Our Research

Our Research


The cultural evolution of reading and writing

It is often said that the human ability to read and write cannot have evolved because this ability appeared too recently in human history. But this is true only for one kind of evolution, genetic evolution. It is not true for cultural evolution. Over the past four millenia, cultural-evolutionary forces have shaped reading and writing in many different ways. Writing systems were independently invented three times: in Mesopotamia, in Mesoamerica and in China. What motivated the inventors to make these inventions? What motivated those in the culture to bother to engage in the arduous task of learning the local writing system? The same questions can be asked about more recently-invented writing systems such as the Korean alphabet Hangul: it was invented in 1444, but why were so few Koreans able to read and write it in 1944, and why were almost all Koreans literate in Hangul by 1975? Why did it take less than a decade for the Cherokee nation to become a literate culture after the invention of a syllabic writing system for Cherokee in 1821? A very similar syllabic writing system was developed by the Vai people of West Africa in 1833: could the Cherokee system have had any influence on this? This project addresses these and many other questions concerning the cultural evolution of reading and writing.

Contact: Max Coltheart

Using eye movements and modelling to understand skilled reading and its development

As you’re reading this sentence, what are the perceptual, cognitive, and motor processes that determine when and where your eyes move? In this project, the eye movements of skilled readers are being measured for the purpose of “reverse engineering” those processes, with the goal of then developing computational models of those processes and how they become coordinated to support skilled reading. By developing such models, our aim to is better understand skilled reading, how skill reading develops, and why it sometimes doesn’t (e.g., in the case of children with reading impairment).

Contact: Erik Reichle

The automaticity of reading: Bridging theory and the brain

This project aims to characterise the neural markers of the very first process in skilled reading, namely the processing of written symbols. The project capitalises on recent developments in neurogaming technology to record electrical brain activity in adult readers in response to written words and non-letter symbols, using a novel paradigm that was initially developed to study visual object perception. Data will be interpreted within the Bayesian Reader framework that uniquely bridges object perception and reading. The project expects to provide novel theoretical insight into the nature of orthographic processing and contribute to understanding the automaticity of reading.

Contact: Sachiko Kinoshita

Using eye-tracking to understand and assess reading comprehension

This new project aims to investigate whether and how eye-movement measures can be linked to different aspects of reading comprehension, such as decoding and language comprehension. Previous research suggests that there may be a link between certain eye-movement measures and reading comprehension skills, such that decoding skills might be related to some measures. For example, fixation times on a word may be related to that word’s cloze probability, while other measures will be related to higher level processes, such that whole text reading time may be related to text difficulty. This project also aims to investigate whether group and individual differences can be studied with this method, and whether eye-movements may be used as a diagnostic tool for reading difficulties.

Contact: Genevieve McArthur

Reading and translation

Translating texts is a complex process that coordinates reading and writing processes across two languages. In this process, translators are reading not only the source (original) text in one language, but also their unfolding translation (the target text) in another language, as they are typing it. Behavioural measures, like eye movements and keystrokes, are used as indicators of the cognitive processes underlying translation. We investigate how translators coordinate their reading and writing processes, and use the data from these processes to explore the bilingual language processing that underpin translation, as well as the linguistic decision-making processes of translators. We focus particularly on the differences between professional and novice translators, and on differences between translators and other bilinguals. We are also interested in how the linguistic decisions that translators make influence how readers read – particularly child readers. In many developing countries, most reading materials for children are produced through translation, and the choices made by translators have real-world implications for the reading development of children.

Contact: Haidee Kruger

Abstract letter identities in early visual word recognition

Visual word recognition is based on the recognition of letter identities that are invariant to specific visual form: We recognize the letter "a" whether it is presented as a, a, or A. Consistent with this, masked priming effects have been found not to depend on the match between the prime and target case (e.g., table-TABLE = TABLE-TABLE). In this project we explore a number of outstanding questions about this phenomenon: 1. does the absence of prime case effect mean that the information about case is "rapidly lost"? 2. is the case variance due to phonology (visual form of the letter is rapidly mapped onto the letter name or letter sound)? 3. is the prime form invariance specific to the Roman alphabet, or extend to other writing systems like Arabic, Japanese kana? 4. Does the prime case invariance extend to words that are associated with specific case (e.g., abbreviations like FBI)?

Contact: Sachiko Kinoshita

Reading in multimodal contexts

Reading is both cognitively demanding and requires a significant degree of skill. In multimodal contexts such as classrooms and online environments, the act of reading is further complicated by the fact that the reader has to process competing sources of information that are often redundant. In our research we focus primarily on how the presence of auditory and visual information in multimodal texts like film impact on the act of reading. We investigate the impact of aspects such as auditory redundancy (where the words on screen are a transcript of the words of a speaker), text transience (where sentences are on screen for a limited amount of time as in captions), and multilingual processing (such as when the language in the captions are different from the language in the dialogue) on skilled reading. Our findings are particularly relevant in the context of instructional design and online learning.

Contact : Jan-Louis Kruger


Becoming a skilled word reader

It is well established that phonological decoding is a key foundation of learning to read. However, in order to become skilled readers, children need to move from effortfully sounding words out to recognising them rapidly and automatically. Little is known about how this transition is achieved, and why some children have difficulty. In this project, we address these questions using experimental learning studies, in which we simulate the process of word learning during reading. We expose children to novel words (such as ferb) in texts, and examine in detail how learning progresses and how it is influenced by factors such as the children’s prior knowledge, the characteristics of the words, and the nature of the text. Our findings inform theories of reading acquisition, as well as having implications for instruction and intervention.

Contact: Anne Castles

The role of attention in learning to read

There are myriad of ways that attention may support the reading process and learning to read. Enhancing visuospatial and temporal attention, increasing speed of processing, and improving cognitive control in the face of distraction could increase the efficiency and accuracy of early (e.g., letter identification) through to late (i.e., comprehension) stages of reading. Curiously, attempts to improve attention rarely examine reading subprocesses. The aim of this project is to understand how elements of attention support reading, and determine whether they can be improved.

Contact: Nic Badcock

Learning to read complex words

Over 80% of English words comprise multiple morphemes (e.g., un-pack-ing), but how children learn to read such complex words is not well understood. This project draws on a range of innovative experimental approaches to study the development of morphological reading skill from kindergarten through to high school, providing insights into the full spectrum of abilities required to move from novice to expert reader. Expected outcomes are a richer understanding of the predictors, developmental time-course, and mechanisms involved in the acquisition of morphological processes in reading. This has the potential to inform the effectiveness of explicit morphological teaching and intervention.

Contact: Lisi Beyersmann

Evidence-based early reading instruction in schools

This is an intervention project, where we teach teachers to deliver different evidence-based (but not field tested) reading interventions in Grade 1 and examine their effects across urban and rural schools. The goal of the project is to enhance teachers’ understanding of evidence-based practices and to empower them to build, manage, and sustain site-based learning communities.

Contact: Rauno Parrila

How oral vocabulary assists reading acquisition

It is well established that children with larger oral vocabularies – who know the pronunciations and meanings of lots of words – also tend to be better word readers. However, there is much to be learned about the cognitive mechanisms that support this link. In this project, we explore a range of hypotheses about how oral vocabulary supports word reading. One theory is that, when children know the spoken form of a word, they form an expectation about how it will be spelled even before they see it in print (we have referred to these as “orthographic skeletons”). Another theory is that having a word in oral vocabulary allows children to correct mispronunciations of their initial reading of words (e.g. reading was as “wazz”). We use controlled experimental learning studies to closely examine these mechanisms.

Contact: Anne Castles


Emotional problems in poor readers

There is growing concern amongst educators, clinicians, and scientists that children with reading impairments are at increased risk for emotional problems - but we do not understand why. In this project, we are working towards establishing the first evidence-based theory, intervention, and diagnostic test battery for concomitant reading and emotional problems in children. Thus far, we have discovered that poor reading is more reliably associated with anxiety and poor self-concept than depression, that poor readers with more severe and widespread reading difficulties are more likely to have anxiety than poor readers with specific reading difficulties, that poor readers with concomitant deficits in spoken language and attention are more likely to have poor self-concept that poor readers without these comorbidities, and that targeted reading intervention interleaved with targeted anxiety intervention trigger large and significant improvements in reading. Such findings help boost the identification and treatment of poor readers with emotional problems, reducing their risk of school failure, subsequent unemployment, and poor physical and emotional health.

Contact: Genevieve McArthur

Dyslexia and the neural relationship between verbal and visuospatial information processing

Most people process language in the left hemisphere of the brain and visuospatial information in the right hemisphere - supported by fundamentally different information processing systems. In dyslexia (and broader language difficulties), there’s a tendency for language to be processed in the right hemisphere and less in known about visuospatial processing. It is hypothesised that learning a new skill, like reading, relies on the coordination of these two types of information processing and atypical neural organisation in dyslexia may impede this interaction. This research program uses neural and behavioural techniques to examine cerebral lateralisation and learning in dyslexia.

Contact: Nic Badcock

University students with a history of reading difficulties

This project examines what learning challenges students with exceptionalities, including students with a history of reading difficulties, face in university. It explores how different instructional scaffolds, such as captioning lecture videos or providing students choice with assessments, impact their learning outcomes and the learning and study strategies they employ. We hope to expand to this project over time to include both field and experimental studies.

Contact: Rauno Parrila

Understanding the heterogeneity of dyslexia

It is widely accepted that developmental reading difficulties (dyslexia) are a heterogeneous condition. Studies conducted by researchers at the MQCR have been central to mapping this heterogeneity, with published reports on children with selective deficits identifying letters, coding letter position, reading nonwords or irregular words. We continue to work on describing these deficits because they afford a great opportunity to test theoretical models of reading. Understanding the different proximal causes has also direct implications for assessment and remediation of developmental dyslexia.

Contact: Saskia Kohnen

Assessment and treatment of acquired reading impairments

Previously skilled readers who suffer brain damage as the result of stroke, or as part of a language-led dementia (primary progressive aphasia), often have difficulty reading. We assess the patterns of impairment in reading to provide insights into the mechanisms underpinning skilled reading (ie to help us build theories). Understanding these patterns also improves our ability to accurately target treatment. We also examine which treatments are effective for acquired reading impairments, under which conditions and also use this information to further improve our theories and diagnosis.

Contact: Lyndsey Nickels

Treatments for developmental reading difficulties

In conjunction with the Macquarie University Reading Clinic, we conduct research into the efficacy of treatments for developmental reading difficulties. This research addresses applied questions (e.g., the efficacy of different modes of delivery, how to best treat children with several co-morbid conditions), and also theoretical questions (e.g., what causes reading and spelling difficulties).

Contact: Saskia Kohnen


Using eye movements to understand how writing systems affect reading

How are the mental processes that support reading influenced by the nature of the writing system that one is reading? For example, in alphabetic systems like English and German, words are demarcated by clear boundaries (blank spaces), whereas in writing systems like Chinese and Thai, they are not. This project examines how such differences (and others) among writing systems influence the basic components of reading, such the programming and execution of eye movements, the allocation of visual attention, and the processing and identification of printed words.

Contact: Lili Yu

Improving classroom writing by enhancing reflexive decision-making and practice

This project aims to deliver improvements in writing skills across the critical primary school years. A reflexive approach, utilizing the team’s skills in writing development and pedagogy, reflexive practice and classroom ethnography, will build teachers’ capacities and aim to improve writing achievement in Australian schools. Expected outcomes include new writing pedagogies that move beyond dependence-building strategies. This should provide significant benefit for teachers, enabling them to optimize classroom conditions, and enhance students’ effective decision-making in writing to improve their achievement across other subjects.

Contact: Mary Ryan

Developmental spelling disorders and their treatment

Children with spelling difficulties show very different patterns of impairments. For example, some struggle with producing appropriate spellings for sounds, others cannot remember accurate spellings for conventional words. Researchers at the MQCR have also described spelling deficits where children exchange, swap, add or omit single letters. Theoretical models of spelling guide our research into the specific kinds of deficits found in developmental spelling disorders. A better understanding of the exact deficits allows us to test theoretical models and provide more targeted assessment and interventions.

Contact: Saskia Kohnen

Acquired spelling disorders and their treatment

After stroke and in language-led dementia (primary progressive aphasia) individuals not only have problems speaking but also writing. In this research programme we investigate the spelling patterns of responses as a result these impairments. We use our findings to improve our theories of spelling and writing and to enable more accurate diagnosis of the underlying causes of poor spelling. In addition, we evaluate which types of treatment can improve spelling, and importantly how the treatment tasks achieve these gains.

Contact: Lyndsey Nickels

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