Haskins Laboratories

The Science of the Spoken and Written Word

Julie Van Dyke, Ph.D. - Comprehension Lab

My research explores the relations between differences in individual cognitive abilities and both the online and offline correlates of skilled reading comprehension. In this capacity I have focused on several topics, including:

Individual differences in the reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension critically depends not just on the characteristics of the material that is read, but on the individual cognitive abilities of the reader. Although a large body of psycholinguistic literature suggests that the primary cognitive factor limiting reading competence is the capacity of working memory, I have conducted research that shows that this finding is only weakly supported. Our findings suggest that, because linguistic processing relies on very limited active maintenance of information, most comprehension processes depend on the ability to effectively retrieve critical information from memory. In this framework, the quality of readers’ mental representations seems to be the strongest predictor of successful processing and comprehension, while the way in which poor and good readers access information in memory is consistent across groups. This research has been influential in shifting the focus of studies of individual differences in reading skill away from models emphasizing capacity-based limits to comprehension, and towards models of comprehension in which representational quality and well-established principles of memory, such as cue-based direct access and retrieval interference, play critical roles. This was a focus of my graduate training, and the specific focus of my postdoctoral research. I served as an investigator and collaborator on these studies.

Memory retrieval and discourse processing.

I have conducted several studies investigating the role of memory retrieval in the construction of accurate discourse representations. These studies have shown that resolving referential relations at the level of the discourse model are sensitive to unambiguously linguistic properties (e.g., syntactic structure). However, computing sentence-level structural information, such as correctly resolving relations between nouns and verbs in a sentence, closely follows domain-general principles of cue-based memory retrieval. This work has also suggested that readers’ offline retrieval experiences can be used to index the quality of the discourse model, including whether or not critical coherence relations such as inferences have been instantiated in the mental representation. This work bridges two distinct literatures in psychology – memory and psycholinguistics – and provides evidence that both are subserved by a common memory architecture. This research was the focus of my dissertation, and I served as an investigator and collaborator on these studies.

Phonological processes in reading comprehension.

While acknowledging the fundamental importance of word reading ability, models of text comprehension do not specify how processes at the level of phonological decoding can influence higher level comprehension. I have explored this relation in both poor and good readers, and am currently an investigator on projects examining this issue.

Hemispheric differences in discourse representation.

The relations of neural structures in the left cerebral hemisphere to language processing are well explored, but there is still considerable debate about the role played by the right hemisphere in language comprehension. Although investigations of this topic often focus on clinical populations with unilateral or bilateral brain damage, my research assessed neurotypical populations. In addition, rather than online processing, this work examined hemispheric differences to the development of text representations that can be accessed during subsequent comprehension-related tasks. These publications found that the evidence that the right hemisphere was instrumental in higher-level discourse processes such as inference generation – a pervasive and influential claim – was weak, and suggested that its primary contribution emerged as the active maintenance of text ideas. Further, we reported that the two cerebral hemispheres maintained accurate representations of discourse information, and that these representations were qualitatively distinct. The left hemisphere maintains a highly structured representation, which includes lexical, syntactic, and propositional relations among text ideas. In contrast, the right hemisphere was sensitive to only rudimentary lexical relations, but maintained critical information about temporal and spatial characteristics of a text. This work has challenged traditional accounts of the right hemisphere’s contributions to discourse comprehension in both neuropsychological and neurotypical populations. 


Gong, T., Magnuson, J. S., Mencl, W. E., Tabor, W., Van Dyke, J. A., Johns, C. L., Katz, L., Shnkweiler, D. P., & Braze, D. (under revision). Skill differences in eye movement patterns during online sentence reading.
Johns, C. L., Jahn, A. A., Jones, H. R., Kush, D. Molfese, P. J., Van Dyke, J. A., Magnuson, J. S., Tabor, W., Mencl, W. E., Shankweiler, D. P., & Braze, D. (under revision). Performance differences on reading skill measures are related to differences in cortical grey matter structure in young adults.
Kush, D., Johns, C. L., & Van Dyke, J. A. (under revision). Prominence-first pronoun resolution: New evidence from the Speed-Accuracy Tradeoff procedure.
Johns, C. L., Bontrager, M. L., & Van Dyke, J. A. (in prep). Revisiting the lexical and discourse bases of gender effects in reflexive processing
Johns, C. L., Kush, K., & Van Dyke, J. A. (in prep). Revisiting the lexical and discourse bases of gender effects in reflexive processing. 
Johns, C. L., Landi, N., & Van Dyke, J. A. (in prep). Individual differences in semantic coercion processing during sentence comprehension
Li, M. Y. C., Braze, D., Kukona, A., Shankweiler, D. P., Tabor, W., Van Dyke, J. A., Mencl, W. E., Johns, C. L., Pugh, K. R., & Magnuson, J. S. (in prep). Individual differences in subphonemic sensitivity and reading ability.
Braze, D., Katz, L., Magnuson, J. S., Mencl, W. E., Tabor, W., Van Dyke, J. A., Gong, T., Johns, C.L., & Shankweiler, D. P. (2016). Vocabulary does not complicate the simple view of reading. Reading and Writing, 29(3), 1-17. PMID: 26941478
Johns, C. L., Matsuki, K., & Van Dyke, J. A. (2015). Poor readers’ retrieval mechanism: efficient access is not dependent on reading skill. Frontiers in psychology, 6: 1552. PMID: 265282122
Kush, D., Johns, C.L., & Van Dyke, J.A. (2015). Identifying the role of phonology in sentence-level reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 79, 18-29. PMID: 26893535
Johns, C. L., Gordon, P. C., Long, D. L. & Swaab, T. Y. (2014). Memory availability and referential access. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience, 29(1), 60-87. PMID: 24443621
Van Dyke, J. A., Johns, C. L., & Kukona, A. (2014). Low working memory capacity is only spuriously related to poor reading comprehension. Cognition, 131(3), 373-403. PMID: 24657820
Long, D.L., Johns, C.L., & Jonathan, E. (2012).  A memory-retrieval view of discourse representation: The recollection and familiarity of text ideas. Language and Cognitive Processes, 27(6), 821-843. PMID: 26052170
Long, D. L., Johns, C. L., & Jonathan, E. (2012). Hemispheric differences in the organization of memory for text ideas. Brain and Language, 123(3), 145-153. PMID: 23089586
Traxler, M. J., Long, D. L., Tooley, K. M., Johns, C. L., Zirnstein, M., & Jonathan, E. (2012). Individual differences in eye-movements during reading: working memory and speed-of-processing effects. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 5(1). PMID: 26085919
Van Dyke, J. A., & Johns, C. L. (2012). Memory interference as a determinant of language comprehension. Language and Linguistics Compass, 6(4), 193-211. PMID: 22773927
Magnuson, J. S., Kukona, A., Braze, D., Johns, C. L., Van Dyke, J. A., Tabor, W., & Shankweiler, D. P. (2010). Phonological instability in young adult poor readers. In Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 1429-1434).
Long, D. L., Prat, C., Johns, C., Morris, P., & Jonathan, E. (2008). The importance of knowledge in vivid text memory: An individual-differences investigation of recollection and familiarity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 15(3), 604-609. PMID: 18567262
Johns, C.L., Tooley, K.M., & Traxler, M.T. (2008). Discourse impairment following right hemisphere brain damage: A critical review. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2(6), 1038-1062. PMID: 26085839