We present results of a reading study that show the usefulness of probing physics students' cognitive processing by measuring reading time. According to contemporary discourse theory, when people read a text, a network of associated inferences is activated to create a mental model. If the reader encounters an idea in the text that conflicts with existing knowledge, the construction of a coherent mental model is disrupted and reading times are prolonged, as measured using a simple self-paced reading paradigm. We used this effect to study how "non-Newtonian" and "Newtonian" students create mental models of conceptual systems in physics as they read texts related to the ideas of Newton's third law, energy, and momentum. We found significant effects of prior knowledge state on patterns of reading time, suggesting that students attempt to actively integrate physics texts with their existing knowledge.