Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Psychology and Social Science


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Advisor

Professor Alison Garton


This study reviewed a body of literature largely written between the mid 1970s and 1990s that was concerned with the rhetorical structure of written expository text and its relationship to memory and comprehension. This dissertation follows from an argument that the earlier research often confused memory and comprehension and that it was limited in its attempt to clarify the relationship between text structure and reading comprehension. The current study sought to provide a fuller description of the manner in which schoolchildren of different ages and abilities employ rhetorical structure in the comprehension process. In contrast to the earlier research this study makes a distinction between the top-level structure of a text and the structure of the reader’s meaning. It sought to discover what, if any, was the relationship between the structure of the reader’s comprehension and the top-level structure of the text, the educational stage of the reader, and the reading comprehension ability of the reader. A sample of 229 schoolchildren from Years 5, 7, and 9, and further subdivided by reading ability, was given a task of reading three passages and carrying out an underlining task to identify the seven sentences in each passage that best captured the its overall meaning. The three passages employed were natural passages of text, each approximately 700 words in length, and each with a different top-level structure. Minor adjustments were made in respect of vocabulary and sentence length to match the different age groups within the sample. Each participant’s sentence selections were analysed for a collective structure in an effort to discover any structure employed by the reader in constructing the meaning of the respective text. The effectiveness of structure usage was measured by the degree of coherence captured by the sentence selections. As might be expected, good readers and older children generally performed the task more successfully and effectively than poorer and younger readers. The results indicated, contrary to a common assumption of the earlier research, that the structures employed by the participants reflected two different and distinct categories: content structures which selected information based on association and rhetorical structures based on logical argument. It was subsequently considered that semantic information might be relatively more influential in using content structure whereas syntax might play the more significant role in the use of rhetorical structure. The more able readers generally maximised coherence by combining rhetorical and content structures in the construction of meaning except where a passage was limited to description only. There was a complex relationship between the structure of the text and the structure of the reader’s meaning that reflected a constructivist explanation of reading comprehension. It was found that whilst many children of all ages and ability had a capacity to recognise the various content and rhetorical structures regardless of their relative complexity, that effective use was related to practice. Other factors that might complicate structure strategy use in reading comprehension were identified.