Meet the experts

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This blog series discusses with the speakers of our first workshop their work in the field of learning difficulties. Our experts will share their experiences, results and insights on future directions. We will post the interviews at regular intervals, so make sure to come back to this page to discover more profiles. This initiative will highlight the diversity of expertise necessary to address the challenges linked to learning difficulties and will give you a glimpse in the activities of leading researchers and professionals.

Catherine McBride

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Catherine (Cammie) McBride is a Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and Associate Dean for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University. She was formerly the Choh-Ming Li Professor of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, as well as Past President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR) and Founding President of the Association for Reading and Writing in Asia (ARWA).  The author of more than 250 peer-reviewed journal articles and editor of six books (two of which are forthcoming), McBride wrote both Children’s Literacy Development: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Learning to Read and Write (2016) and Coping with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD: A Global Perspective (2019).  In 2021, her Hong Kong team was awarded approximately 6 million dollars (USD) for research on literacy and mathematics learning, integrating molecular and behavioural genetics, neuroscience, and cognitive-linguistic skills with online digitalized testing tools in children.

How did you became interested in learning difficulties?

I did an internship at University in a classroom that focused on children’s learning difficulties, especially dyslexia. I was amazed by how smart the children were, how clever, articulate, funny, creative… But when it came to reading, several children were extremely slow and frustrated. Their “vibe” changed completely from fun and confident to nervous, hesitant, and discouraged. I was about 20 years old at the time, and the children made a big impression on me. Years later, I decided to specialize in developmental psychology for my Ph.D. because I was particularly interested in children’s learning. I was lucky to get into a program (USC) where Frank Manis was my advisor, and his work at the time was largely focused on dyslexia.

Can you give us an overview of your work?

I am particularly interested in literacy learning and impairment across cultures. I especially appreciate cross-linguistic comparisons, which are very difficult methodologically but which can reveal interesting features of learning to read and to write that are more or less salient in different languages and writing systems. Much of my work has been devoted to creating and testing different cognitive-linguistic tasks that can predict subsequent performance in literacy skills.  Identifying these cognitive constructs can also suggest new intervention methods that might optimize children’s learning.

What are your most recent and exciting results?

As far as understanding learning difficulties go, I am excited about some early assessment work. In the area of assessment, we have carried out a number of studies on what we refer to as “delayed copying.” This is a task that involves “flashing” a word at children for a short time. We were not the first to use a version of this task—Richard Anderson and Shu Hua were among the first. But we “perfected” the scoring and used it for younger children. The word should be one that the children would not ordinarily know how to spell (yet). An example might be “procrastination” for a young child. We tell children that they will not usually know the whole word but that they should just write down what they can remember. In this example, children might remember the first letter or the last letter. But children who have built up more orthographic knowledge might remember and write down further “chunks” as well, such as “pro” or “tion.” We have developed coding schemes for these based in part on earlier work on invented spelling. This task appears to be quite a good predictor of spelling and sometimes reading skill, concurrently and longitudinally. Our work has so far only been with Chinese and Korean students, but some of it was in English (as L2). We think this task might be a bit like rapid automatized naming (RAN) in that it might be a good early clinical indicator of risk for learning difficulties, though it is a complicated task such that the theoretical construct(s) represented require some investigation.

What do you think are the main challenges in this research field?

For years, researchers have tried our best to conduct research studies that avoid comorbidity of difficulties. This is logical because our samples can be considered relatively “pure” examples of dyslexia or dyscalculia, etc. However, the reality is that comorbidity of difficulties is common and sometimes the norm. There are not that many studies that have been able to look at children with comorbid learning difficulties and understand how to help them. This is a big challenge for several reasons, including overstretching children in testing, ensuring large enough samples to understand students with comorbidity of learning difficulties, and even in identifying an appropriate range of difficulties. In addition, and related to this idea of range of difficulties, it seems important to consider psychosocial aspects of adjustment as well as cognitively based learning difficulties.

What are the most pressing research priorities?

Given the state of the world, it seems important to create and test online tasks that can identify those at-risk for dyslexia across languages and scripts. I also think it makes sense to test for learning difficulties in English as a foreign or second language in much of the world given the prominence of English as L2 worldwide and its importance for school and jobs. In addition, understanding more about what socio-economic status entails and how to boost learning in those from disadvantaged learning backgrounds is crucial. I am interested in online training as one possible way to help children. At the same time, lack of access to digital devices and wifi in much of the world makes this a complicated issue. | @cammiemcbride9

Cammie McBride

Previous interviews

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Michelle Luciano

Michelle Luciano

I am a Reader in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh, having trained in Behavioural Genetics at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia (1999-2002). My research focuses on the genetic and environmental aetiology underlying human...

Jo Van Herwegen

Jo Van Herwegen

Dr Jo Van Herwegen is an associate professor at UCL Institute of Education and director of the Child Development and Learning Difficulties lab. Her research focuses on improving educational outcomes, with a special focus on maths, using evidence from developmental...

Saloni Krishnan

Saloni Krishnan

I am a Reader in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London. I investigate how language is organised in the developing brain. My work has established brain differences in several developmental communication disorders, such as developmental...