possible counter-explanations are carefully considered and further experiments clarify the possibilities. Gernsbacher integrates her findings with the cognitive and psycholinguistic literature. This not only testifies to her excellent scholarship but also makes the book an extremely valuable bibliographic source. One sixth of the book deals with individual differences, not only strengthening her claims to validity but also making the book especially appealing to psychologists and educators with "real world" concerns.

4. Of course, there are some limitations and qualifications. Most of the experiments deal with the speed of recognition responses to items from single sentences, presented one word at a time on a computer screen, each sentence unrelated to the others, all necessarily counter-balanced for positive and negative responses, with (usually) half of the positive responses in one experimental category and half in another. While these restrictions are experimentally essential, it cannot be argued that this is an ecologically valid situation. Second, while Gernsbacher stresses the processes of enhancement and suppression, there is convincing evidence only for suppression. Activation appears (automatically one supposes) when a word is encountered and it either persists or is suppressed. Similarly, while shifting is manipulated and demonstrated, mapping is not the subject of any of the experiments. This emphasis on the negative is echoed in the individual differences portion of the research when poor comprehenders are found to be deficient in suppression, which leads them to do more shifting, but no mapping or activating attributes of good comprehenders are disclosed. Perhaps good processing is simply a function of not being distracted or going down false paths. It seems more likely, however, that it is a deficiency in our research methods that leaves us in such a situation.

5. Overall, despite the above qualifications, the book is an impressive contribution to our knowledge concerning sentence processing in the classic information processing framework. It furnishes both the necessary background and a valuable blueprint for further work in this tradition. Gernsbacher is to be congratulated for her research program and for collecting it in this book to make it generally available. The book belongs in the library of everyone interested in the problems of comprehension.


Swinney, D.A. (1979) Lexical access during sentence comprehension: (Re)consideration of context effects. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 645-659.

Gernsbacher, M.A. (1990) Language Comprehension as Structure Building. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gernsbacher, M.A. (1992) Precis of: Language Comprehension as Structure Building. PSYCOLOQUY 3(69) language-comprehension.1.gernsbacher.

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