Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Psychology

First Advisor

Janice M. Keenan, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Bruce Pennington

Third Advisor

George Potts

Fourth Advisor

Keith Miller


Comprehension, Knowledge, Latent semantic analysis, Poor comprehenders, Reading, Topic Knowledge


This dissertation examines the role of topic knowledge (TK) in comprehension among typical readers and those with Specifically Poor Comprehension (SPC), i.e., those who demonstrate deficits in understanding what they read despite adequate decoding. Previous studies of poor comprehension have focused on weaknesses in specific skills, such as word decoding and inferencing ability, but this dissertation examined a different factor: whether deficits in availability and use of TK underlie poor comprehension. It is well known that TK tends to facilitate comprehension among typical readers, but its interaction with working memory and word decoding is unclear, particularly among participants with deficits in these skills. Across several passages, we found that SPCs do in fact have less TK to assist their interpretation of a text. However, we found no evidence that deficits in working memory or word decoding ability make it difficult for children to benefit from their TK when they have it. Instead, children across the skill spectrum are able to draw upon TK to assist their interpretation of a passage. Because TK is difficult to assess and studies vary in methodology, another goal of this dissertation was to compare two methods for measuring it. Both approaches score responses to a concept question to assess TK, but in the first, a human rater assigns a score whereas in the second, a computer algorithm, Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA; Landauer & Dumais, 1997) assigns a score. We found similar results across both methods of assessing TK, suggesting that a continuous measure is not appreciably more sensitive to variations in knowledge than discrete human ratings. This study contributes to our understanding of how best to measure TK, the factors that moderate its relationship with recall, and its role in poor comprehension. The findings suggest that teaching practices that focus on expanding TK are likely to improve comprehension across readers with a variety of abilities.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.

Rights Holder

Chelsea E. Meenan


Received from ProQuest

File Format




File Size

62 p.


Cognitive Psychology, Reading Instruction, Psychology