Reading comprehension shortcuts

After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

a. at sea
b. in their hometowns
c. it’s up to the loved ones, not a matter of general opinion!
d. why would a survivor need to be buried?

Did you realize before getting to choice D that the question was problematic?

If as a reader (or listener) you want a brief discussion of why it’s a good idea to concentrate on the text and avoid distractions, turn to this article.

If as a writer you realize that readers are going to skim anyway, and you want to reduce the chance that they’ll make comprehension errors, read the article for a few insights.

One important thing to realize about sentence processing is that as we’re reading a sentence our brains are already coming up with likely interpretations or meanings based on the sentence context and on our past experiences with language and the world at large. Sentence interpretation is an ongoing process – we don’t wait until we reach the end of a sentence to come up with a meaning for it. As we’re coming up with possible meanings, the sentence keeps unfolding, and some of those potential meanings have to be discarded in favor of new ones… that’s assuming we detect and process the words that contradict our favored meaning. When we’re tired or distracted, we might latch onto a likely meaning based on the general context of the sentence and ignore any word that contradicts it.

With the question on airplane survivors, many of us ignore the word ‘survivor’ in part because the phrase ‘plane crash’ at the beginning has already conjured up scenarios of mass death and no survivors, so we might skim over the word ‘survivor’ without truly processing what it means; the word ‘buried’ at the end seems to strengthen our initial interpretation of 100% fatalities and that the question must be entirely about people who have died.