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The value of analyzing reader-generated verbal data in inquiry into strategic reading

In-depth examinations of verbal reports have contributed to advancing theories of learning that cut across diverse traditions of inquiry. Theoretical support for the veracity of verbal report data is fairly broad-based—and this data can inform us critically about strategie minds. So as our common sense tells us, for example, vast literature in linguistics suggests that language offers a window into the mind of the speaker (Chomsky, 1975; Lakoff, 1987). The generative language of a person has also long been a major subject for philosophical and psychological investigations to complicate how the mind works in reasoning (Boring, 1953; James, 1890). The language of a learner may be seen as (inner) speech, a form of mediated action through culturally internalized higher-order mental functions (Vygotsky, 1962; Wertsch, 1998).

In cognitive science, however, an initial articulation and defense of verbal reports as data for the scientific studies of human cognition was provided by Ericsson and Simon in 1980. Their motivation reflects reactions to uninformed practices in cognitive studies at that time and their réévaluation of verbal data in the interrogation of cognitive processing:

For more than half a century, and as the result of an unjustified extrapolation of justified challenge to a particular mode of verbal reporting (introspection), the verbal reports of human subjects have been thought suspect as a source of evidence about cognitive processes ... verbal reports, elicited with care and interpreted with full understanding of the circumstances under which they were obtained, are a valuable and thoroughly reliable source of information about cognitive processes. It is time to abandon the careless charge of “introspection” as a means for disparaging such data ... To omit them [verbal data] when we are carrying the “chain and transit of objective measurement” is only to mark as terra incognita large areas on the map of human cognition that we know perfectly well how to survey.

(p. 247)

Ericsson and Simon (1980) noted that the verbal reports of human subjects historically have been discredited due to the overgeneralized labeling of such language data as a product of introspection, which was denigrated to be a form of informal report that is useful at best for glimpsing a subjects internal state of mind (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). As a result, such misconception of verbal reports and uninformed research practices (e.g., measuring human thinking exclusively with standardized self-report measures) could not provide authentic information on a subjects cognitive processes in action. Alternatively, Ericsson and Simon argued for the value of verbal reports of human subjects as sense-makers, urging reconsideration of such data as a reliable source of scientific evidence that supports both the exploration and the verification of cognitive theories.

Along with emerging methodological discussions in reading (e.g., Afflerbach, 2000; Afflerbach & Johnston, 1984; Kucan & Beck, 1997; Magliano & Graesser, 1991; Press-ley & Afflerbach, 1995; Smagorinsky, 1998) since the work of Ericsson and Simon, verbal protocol analysis has been gaining trustworthiness and popularity as a means of assessing the cognitive processes involved in text comprehension. Pressley and Afflerbach (1995) reached a conclusion that it is valuable to consider the merits of analyzing verbal reporting data, despite several considerations that must be addressed methodologically, because of the theoretical advancement made in part by the studies of readers’ verbal protocols:

On the one hand, the protocol analyses do support various models of comprehension that have been proposed. That is, the processes specified by each of these models are represented in the think-aloud reports ... On the other hand, the verbal report data ... does more than provide partial verification of theoretical models. In fact, the verbal report data extend these models, leading to a complex description of reading than specified by any of the previously existing models.

(p. 83)

As supported by Pressley and Afflerbach (1995), as well as by Ericsson and Simon (1980), verbal protocol analysis may not only assist in exploration of yet-to-be-examined cognitive processes in novel tasks and contexts of reading, but it can contribute to verification of pre-existing theories by adding evidentiary (counter) examples in detail. Informed analysis of verbal protocols facilitates reasoned judgments concerning what extent of congruence or idiosyncrasy could be found between models of text processing and the aggregate insights from the verbal data.

We endorse the scientific merits of verbal protocol analysis, suggesting that analysis of reader-generated verbal data has several promises for advancing reading theories. Verbal protocol analysis foremost can help the investigation of the architecture of reading—even though it is an unobservable construct (e.g., when, where, and how reading begins, goes on, and ends). A particular strength of verbal protocol analysis relates to detailed description of the cognitive and metacognitive mechanisms through which mental representations are elaborated during text comprehension. Further, the investigation of verbal report data can provide the opportunity to integrate contextualized accounts of strategic processes into a coherent theory that explains the interplay of individual differences, text features, and situational influences.

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