October 2019
Text by Masayasu Watai

Image: Freddy Cahyono/123rf.com

Masayasu Watai is a professor at the Jumonji University in Japan, and the president of the Japanese Communicators Association (JTCA).



What happens in our mind when we read

How does our mind process technical instructions? A look into the psychology behind the reading process may assist us in producing more efficient technical content.

While reading documents and comprehending their contents, we are forming knowledge. Although Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is evolving, it is safe to say that, even in the future, people will continue to acquire knowledge in their brains while reading documents.

Reading documents, comprehending contents, and forming knowledge are all internal activities that are implemented in the minds of people (as readers). Unfortunately, we cannot observe these internal activities. Even just recognizing them within our own minds is difficult. Most of the time, even the most proficient internal activities are automatically implemented within the unconscious mind.

While there are no scientific methods that allow us to observe mental activities, psychology has been able to shed some light on those mechanisms. In educational psychology, research is being conducted that is focused on cognition, memory, and comprehension. In Japan, these findings are provided to schools and implemented to enhance education.

In this article, I will introduce the psychological theories and research findings regarding reading and comprehending document content. In particular, I will focus on the internal activities of the readers – after all, our readers play the leading role in technical communication. Creating an awareness for how our readers read and comprehend our documentation can help us to produce better content and become better technical communicators.

Reading comprehension process models

Based on the information processing model of traditional psychological theory, the internal processes that form the reading and comprehension of sentences are configured via the interactions of bottom-up and top-down processing. Final comprehension is formed by integrating the two parts of the comprehension generated by the bidirectional processing. Figure 1 illuminates this process.

Figure 1: Overview of the traditional process model



In bottom-up processing, the mental activities line up in the following pattern:


  1. Visual processing of the characters and words printed in the document
  2. Semantic interpretation of the sentences and words
  3. Comprehension of the contents in each paragraph
  4. Formation of the final comprehension of the entire document
  5. Storage of information in the memory

In top-down processing, on the other hand, the activities are implemented in parallel:


  • The utilization of existing knowledge (available knowledge that is already stored in the memory) that relates to the content being read
  • Anticipation via stereotyped knowledge such as schemas and scripts
  • The utilization of existing knowledge relating to sentential structures

So, rather than "stacking up" the interpretations of words, phrases, and sentences, the existing knowledge about the written content is retrieved and applied accordingly. With this type of processing, we form comprehension right at the time of reading, allowing us to predict subsequent content.

Bottom-up processing can be viewed as a process, where comprehension starts with recognizing words and finishes with fully understanding the entire document. It is an accurate and appropriate method. However, it comes with great psychological burdens on readers. Top-down processing, on the other hand, prioritizes assumptions and predictions, which are formed by applying existing knowledge and forms comprehension from there. This process is more natural for readers and involves strong mental activities. In general, documents that encourage top-down processing tend to be evaluated as "readable and comprehensible".

The situational model

A prominent psychological theory that refers to comprehension processes is the "situational model" (Kintsch, 1994). It integrates bottom-up and top-down processing, and proposes both processes to achieve optimal comprehension.

Kintsch describes the first process as "learning how to read sentences". In this process, similar to the aforementioned bottom-up processing, sentences are correctly interpreted, and sentence summaries (called text-based) are formed. This process also includes acquiring the skills required to interpret sentences and create summaries.

Kintsch’s second process is "learning from the text". Here, mental models are formed. These models provide the reader with a deeper knowledge, which he can then explain to others, apply to new problems, and eventually use to solve problems. However, in order for these mental models to be formed, two processes need to be carried out that are formed via "learning how to read sentences": The first is to apply the knowledge that the reader has retained and to add specific information to the text-based learning, so that a more sophisticated comprehension is formed. The second process organizes and integrates the comprehended contents into the reader’s understanding.

These mental models have been converted into applicable knowledge through the process of comprehending by reading documents. Guiding and supporting these mental activities to help our readers form knowledge is our task as technical communicators.

Comprehension strategies for explanatory text

Explanatory text is defined as "sentences that attempt to accurately and comprehensibly convey knowledge and information". Based upon this definition, the sentences that are written in school textbooks can all be viewed as explanatory. When reading explanatory sentences, only experienced adults can automatically implement the two processes of the aforementioned situational models. In school education, young pupils develop into excellent readers in all subject classes. In other words, the aim is to foster the abilities and skills for implementing the two processes; thus, they are being taught and conveyed explicitly as well as implicitly.

In Japan's educational psychology, research is being conducted with the aim of acquiring strategies for reading explanatory sentences that will be helpful for school education, young pupils and knowledge formation. One of these studies, by Inuzuka (2002), conducted investigative research in order to systematize explanatory text reading strategies.

As the subjects in this study were university students, the research data was gathered via questionnaires. Forty-three reading strategy actions (e.g. underline important passages, think of summaries for each paragraph, etc.) were presented in the questionnaire. The students were asked to which extent they implemented each strategy when reading the explanatory sentences (five levels from "I do not use at all" up to "I definitely use").

As a result of the approximately 400 responses, 37 types of reading strategies (six strategies were excluded) were identified, which could be classified into seven main strategy categories. These seven categories were "semantic clarification", "controls", "grasping of key points", "remembrance", "monitoring", "structural attention", and "utilization of existing knowledge".

Further statistical analysis was conducted to clarify the relationship between the categories, and as a result the seven categories were subdivided in such a way that the three types of strategies (partial comprehension strategies, content learning strategies, and comprehension deepening strategies) could be allocated respectively (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Situational model and three strategies


Inuzuka also conducted a survey to validate the strategic use of developmental changes pertaining to the reading strategy categories and category structures. The participants in this survey were junior high school, senior high school and university students. Having read the explanatory sentences for five minutes, the students responded to a questionnaire that included the same reading strategies as the former survey.

The analysis of the response data also confirmed the validity pertaining to the categories. Furthermore, it highlighted the specific strategic uses of the different academic age groups. Thus, it became evident that the "structural attention" and "utilization of existing knowledge" strategies that belong to "comprehension deepening strategies" are used more frequently by university students than by junior high school students. However, the study also revealed that "semantic clarification" and "controls", which are defined in the "partial comprehension strategies", were used frequently and to a similar extent by all students, regardless of their academic year.

These findings can be interpreted in relation to the situational models. The strategies were implemented in equal measure regardless of the academic year. The "comprehension deepening strategies", on the other hand, were used more frequently by university students.

We can derive from these studies that TC documents such as manuals should first be embedded in devices that promote and reinforce the usage of basic strategies. In the future, however, we might see the development of devices that also support the use of the comprehension deepening strategies.

Promoting comprehension deepening

The ultimate goal of reading is that the reader attains a level of comprehension where he can comfortably explain the content to others. Thus, accuracy of the information plays a key role in the comprehension deepening strategies.

Japan's educational psychology focuses a lot on activities that help students to comprehend the content they learn in their classes. Reconfirming facilitates the self-monitoring of comprehension, which can enhance the accuracy of the knowledge gained. Through experimental research, Kobayashi (2013) demonstrated how knowledge accuracy is increased when learners re-explain the scientific knowledge obtained during their classes.

Figure 3: Overall procedures (Kobayashi, 2013)


This research involved university students, who were tested on explaining the theme of atmospheric pressure. Classes were conducted using explanatory sentences that included graphic illustrations of gas molecular models. After class, the university students performed one of the two following activities:

In the explanatory group, the contents were re-explained. In the transcription group, the instructor wrote out the explanations.

The students were tested three times to measure the degree of comprehension: before the class, immediately following the class and the activities, and one week later. The objective of the test was to find out which method attained the best knowledge accuracy.

The results revealed that on the two tests following the classes, the explanatory group of students achieved more correct answers. The results are very simple, but they demonstrate that the knowledge that was formed from the instructor’s explanations and the reading of explanatory sentences improved knowledge accuracy via the subsequent self-explanations.

Technical communication would also benefit from “mechanisms” that provide readers with re-explanations and room for self-explaining. Therefore, we need to prepare mechanisms that improve comprehension and knowledge accuracy, and thus make life easier for our readers.


In psychology, theories are generally based upon scientifically compiled data. Therefore, in this article, I have included the theoretical perspectives as well as the findings of empirical research.

What I would like to emphasize the most is that comprehension is a creative activity that adapts to situations. Comprehending documents and forming knowledge both greatly involve the readers’ knowledge and situations, and these are internal activities.

More accurate and more applicable comprehension and knowledge can be created via accomplished internal activities. TC technologies can help us to appropriately guide and support these internal activities.




  • Kintsch, W. ,1994, Text Comprehension, Memory, and Learning. American Psychologist, 49. 294-303.
  • Kobayashi, H., 2013, Influence of Learners’ Re-explaining on Conceptual Change:  Example of Instructed Air Pressure Rule. Japanese Journal of Psychology in Teaching & Learning, 9. 49-62. (in Japanese only)
  • Inuzuka, M., 2002, The Structure of Reading Strategies for Comprehending Expository Text. The Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology, 50. 152-162. (in Japanese only)