James Hartley (1992) The Visual Chunking of Text. Psycoloquy: 3(66) Reading (11)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 3(66): The Visual Chunking of Text

Commentary on Small on Skoyles on Reading

James Hartley
Department of Psychology
Keele University
ST5 5BG, U.K.



Small's oversimplifies the effects of word arrangement on understanding of written text.


dyslexia, connectionism, development, error correction, reading.
1. I much enjoyed reading Small's (1992) commentary on Skoyles (1991, 1992) on reading, but I would like to comment on one section of her remarks. In section 1.6 Small writes:

    "there are definite limits to the amount of punctuation and
    variety in arrangement of words that are useful in increasing our
    understanding of a written text.

                      For example
                 experiments have been done
             with the "visual chunking" of text
              to see whether such arrangements
               would increase comprehension.

    They do not, except for poor readers (Crowder & Wagner, 1992, 23- 24)."

2. I think this last sentence is an oversimplification. In a recent (not yet unpublished) review of work on text spacing I summarise the results of some 30 studies in the field (Hartley 1992) and review several ways of printing text, concluding that on the whole the results are surprisingly positive if one looks at the total picture. Similar conclusions have been drawn in another recent review (Jandreau and Bever, 1992).

3. Some of the different text layouts I examined include:

Vertically printed text: here there is one word per line. For example:


(In electronic text this is now called RSVP [rapid serial visual presentation], this term describing the presentation of both single words and short phrases; see, for example, Juola 1988.)

Square-span text: here the text is printed thus:

     In 1983       had        in the     lives
     little      changed     everyday    of the

Phrases within lines denoted by extra spaces, or by slashes, or by both: for example:

           In 1983 / little had changed / in the
           everyday lives / of the vast majority / of

Chunked text: here phrases are segmented and presented on separate lines, sometimes with additional levels of indentation to show sub-groupings. For example:

                      In l983
                           little had changed
                           in the everyday lives
                           of the Tenessee people.
                      In 1984, however,
                           things began to stir!

4. My review of this literature suggests to me that:

     1. Vertically printed text does not fare well.

     2. Studies with children show that structured text helps
        comprehension at various levels of ability, not just for
        less able readers.

     3. Most studies with adults show either no significant
        effects or positive ones.

5. Most of these studies are concerned with comprehension and recall. In my paper I also present the results of a study of my own examining how the presentation format of the text might affect the way readers recall it. Using a very short text and a sample of eighty-eight 12-13 year-old children I showed that children that had seen the text in the chunked format wrote out their recall of it in a chunked format. Children presented with the text in the traditional layout almost all wrote out the text in the traditional way. I accordingly conclude that more studies are needed to look at this aspect of how the presentation of the text affects how people might recall it.

6. If anyone would like a copy of my paper, which is currently under review, I will be happy to send them one. The address is James Hartley, Department of Psychology, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, U.K., or e-mail psa04@uk.ac.keele


Crowder, R.G. and Wagner, R.K. (1992) The psychology of reading: an introduction, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press

Hartley, J. (1992) Does what goes in determine what comes out? Recalling structured text (manuscript submitted for publication)

Jandreau, S. and Bever, T.G. (1992) Phrase-spaced formats improve comprehension in average readers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77, 143 -146

Juola, J.F. (1988) The use of computer displays to improve reading comprehension. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2, 87 - 95.

Skoyles, J. R. (1991) Connectionism, Reading and the Limits of Cognition. PSYCOLOQUY 2(8) reading.1

Skoyles, John R. (1992) Not All Phonological Reading Need Use Accurate Letter-Sound Rules. PSYCOLOQUY 3(6) reading.7

Small, J.P. (1992) Historical Development of Writing and Reading. PSYCOLOQUY 3(61) reading.10

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