Figure 125

The types of inferences normally drawn, together with the predictions from the constructionist and minimalist perspectives. Adapted from Graesser et al. (1994).

goals (e.g., using a rifle; using hand grenades). Active use of global and local inferences was tested by presenting a test word after each text, and instructing the participants to decide rapidly whether the word had appeared in the text.

There was an important difference between local and global inferences, with the former being drawn automatically but the latter not. These findings are more consistent with the minimalist hypothesis than with the constructionist position, in which no distinction is drawn between local and global inferences.


One of the greatest strengths of the minimalist hypothesis is that it serves to clarify which inferences are and are not automatically drawn when someone is reading a text. In contrast, constructionist theorists often argue that those inferences that are needed to understand fully the situation described in a text are drawn automatically. This is rather vague, as there obviously could be considerable differences of opinion over exactly what information needs to be encoded for full understanding.

Another strength of the minimalist hypothesis is that it emphasises the distinction between automatic and strategic inferences. The notion that many inferences will be drawn only if they are consistent with the reader's goals in reading is an important one.

On the negative side, it is not always possible to predict accurately from the hypothesis which inferences will be drawn. For example, automatic inferences are drawn if the necessary information is "readily available", but it can be problematic to establish the precise degree of availability of some piece of information.

Search-after-meaning theory

Since the appearance of McKoon and Ratcliff's (1992) minimalist hypothesis, there has been a counterattack by constructionist theorists. Graesser, Singer, and Trabasso (1994) agreed with McKoon and Ratcliff (1992) that constructionist theories often fail to specify which inferences are drawn during comprehension. They tried to eliminate this omission in their search-after-meaning theory, according to which readers engage in a search after meaning based on the following:

• The reader goal assumption: the reader constructs a meaning for the text that addresses his or her goals.

• The coherence assumption: the reader tries to construct a meaning for the text that is coherent locally and globally.

• The explanation assumption: the reader tries to explain the actions, events, and states referred to in the text.

Graesser et al. (1994) pointed out that the reader will not search after meaning if his or her goals do not necessitate the construction of a meaning representation of the text (e.g., in proofreading); if the text appears to lack coherence; or if the reader does not possess the necessary background knowledge to make sense of the text. Even if the reader does search after meaning, there are several kinds of inference that are not normally drawn according to the search-after-meaning theory. As can be seen in Figure 12.5, these undrawn inferences include ones about future developments (causal consequence); the precise way in which actions are accomplished (subordinate goal-actions); and the author's intent.

Nine different types of inference are described in Figure 12.5. According to Graesser et al. (1994), it is assumed within search-after-meaning theory that six of these types of inference are generally drawn, whereas only three are drawn on the minimalist hypothesis. As can be seen in the last column of Figure 12.5, the evidence seems to be more in line with the predictions of the search-after-meaning theory than those of the minimalist hypothesis.

Section summary

Inferences are generally drawn during the process of language comprehension. It used to be assumed by constructionist theorists that numerous inferences are made routinely during reading, but some of the studies apparently supporting that view are flawed because of a failure to discriminate between inferences formed during reading and those formed at the time of subsequent testing.

The main goal of recent theories is to identify more precisely which inferences are normally drawn. It may seem that there is a large gap between the minimalist hypothesis and the search-after-meaning theory, because the focus within the minimalist hypothesis is on a narrower set of inferences. However, it should be remembered that McKoon and Ratcliff (1992) accepted that many strategic inferences are formed in addition to the automatic inferences they discussed. All in all, there is a growing consensus on the types of inference that are generally made (e.g., referential; causal antecedent), and on those that are rarely made (e.g., instrumental; causal consequence). Graesser et al. (1997, p. 183) came to the following reasonable conclusion:

We suspect that each of the. models is correct in certain conditions. The minimalist hypothesis is probably correct when the reader is very quickly reading the text, when the text lacks global coherence, and when the reader has very little background knowledge. The constructionist [or search-

after-meaning] theory is on the mark when the reader is attempting to comprehend the text for enjoyment or mastery at a more leisurely pace.

Some theorists (e.g., van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983) have argued that readers often construct a mental model or representation of the situation described by the text. The information contained in mental models can go well beyond the information contained in a text, and such information is based on inferences. The notion of situational representations plays an important part in the theory of story processing proposed by Kintsch (1988, 1992, 1994), and so further discussion will be deferred until that theory is considered later in the chapter.

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