I just read a classic paper by Bransford and Johnson that I find really clever. Before going into the findings, I’ll just present the passage presented to subjects in Experiment 1:
Even though the sentences in this passage follow normal rules of English grammar and the vocabulary is straightforward, you probably didn’t understand much of what you read and will have a hard time recalling it. Things might be clearer, however, if you see this picture:
Not surprisingly, the subjects who saw the picture before reading reported better comprehension and recall of the passage upon finishing it than those who saw the picture after. A third group was never shown the picture establishing context, and their comprehension and recall were lowest.
In another experiment described in this paper, the participants read a different passage:
Again, there’s nothing wrong with the English, but it doesn’t seem to say much. After learning that the paragraph is about doing laundry, however, it takes on a whole new meaning. As with the first study, subjects who were told that it was about laundry before reading it comprehended and recalled significantly more than those who were told the topic after reading. Again, those who were never told the topic did the worst.
It’s pretty awesome how just a small piece of context information can give meaning to an entire paragraph. What I love is that it brings out the flexibility of words and the incredible difficulty of grasping abstract descriptions and concepts without mapping them onto concrete realities. Also probably something to keep in mind when we’re writing things that we want people to understand – they need context!