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Leaving no child behind: identifying precursors of slow reading and writing development

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2023

Project ID: S3 6

Reading and writing skills are essential to successful social participation; yet over half a million UK adults failed to develop adequate literacy skills in school (OECD, 2013). This is likely to be exacerbated as a consequence of school closures during COVID-19 (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2021). Those children who struggle to learn how to read and write when instruction starts – in the UK at 3-4 years – will rapidly fall behind. It is therefore crucial to know which child is at risk of falling behind before formal education begins, so that interventions can be put in place immediately rather than retrospectively. Developing reliable screening tools requires overcoming two problems: (a) there is no good understanding of the skills that predict rates of literacy learning; (b) we need ways of measuring these skills that can be used with young children who are not yet able to complete formal tests.

Successful literacy development is not solely the product of exposure to written text but is subject to cognitive factors (Valdois et al., 2004). Existing tests tend to focus on assessing learning outcomes – text comprehension, for example – and so only detect children who have already fallen behind. Pre-school screening requires age-appropriate measurement of precursors of the skills that make learning possible, such as the ability to co-ordinate eye movements, phonological awareness, hand co-ordination and visual/auditory attention. However, current assessment of such skills has used tests designed for older children, and hence assess children who may have already fallen behind (e.g., Bellocchi et al., 2013; Facoetti et al., 2003; Thomson & Jarmulowicz, 2016).

This project will examine abilities prior to formal instruction in reading and writing to enable us to determine links to later literacy outcomes. Early screening for those indicators of literacy success will identify children who are at-risk of developing literacy difficulties. The proposed PhD project will initiate the long-term aim to develop a suite of age-appropriate tasks measuring basic cognitive abilities that correlate with literacy learning.

The successful applicant will have the opportunity to

  • work with leading experts in language and literacy to produce a project that has the potential to make a real difference in children who have reading and writing difficulty.
  • contribute to the knowledge about predictors of literacy learning with a strong cognitive-theoretical basis and develop innovative testing methods with a potential for direct application.
  • collaborate with the Norwegian National Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger.

Supervisory Team:

DoS: Dr Jens Roeser (Research Fellow): Research with focus on the psycholinguistics of language production (in particular writing), eye-tracking, keystroke logging and Bayesian statistical modelling.

Dr Mark Torrance (Associate Professor / Reader): Long track record of research and PhD supervision in the cognitive and educational psychology of written production.

Prof Gary Jones: Focuses on language development and how our experience of language shapes our language learning.

The proposed supervisory team combines expertise in literary research – including early-years literacy development, statistical learning, psycholinguistics, experimental methods in cognitive psychology and advanced statistical analysis.

All supervisors have a track record of REF 3* and 4* publications. The PhD project closely relates to a recently funded ESRC application of the DoS [Roeser; £300k] and is part of the DoS’s wider research objective to support children that struggle with spelling in particular. The team has successfully supervised a recently defended PhD project (Tsitsopoulou, 2022) that, similarly, aimed at the development of a new paradigm that allows us to test hypotheses about statistical learning, arguably the foundation of children’s ability to learn. This work was the foundation for a number of on-going projects (e.g. a SPUR project) that inform a ESRC grant application that is currently under development [PI: Jones, CIs: Roeser, Torrance].

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

To make an application, please visit our studentship application page.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2023 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Application guidance can be found on our studentship application page.

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