I am a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. I’m interested in the mechanisms that underlie reading and reading acquisition, and have a strong interest in translating this research to improve how children are taught to read. My research has won prizes from the BPS Cognitive Section and the Experimental Psychology Society, and I recently won the ESRC ‘Celebrating Impact’ Prize for Outstanding International Impact. I’m proud to serve as President of the Experimental Psychology Society and as Editor of Journal of Memory and Language.
Can you give us an overview of your work?
I study the neurocognitive mechanisms that underpin skilled reading and learning to read. The main thrust of my work is to characterize the statistical regularities conveyed through written language(s), and to articulate how those regularities become represented as long-term knowledge through instruction, language experience, and neurobiological constraints on human learning. I’m very interested in translating my research to improve global literacy and am keen to connect with policy and practice stakeholders in this space. You can read about the impact of my research on www.rastlelab.com/impact.
What are your most recent and exciting results?
My group recently published an article in Psychological Science in which we reveal the dramatic impact of explicit instruction on learning to read words printed in a new writing. There’s been quite a lot of interest in research and in classroom practice on forms of learning that do not involve instruction. In primary education, many practitioners promote ‘discovery learning’ in which children’s knowledge is built through their own experience (rather than teacher-led instruction). Likewise, psychological research has shown that humans pick up on different types of statistical regularities simply through experience in the environments that they inhabit.
We studied the extent to which different learners were able to pick up on an underlying linguistic structure while learning to read new words printed in an unfamiliar alphabet. We were interested in whether participants would pick up on the way that symbols in the new alphabet map to sounds and meanings, in such a way that they could generalise understanding of these relationships to untrained words. One group was left to discover the relationships between spellings, sounds and meanings simply through their experience with the new language over a period of two weeks (18 hours of training). The other group had nearly the same experience with the new language, but the initial day of training was replaced by a short period of instruction in which we explained these relationships explicitly. We tested participants not only on their knowledge of the trained words, but also on whether they could generalise knowledge of the underlying patterns to unfamiliar words (much as we’re able to read aloud pseudowords like SLINT and VIB using our knowledge of the English alphabet). Our results revealed that discovery learning was ineffective and inefficient for almost all learners. While all participants learned the trained items to a high standard, very few of the discovery learners captured the underlying structure, and hence they were unable to generalise their experience to untrained words. In contract, results showed that just a short session of explicit instruction totally transformed learning outcomes, bringing all learners in that group to a high level of performance.
I’m excited about these findings because they have so much relevance to classroom practice, particularly in the area of reading acquisition, in which debate has raged for decades over the value of explicit phonics instruction. The results are also interesting from a fundamental research angle, as we know remarkably little about how instruction works, how it combines with experience to promote learning, and how this synergy between instruction and experience varies across individuals. I’m looking forward to digging into these themes further.
What do you think are the main challenges in this research field?
Language, literacy and learning are incredibly complex domains in which there are many ‘moving parts’, and in which cause is often difficult to discern. Psychology offers the strong designs and methods that are needed to move forward, but we’re in a resource constrained environment and will need to work together to develop the powerful studies that give insight into individual variation across developmental time. It is also vital that we work closely with external partners to build and realise tangible impacts from our research that benefit individuals, society, and the economy.