Higher Level Language Processing A Discourse Comprehension

The comprehension of continuous discourse involves more than word recognition, syntactic parsing, and deriving the meaning of individual sentences. Successful comprehension requires an understanding of the relationships among the various parts of the discourse context and is dependent on the reader's or listener's general world knowledge. Many researchers have argued that story comprehension implies the derivation of propositional representations. Propositions derived from a story specify relations between actions and participants in the actions, the states and attributes of the participants, the time and locations of the actions, etc. Propositions are specified in terms of entities (typically nouns) and predicates (such as actions or states) that apply to these entities. For example, consider a story titled "The Picnic,'' beginning with the following: "The sky was cloudy and the weather forecast was not encouraging. There was a 70% probability of showers. However, the Brown family had no intention of renouncing their plan.'' Propositions derived from these sentences might include time (past), sky (cloudy), forecast [not (encouraging)], and renounce (agent, family; object; plan). It is clear, however, that comprehension of the story depends not only on deriving propositions but also on relating propositions to each other and to world knowledge. Even for the first sentence in this example, not only are "sky" and "cloudy" linked, such that "cloudy" specifies the state of the sky, but also it is likely that this information would to be related to the title and to long-term knowledge that people prefer sunny skies for picnics. Moreover, this information is reinforced by propositions derived from the following sentences. Overlap among the propositions and their associations in long-term memory makes the text more easily comprehended and remembered.

Propositions can be related to each other by various means. A person or object mentioned earlier can be referred to again using an anaphor, such as a pronoun. For example, "she" is an anaphor for "The little girl" in the passage "The little girl wanted to play ball. She got the bat out of the car.'' Propositions can also be related via inferences. An inference is the drawing of a conclusion that is not explicitly mentioned in a discourse but, rather, is based on general world knowledge. In the picnic example discussed previously, someone hearing this story is likely to infer that it was the Browns who were planning the picnic mentioned in the title and that, contrary to usual expectations, they were not going to cancel because of the weather. In some cases, discourse or narrative texts (such as a mystery novel or an adventure story) may follow a familiar structure (termed a schema or script), and the presence of this structure may help the comprehender to organize the information.

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