Reading into Flow: Text Comprehension and Flow during Fiction Reading

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Birte Thissen @Birte

:classical_building: Affiliation: Department of Psychology, New York University

Title: Reading into Flow: Text Comprehension and Flow during Fiction Reading

Abstract (long version below): This study investigated the relationship between flow states during fiction reading and text comprehension on the micro, inference, and macro level. To test whether experiencing flow during reading predicts a better and deeper understanding of the text, a sample of 114 readers read a short story and subsequently filled out a reading-specific flow questionnaire. Moreover, they answered validated questions assessing micro and inference level text comprehension and wrote brief text summaries to assess macro level text comprehension. Regression analyses revealed that flow scores indeed predicted micro level and macro level, but not inference level text comprehension.


:newspaper: Long abstract


As recent studies (Thissen et al., 2018; Thissen et al., 2020; Thissen et al. 2021) with fiction readers suggest, positive reading experiences are frequently accompanied by so-called flow states (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Flow, a concept from motivational psychology, refers to the optimal experience of being completely engaged with a goal-oriented activity that occurs whenever the individual’s skill level and the activity’s challenge level are both comparatively high and perfectly balanced (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989; Fong et al., 2015). Under these circumstances, the individual can experience heightened levels of absorption, processing fluency, and intrinsic enjoyment that culminate in a holistic flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). In the context of fiction reading, fluent processing of the text, absorption with the story world, and enjoyment of the reading process may lead the reader to form a particularly vivid mental story model in association with the flow experience (Buselle & Bilandzic, 2008). Therefore, readers who experience flow might also perform better in terms of text comprehension as they can draw from more elaborate mental representations. Given the close conceptual link between flow and optimal challenge as well as fluent processing, flow has been theoretically assumed to be associated with performance enhancement (Barthelmäs & Keller, 2021). Flow research in other activity contexts has found some evidence in support of this assumption (Engeser & Rheinberg, 2008; Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, & Smethurst, 2001); however, in the context of reading, this study is to the best of our knowledge the first one to empirically test an association between flow experiences and text comprehension performance.


A total of 144 readers completed an online study that required them to read a 2,979-words short story by Boris Scavezzon (2010) and, immediately after reading, answer the Fiction Reading Flow Scale (FRFS; Thissen et al., 2020) as well as text comprehension questions and a prompt to write a short summary of the text from memory (Tschense & Wallot, 2022). The questions, to be answered in a yes/no format, assessed text comprehension either on the micro level, in terms of story details, or on the inference level, in terms of implicit assumptions based on textual information, whereas the story summaries indicated text comprehension on the macro level, in terms of the broader narrative structure. These measures of text comprehension were based in Kintsch and van Dijks’s assumption of three representational levels of text comprehension (1978) and had been developed and validated by Tschense and Wallot in 2022. Micro and inference level text comprehension was scored based on the number of correct answers to each set of questions and macro level text comprehension was scored by two independent raters (ϰ = .94). As additional factors to consider in text comprehension performance, participants’ general reader skill levels were assessed using a standardized reading proficiency test (SLS; Lüdtke et al., 2019) and trait reading motivation was measured using the Adult Reading Motivation Scale (ARMS; Schutte & Malouff, 2007).


To test whether flow states during fiction reading predict text comprehension beyond general reading proficiency and motivation, micro level, inference level, and macro level text comprehension scores were each regressed upon FRFS, SLS, and ARMS scores. For both micro and macro level text comprehension, flow during reading emerged as a highly significant predictor. However, no such association between flow and inference level text comprehension was found. In neither model did general reading proficiency or trait reading motivation explain significant variance in text comprehension. Thus, the immediate experience during reading, specifically the experience of flow states, seems to influence the processing of a given text more than readers’ general propensity to understand and engage with fictional narratives. In terms of performance enhancement in processing the text and constructing a mental story model from it, flow seems to benefit specifically memory processes on the micro and macro level of text comprehension. To gain a better understanding of why no such effect was found on the inference level, a follow-up study will be discussed.


Barthelmäs, M., & Keller, J. (2021). Antecedents, Boundary Conditions and Consequences of Flow. In C. Peifer & S. Engeser (Eds.), Advances in Flow Research (pp. 71-108). Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-53468-4_3

Busselle, R., & Bilandzic, H. (2008). Fictionality and perceived realism in experiencing stories: A model of narrative comprehension and engagement. Communication theory, 18(2), 255-280. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2008.00322.x

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass.

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Engeser, S., & Rheinberg, F. (2008). Flow, performance and moderators of challenge-skill balance. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 158-172.

Fong, C. J., Zaleski, D. J., & Leach, J. K. (2015). The challenge–skill balance and antecedents of flow: A meta-analytic investigation. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(5), 425-446. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2014.967799

Jackson, S. A., Thomas, P. R., Marsh, H. W., & Smethurst, C. J. (2001). Relationships between flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 129-153. doi: 10.1080/104132001753149865

Lüdtke, J., Froehlich, E., Jacobs, A. M. & Hutzler, F. (2019). The SLS-Berlin: Validation of german computer-based screening test to measure reading proficiency in early and late adulthood. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1682. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01682

Scavezzon, B. (2010). Die verborgene Seite der Medaille [The hidden site of the medal]. In Ein Album voller Kurzgeschichten [A collection of short stories] (pp. 49-58). August von Goethe Literaturverlag.

Schutte, N. S. & Malouff, J. M. (2007). Dimensions of reading motivation: Development of an adult reading motivation scale. Reading Psychology, 28(5), 469-489. doi:10.1080/02702710701568991

Thissen, B. A. K., Menninghaus, W., & Schlotz, W. (2018). Measuring optimal reading experiences: The Reading Flow Short Scale. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2542. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02542

Thissen, B. A., Menninghaus, W., & Schlotz, W. (2020). The pleasures of reading fiction explained by flow, presence, identification, suspense, and cognitive involvement. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 15(4), 710-724. doi: 10.1037/aca0000367

Thissen, B. A., Schlotz, W., Abel, C., Scharinger, M., Frieler, K., Merrill, J. & Menninghaus, W. (2021). At the Heart of Optimal Reading Experiences: Cardiovascular Activity and Flow Experiences in Fiction Reading. Reading Research Quarterly 57(3), 831-845. doi:10.1002/rrq.448

Tschense, M., & Wallot, S. (2022). Modeling items for text comprehension assessment using confirmatory factor analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 966347. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.966347