I am interested in language and reading development and the neurological mechanisms that underpin language processes and language learning. My aim is to take this knowledge through to application to build causal models of language learning impairment, through the study of dyslexia, autism and specific language impairment. Ultimately, I’m interested in how we can promote language learning across development. My research uses traditional psycholinguistic paradigms, cognitive assessment, techniques that measure language processes as they occur in real time (such as EEG/event related potentials and eye tracking) and most recently the study of sleep EEG as a tool for examining the neurological mechanisms underlying word learning across development.
I have been involved in a Leverhulme Trust funded grant which aims to examine novel word learning and the role of sleep in children and adults (with Gareth Gaskell, Anna Weighall and Kirsten Bartlett). This research built on seminal studies conducted at York by Gareth Gaskell and colleagues showing that slow wave sleep is associated with strengthening of new phonological representations and sleep spindle activity is important for the integration of novel words with the lexicon. We found that sleep is associated with the integration and consolidation of new word representations in children. This finding is important since many studies have focused on the immediate consequences of word learning in children and have conceptualized word learning as a “relatively simple affair”. On the contrary, our data suggest that children’s word learning should be considered as the start of a prolonged consolidation process.
We recently completed a Waterloo Foundation funded grant ‘SleepTalk!’ on memory consolidation and sleep in children with dyslexia and without dyslexia. We found that children with dyslexia show weaknesses in their ability to encode novel words when compared to age-matched controls, and retain less novel word knowledge one week after initial learning even when compared to younger children matched on initial encoding levels. Most strikingly, whilst sleep parameters (i.e., slow wave activity) correlated with overnight changes in memory for new words in typically developing children, there were no correlations between sleep parameters and overnight changes in memory in the dyslexic group. This suggests that sleep is playing a different role in dyslexia.
We recently won a large grant from the ESRC to extend this work to children with autism spectrum disorder with varying language profiles (i.e., the ‘SleepSmart’ project). For more information see https://www.york.ac.uk/psychology/research/facilities/slam/sleep-smart-study/