Reading comprehension. Word, sentence, and text processing

Funding institution
FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia
Project PI
Armanda Costa

The project Reading comprehension. Word, sentence and text processing was developed for four years (2008-2011), under the direction of Isabel Hub Faria (2008-2009) and Armanda Costa (2010-2011); the project was  funded by FCT, with 97 000€.

In the domain of reading studies, the main global goals were:

1. Language Diagnosis:

- to create language specific reading evaluation tests for European Portuguese (EP)

- to identify processing competences for unimodal and multimodal reading

- to evaluate linguistic competences along learning to read

- to characterize reading comprehension levels

- to access reading by native subjects of different Portuguese varieties as subjects that have EP as L2.


2. Counseling

- to provide psycholinguistic counseling to other research projects, to publishers and media, to scientific and professional societies and to national institutional agencies that are required to produce programs, exams and pedagogical materials for the teaching of reading.


3. Reading research network formation

- to contribute, at a national level, to articulate the reading research groups and individuals

- to articulate with other international research groups that share the same object

- to develop previous collaborations and start new ones.


The research was distributed by 3 main domains – word processing, sentence and text processing, and multimodal texts.


At syntactic and textual levels, we expected:

- to identify the syntactic and the discursive structures that in European Portuguese allow for a fluent reading, based on a regular and automatic computation, contrasting with constructions that recruits additional cognitive resources;

- to identify strategies to deal with syntactic complexity and ambiguity in reading tasks;

- to create language specific tests to evaluate capacities directly implied in reading, such as fluency levels and literal and inferential comprehension, both for clinical and pedagogical use.


We carried out a set of experiments in sentence processing, controlling conditions of structural and semantic complexity and ambiguity, taking into account grammatical properties of European Portuguese in contrast with grammatical properties of Brazilian Portuguese.

Anaphoric chains are tested in the domain of complex sentences, sentences in juxtaposition and in entire texts, controlling the processing of overt or covert forms of a pronominal Subject. In the frame of a crosslinguistic research on the processing of ambiguous relative clauses, we prepared experiments in Portuguese (EP and BP), in order to identify specific strategies driven by the linguistic variation. We also studied sentences with causative alternation in order to to compare processing strategies in EP and BP, and other languages.

At text level, we studied reading  capabilities involved in inference making and metaphor comprehension, considering aspects of language development and schooling. Reading in Portuguese as a second language was also investigated, aiming to evaluate the facilitative role of explicit instruction of learning strategies for reading to learn and to study training.

We studied reading fluency trough the construction of well controlled reading materials, evaluating the effect of lexical properties, syntax complexity and topic familiarity. We conducted some experiments in reading aloud by 6th and 10th grades and adults, EP and BP speakers, with typical development or language disorders (stuttering was a target group).

As global results that could support applications to educational field, we had some indicators to assess:

- reading fluency, in terms of speed, accuracy and prosody;

- processing capacities to read Portuguese texts or sentences with particular lexical, syntactic or semantic properties;

- inference making abilities from different text types (narrative and informative texts);

- capacidade de processamento de textos multimodais, com variação do seu grau de elaboração retórica e em diferentes combinações de texto e imagem.

At word level, we decided:

- to observe how syllabic complexity and word length may or may not facilitate written word processing;

- to find linguistic and non-linguistic criteria functionally adequate to the production of tests, taking into consideration the populations under observation;

- to create tests to evaluate ‘segmental consciousness’; memory for words and pseudo-words; word–image semantic priming;

- to observe how some graphic factors may or may not contribute to decode and facilitate reading

We carried out studies on the relevance of the segmental awareness in phonemic awareness assessment, aiming to identify the initial state of a segmental hierarchy in the process of emergence and development of phonemic awareness in EP, and to identify the impact of internal properties of segments in 1st grade children’s performing phonemic tasks (oddity tasks). The results show a particular effect of natural consonant classes (plosives, fricatives and liquids) on phonological acquisition, phonemic awareness and reading/writing.

We carried out studies on word processing in order to verify effects of word length (number of syllables), syllable structure, morphemic properties, and graphic features (diacritics). Results show a clear effect of phonological priming, but a fuzzy effect of semantic and morphological properties in word recalling, which requires further research.


Concerning bimodal text processing, we conducted research on reading bimodal (image and verbal) texts from advertising and illustrated literary examples with images rhetorically elaborated were performed, aiming to evaluate the differences in access and recalling of the information, either through one instance only, or through both text and image. We obtained patterns of eye movements during the reading of mathematical problems, extracted from the national exams, in order to explain processing language aspects that are involved in math literacy. We intended to establish a link between eye movements, syntactic and discursive complexity and levels of performance in math (studies on 4th, 6th and 9th grades).

Project PI