PhD scholarship in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, UK

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. This is likely to be exacerbated as a consequence of school closures during COVID-19. 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. 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.

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, and collaborate with the Norwegian National Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger.

Application deadline: 14 January 2022.

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