Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to improve comprehension of language?

The three important psychological factors which promote learning in students are interest, comprehension, and repetition. Interest is the manifestation of motivation and it is the psychological driving force that pushes the individual to take action and pursue goals. Lack of motivation is manifested as absence of or deficiency in interest and driving force.
Comprehension is understanding
The second factor which promotes learning in students is the cognitive process of comprehension. In psychology comprehension has roughly the same meaning as understanding. Comprehension has different facets like comprehension of mathematics, language, logic, problem etc. In this article the comprehension of language alone is discussed.
Building mental structures
While reading a text or hearing a verbal presentation recognizing the words of a sentence is the beginning of comprehension. Along with the meaning of the word one must also recognize the syntactic or grammatical relations among the words to build a mental structure of the sentence’s meaning. In the beginning the mental structures built by the reader start at the sentence level and then it proceeds to the units or paragraphs found in text or discourse. One must also identify the intended meaning of sentences when words with more than one literal meaning are used or when words are used in non-literal ways, such as metaphors.
Morton Ann Gernsbacher, psycholinguistic researcher, Department Of Psychology, University of Wisconsin – Madison said: 
In building a mental structure, as in building any structure, the laying of a foundation is critical. The time and effort needed to develop mental structures that incorporate the meaning of the text provide useful information about the process. For example, the first sentence of a paragraph takes longer to read than do later sentences because the reader uses it to lay the foundation of a mental structure.
Word Recognition through graphemes and phonemes
The first step in the comprehension of the text is word recognition. A word is recognized as a combination of graphemes. A grapheme is a letter or a number of letters that represent a sound (phoneme) in a word. Another way to explain it is to say that a grapheme is a letter or letters that spell a sound in a word. Some written scripts are simple in which 1 letter usually represents 1 sound. These letters and their corresponding sounds are consistent and transparent. For this reason languages like Italian or Spanish are easy to read. English has a complex code in which from 1 to 4 letter graphemes can represent one sound. Here is an example of a one-letter grapheme: cat. The sounds /k/ is represented by the letter ‘c’. A two-letter grapheme: leaf. The sound /ee/ is represented by the letters ‘e, a’. Three- letter grapheme: night. The sound /ie/ is represented by the letters ‘i, g, h’. A four-letter grapheme: through. The sound /oo/ is represented by the letters ‘o, u, g, h’.
When one reads a word, the individual letters and the visual shape of the word as a whole are processed as orthographic features. The graphemes used to represent visually the phonemes of a language must be identified. The phoneme is defined by the International Phonetic Association as "the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances."  While reading the text the identification of graphemes also activates phonological features. This can happen not only when reading a word aloud but also when reading it silently. The identification of the phonological or orthographic features, either together or separately, brings the meaning of the word to the consciousness. The words or morphemes are verbal labels for underlying concepts or ideas. The people know anywhere from 30,000 to 80,000 words which are kept in the long-term memory store of the individual. When the word is recognized the meaning or the concept underlying the word is recalled instantly. This establishes the importance of learning more words and keeping them in memory for better comprehension of the text and speech.

Concept driven cognitive process in word recognition
Try to read the following sentence:
Rexmaxkaxly  xt  ix  poxsixle  xo  rxplxce  xvexy  txirx  

lextex of  x  sextexce  xitx  an  x, anx  yox  stxll  xan  

xanxge  xo  rxad xt—wixh  sxme  xifxicxltx.
You try to read the words using the concepts stored in your memory. Yet, you can’t read? Here is the clue: Every third letter is replaced by the letter ‘x’. But still you can read it by using the concepts. This is the concept driven cognitive process of comprehension of language. When the words do not fit the expectations of conceptually driven processes, extra effort is required in analyzing the data available and finding the apt word from memory storage.  
Sentence comprehension
It goes without saying that complex sentences are harder to comprehend than simple sentences. Here the complexity is not in the construction of the sentence, but in the sense of the sentence. For example, a sentence that negates an assertion is harder to comprehend than one that simply asserts a proposition. This is so because the listener or reader must first presuppose a positive proposition and then negate it. The psycholinguistic researchers Clark, H.H., & Chase, W.G. in1972 established this fact through a simple experiment. They first presented the picture with a star, a plus and a statement. Then they presented the following four sentences:
  1. The star is above the plus.
  2. The plus is above the star.
  3. The plus is not above the star.
  4. The star is not above the plus.

After presentation of the sentences the comprehension time was measured. The participants took more time to comprehend the falsity in the sentences 2 and 4. Also they found that the participants took more time to comprehend the sentence 3 which is true but in a twisted manner, than the sentence 1 which is true affirmative and so very simple.
Polysemy is the property of language that a single word can have more than one meaning. When a reader encounters word with more than one interpretation special cognitive process is required for comprehension. Homonyms and metaphors illustrate the problem that Polysemy poses for comprehension.  For example the word watch has more than one meaning. Illustration: I like the watch. I like to watch. When one reads the first sentence the second meaning is actively suppressed by a special cognitive process. But this cognitive process of suppression of other meanings of the word is supported by the context and syntax. If the context fully supports the cognitive process there may be delay in comprehension.
Example: the word quack has two meanings. One meaning refers to an unqualified medical practitioner and the second meaning indicates the sound of a duck. Consider this sentence: Sam was treated by a quack. The second meaning, the sound a duck, is actively suppressed. Only one meaning of the homophone is supported by the context. But when the context fails to bias a specific meaning both meanings may remain active for long time and comprehension is delayed. Example: Sam was annoyed by the quack.
Similarly, to comprehend a metaphor one must ignore or suppress the literal meaning of words in order to grasp the intended meaning.  Examples: Time flies. Untrammeled imagination. Words in a text must be actively interpreted because they can have more than one meaning. In comprehending metaphors the nonliteral meaning—not the literal meaning—must be activated.

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