John D., and Nancy S. McCarrell. "A Sketch of a Cognitive Approach
to Comprehension: Some Thoughts about Understanding What It Means to
Comprehend." Cognition and the Symbolic Processes. Walter
Weimer and David Palermo, eds. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1974. 189-229.
Bransford and McCarrell set out to "raise particular questions about
comprehension that may provoke further discussion and research" (189). How
does one comprehend? What is the relation of object perception to
comprehensible event? What is the ratio of perceptual experience to recall or
memory in the meaningful event? Bransford and McCarrell key on the notion of a "click
of comprehension." The "click" rests at the crisis point between
aporia and epiphany: a moment of meaning-detonation. Bransford and
McCarrell work through contextual constraints on meaning (missing or missed
cues). They also explain the crucial role of relations among objects
(195). That is, isolates (whether words or "brute things") do not
mean in quite the same way when their relationality is diminished or altogether
ignored. Their strong emphasis on comprehension as an orchestration of
relations (perception, new knowledge, existing knowledge) matches well with
Gibson’s discussion of affordances (and also Fuller’s discussion of
In one example, Bransford and McCarrell speculate about what they term "abstract
invariances" (197). They refer to walking as a relative class of events
which, in specific cases, might vary. The "different particulars"
involved with walking, then, might make is seem a novel event; however, there
remains an abstract class of invariable information–abstract invariances–that
apply to all (most!) instances of walking (or that function to distinguish
walking from non-walking at the level of comprehension). The article goes on to
consider relations and "entities involved" (an environmental or ecological
consideration) and a few of the ways these ideas might be generalized to
linguistic comprehension (201). That which is "directly expressed" in
sentences (204) can only be comprehended in concert with whatever other
information is available, including what Bransford and McCarrell "alinguistic
information" (204). They also consider the "instigating force" of an
unnamed, unseen entity that impacts comprehension despite its absence from the
context, be it syntactic or scenic (211).
Other strong examples include the function of "submerged" in a
paragraph about a man abandoning his car and walking toward the city (214).
When the word is missing from the paragraph, comprehension is much more
difficult. When added, however, the entire sequence of events as well as their
motivations is comprehendible. A second example involves ambiguity in a
confusing word, like "nog." "[The] ambiguous sentence The boy was
found by the nog can be disambiguated as a function of our knowledge of
nogs. If nog is assumed to refer to a monument in Central Park
the sentence will be understood as a paraphrase of The boy was found near the
nog; but if it refers to a furry animal with a good nose for tracking, the
sentence will be understood to be a paraphrase of The nog found the boy"
Sum: "Our approach to comprehension focuses on the comprehender’s ability
to use his general knowledge to create situations that permit the relations
specified in input sentences to be realized, or to postulate situations
(e.g., instigating forces) that allow perceptual events to be understood. In
short, the ability to create some level of semantic content sufficient to
achieve a click of comprehension depends upon the comprehender’s ability
to think" (220).
Key terms: click of comprehension (189, 200, 210, 215), meaningful entities
(191), brute things (191), Piaget’s "assimilation" (192), Bartlett’s "effort
after meaning" (192), affordances (193), abstract invariances (197),
ecological niche (200), grasping of relations (200), sufficient alinguistic
information (204), special assumption sentences and self-contained sentences
(208), elaboratives (209), constraints (210), instigating force (211),
categories of information (216), single lexical equivalents (216), labels for
relations (218), nog (219), storehouse of images (220).
"Similarly, our perception of the world is rarely confined to
identification of an individual object in isolation, but instead includes
perception of an object’s role in events" (190).
"Perception affords more than information about the characteristics of
individual objects; it affords information about the spatio-temporal
relations among entities that characterize the dynamic perceptual events
(cf. E.J. Gibson, 1969; J.J. Gibson, 1966)" (191).
"That physical properties may have meaningful implications is important for
consideration of perceptual learning, because it suggests that relational
information that allows objects to become meaningful also affects what
perceptual characteristics are learned" (194).
"The preceding discussion suggests that knowledge of entities arises
from information about their relations to other knowledge, and that
knowledge of relations distinguishes a meaningful object from a ‘brute
"Isolated objects cannot be taken as the basic unit of analysis
when one seeks to understand how they become meaningful. Objects become
meaningful by virtue of their interrelations with other objects (including the
knowing organism); and objects are not always identified as mere objects" (197).
"Knowledge of entities and relations also interact to allow the
comprehender to understand implicational significances of events which
involve more information than is momentarily present" (199). ^Like
"These examples illustrate how relational information about objects
and information about abstract invariants characteristic of events
interact to affect one’s ability to comprehend novel situations" (199).
"The basic paradigm [for "a detailed analysis of relational information
derived from perception"] is the ‘ecological niche.’ It consists simply
of a film of a set of artificial entities that can be made meaningful to
an organism as a function of his perception of their interactions in the
perceptual mini-world" (200).
"These studies suggest that information ‘directly expressed’ by sentences
cannot always be equated with the information available to the comprehender.
Comprehenders do not simply store the information underlying sentences, but
instead use linguistic inputs in conjunction with other information to update
their general knowledge of the world" (204).
"Reasonable evidence suggests that the comprehender must frequently do
considerable work to create situations that allow him to grasp the relations
specified in input sentences, and that at least some specifications are
necessary for the click of comprehension to occur" (210).
"We have proposed that knowledge of language might fruitfully be
conceptualized as knowledge of abstract cues or instructions that guide the
comprehender. The semantic content of a particular linguistic message is
created only as the comprehender, guided by the linguistic cues, specifies
conditions under which the abstract relations can be realized given his
knowledge of the world" (215).
"Organisms must have information about an entity’s relations to other aspects
of his knowledge system to understand it. It follows that an image of a
word’s referent cannot be equated with its meaning, and similarly, the meaning
of a whole sentence like The man made a touchdown cannot be equated with
an image of a man crossing the goal line" (221).