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Summary of Current Research
Gary E. Raney

The goal of my research program is to understand the cognitive processes involved in language use by monolinguals and bilinguals, with particular emphasis on processes related to reading. To be more specific, I study the processes that support text comprehension, how texts are represented/organized in memory, how words are accessed from memory, how readers understand figurative language, the role of inferences in text comprehension, and how readers evaluate their own comprehension (metacomprehension). I am interested in all these issues from monolingual and bilingual perspectives. Below are a few examples of current research projects.

 

Transfer Benefits & Repetition Effects

One of my primary areas of interest is transfer benefits and repetition effects. Transfer benefits refer to how reading one text influences reading a second text. For example, reading a text about metaphors is likely to help someone understand a text about idioms because both texts describe figurative language. That is, your knowledge about the metaphor text transfers to the idiom text. Several years ago I proposed a model (the context-dependent representation model) to explain how reading one text influences comprehension of a second text (Raney, 2003). The basic assumptions of the model are that the words (often referred to as the surface form) and their meanings (called the textbase) are represented in a context-independent manner, and that readers use their general understanding of the text (called the situation model) to bind the words and their meanings to the original context. In essence, comprehending a text produces a coherent representation in memory that ties information together. Information may be tied together at the situation model level, textbase level, or surface level. This model can be used to predict when reading one text will or will not help a reader understand a second text. One straightforward prediction is that reading one text will help the reader understand a second text if the two texts discuss similar issues. The model also leads to seemingly ironic predictions. For example, the model supports the prediction that not comprehending a text can increase its ability to influence how a second text is processed if the second text is about a dissimilar issue. Currently I am following up on a prior study to example whether information from one text can facilitate processing of information in an unrelated text. My goal is to use transfer benefits and repetition effects as measures of comprehension (better comprehension seems to produce larger transfer benefits and repetition effects).

 

Bilingual Cognition

A second primary interest area is bilingual cognition and text comprehension. My graduate students and I are exploring what cognitive mechanisms bilinguals use to select the language they want to use. We are particularly interested in whether one language is inhibited as a mechanism for language selection and how attention influences word processing. We are also exploring word processing skills in bilinguals who are not proficient in their second language (late learners of an L2). My general goal is to understand how bilinguals represented (store) and access language in memory, and to develop tools for assessing the efficiency of the cognitive processes involved in reading. I have been working with English-Spanish bilinguals, but I recently started a collaborative project with a colleague from Canada that will use English, French, and Spanish. I am also interested in whether being a proficient bilingual facilitates cognitive processing outside the language domain. Some research implies that bilinguals have better executive control of their cognitive functions than do monolinguals. This seems to result from bilinguals needing to constantly monitor which of their languages should be used, select relevant information, activate the target language and inhibit the non-target language. My students and I are exploring whether this facilitates insight problem solving. Our preliminary answer is yes, but the difficulty and type of problem influences whether bilinguals outperform monolinguals.

 

Figurative Language

Recently I have become very interested in understanding how people process figurative language. For example, one of my graduate students and I are studying how readers process metaphors (e.g., my roommate is a pig). Basically we are trying to understand how the key words (such as roommate and pig) are linked together. Another graduate student and I are exploring how idioms (e.g., blew his top) are processed. Here the issue is whether an idiom directly activates an underlying concept (e.g., anger, in the case of blew his top). A second issue is whether idioms are processed word-by-word (like literal statements) or retrieved and processed as a single meaning unit (sort of like a very long word).

 

Metacomprehension

I am also interested in how readers evaluate their own learning from text. Consider the following situation as an example. Suppose you are about to take a test and a friend asks you if you are ready for the test. Depending on how well you think you learned the material, you will tell your friend that you expect to get an A, B, C, or D. Your prediction represents a metacomprehension judgment and the accuracy of your prediction reflects how well you can evaluate your own learning. It turns out that metacomprehension judgments are not very accurate. My research is aimed at determining whether readers can develop strategies for improving their metacomprehension judgments. In two of my studies (Raney & Murray, 2002; Raney, Anderson, Miura, Obeidallah, & Daniel, 2005), participants read a text, predicted performance on a quiz, then completed a quiz on the text (this was done for multiple texts). Predictions were compared to actual performance on the quizzes. Participants also reported the strategies they used to make predictions. There were dramatic differences in prediction accuracy across subjects. Interestingly, more- and less-accurate participants reported using the same strategies. My current work is aimed at evaluating whether self-monitoring processes take resources away from comprehension processes. That is, for some readers comprehension can actually be reduced when they focus on how well they comprehend a text!

 

Application to Educational Issues

Our education system relies heavily on learning from text. As a result, understanding how text is organized in memory and how individuals monitor their comprehension are critical issues. My future research will be aimed at furthering our understanding of these topics as well as pursuing ways to apply the outcomes of my research to issues of educational importance. One example of this is exploring how prior knowledge influences text comprehension. Many teachers assume that helping students become aware of what they know or do not know about a topic before reading a text will help the students decide what information to focus upon when reading the text. A common tool for highlighting prior knowledge is called an Anticipation Guide, which is like a pre-test. Anticipation guides are simple to use: Readers read a set of statements about a text before reading the text and indicate whether they agree or disagree with the statements, or do not understand the statements. There is much schoolroom-based evidence that using anticipation guides improve comprehension. Importantly, how and why anticipation guides work has received little exploration. In conjunction with researchers from Learning Points Associates (formerly the North Central Regional Education Laboratory) in Chicago, I have addressed these issues. Preliminary data supports two conclusions. First, anticipation guides influence on‑line reading processes: Students modify their reading behavior when reading information that is consistent or inconsistent with their prior knowledge. Interestingly, students are more sensitive to information that is consistent with their prior knowledge than to information that is inconsistent with their prior knowledge. Second, text variables, such as text type (e.g., expository or narrative), and reader variables, such as interest in the topic, influence how reading behavior is modified. For instance, when reading personally relevant information from a narrative, readers might slow down when reading known information, whereas readers tend to speed up when reading known information in scientific-like texts.