'How do you know this answer?' : children's use of text and prior knowledge in answering comprehension questions
readers use the information from a text and their prior knowledge in answering
comprehension questions? In other words, where do children's answers to
comprehension questions come from, and how is it possible to discover whether
children draw inferences from information in a text, as opposed to relying on their prior
knowledge and experiences outside of it? Such questions were motivated by previous
research (e.g., Nicholson and Imlach, 1981; Lipson, 1982, 1983) that shows that
children may produce incorrect responses in comprehension tasks because they trust
their own prior knowledge and experiences more than what the text states.
In order to explore these issues, a series of four studies was conducted in which
children between 7 and 8 years-old were asked to read narrative and informative texts
and answer different types of comprehension question about these texts. After each
response, they were asked to explain how they derived their responses by answering the
following question: "how do you know this answer?"
The children's answers and justifications were analysed both quantitatively and
qualitatively. The analysis of the data showed that the text proved to be the main source
of information for the young readers, i.e. most of their comprehension responses were
derived from text data. However, nearly all of the children responded to a few questions
exclusively on the basis of their prior knowledge, ignoring information in the text.
Overall, the problem of overuse of prior knowledge was greater after reading
texts that contained ideas that conflicted with the children's general expectations or
prior topic knowledge than after reading conventional texts where this conflict was not
apparent. In addition, a great variety of problems in using text information were also
identified, particularly in response to gap-filling questions (the ones that require
searching for cues in the text and integrating these cues with background knowledge).
Finally, in all the studies, there was a positive correlation between the quality of the
children's justifications of their responses and their comprehension skills.
A fifth study, where the children judged the quality of other children's
explanations for their responses, revealed that explanations that were correctly based on
information from the text and explanations that were only based on the reader's prior
knowledge were perceived as equally good. This finding indicated that young readers
are not fully aware of the essential relationship between text information,
comprehension questions and the reader's prior knowledge.
The final study demonstrated that, although young readers seem to be sensitive
to the existence of different types of comprehension question, they do not have a great
deal of knowledge of these differences. The results also showed that this knowledge has
a positive correlation with their performance in question-answering tasks. The
procedure of asking children to justify their answers was shown to be a good way of
specifying more precisely some of their problems in text comprehension. It also seemed
to encourage them to look back at the text and review their responses and, as such it
could be considered a useful tool to improve children's reading comprehension