Date of Award

Spring 2010

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Edward J O'Brien


Studies by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2009) indicate that the inability to comprehend text is one of the primary reasons students perform poorly in school Reading difficulties often persist into adulthood with 23% of U.S. adults only meeting basic reading proficiency levels (NCES, 2004). To address this problem, it is critical to identify the underlying cognitive processes that pose the greatest challenges to struggling readers. Recent research has explored basic skills (e.g., working memory capacity, suppression mechanisms, domain knowledge, and reading strategies) that have been shown to be essential for reading. To date it is unclear which of these factors has the greatest impact on comprehension.

The goals of this dissertation were to determine conditions under which reading skill influences individuals' abilities to fully comprehend text and what steps can be taken to raise comprehension levels. Across four experiments, participants were indexed as skilled or less-skilled based to the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test. They were asked to read texts in which a protagonist was highly or moderately motivated to accomplish goals. Subsequently, participants read target sentences that either satisfied or did not satisfy the protagonists' goals. The first two experiments showed that skilled but not less-skilled readers were capable of monitoring protagonists' intentions to accomplish goals. This was true regardless of whether the distance between information about protagonists' intentions and their actions were presented close or far in the text.

Two subsequent experiments demonstrated that subtle text changes and a reading strategy enabled less-skilled readers to be more sensitive to the protagonists' motivation to accomplish goals. In Experiment 3 and 4, reinstatement sentences and reading the passages from the perspective of the protagonists, respectively, enabled less-skilled readers to monitor protagonists' intentions. The results showed that subtle text cues and a reading strategy provided less-skilled readers with the necessary "tools" to circumvent working memory deficiencies by focusing their attention on the important aspects of the text.

The findings are discussed in terms of underlying cognitive differences between skilled- and less-skilled readers and how subtle changes to text and employing a reading strategy can alleviate reading deficits.