Reading, Writing, and Research
A Decade in the Life of a President, 2012-2022
by Professor Maggie Snowling
When I was elected President in 2012, the Governing Body agreed that I might take some time to pursue my research agenda. While finding that time was not always easy, a long vacation with a trip to Australia each year afforded the time and distance to read, think and analyse data, as well as to visit alumni. In this exhibition I have chosen to focus on the last decade of my research and the journey it has taken.
I am fundamentally a developmental psychologist but my career has taken some twists and turns. An early interest in cognition and in atypical development was fuelled by family experience with dyslexia and, from an early stage, I wanted to understand the causes of this childhood learning disorder. My first academic job was in Speech Sciences and it was there that I became interested more specifically in speech and language processing and developed an affinity for therapies that ameliorate language difficulties. Inevitably, this led me to clinical practice and I completed a professional training in clinical psychology in 1988. The die was cast, and for the remainder of my career I have been working at the interface between research and practice.
Straddling two worlds can be challenging! I am grateful that during my journey I have been able to work with many stellar colleagues and early career researchers, not least my partner, collaborator and co-author, Charles Hulme, Kate Nation, Tutorial Fellow in Psychology, and Dorothy Bishop, Honorary Fellow. A detour into the history of dyslexia, encouraged by William Whyte, Tutorial Fellow in History, highlights the influence of conversations around our Common Table, and the able support of Denise Cripps has ensured that I was aware of the climate in our schools and did not fall behind current educational policy whilst dealing with the complexities of Oxford.
The exhibition begins with a collection of historical books that contain material germane to the foundations of literacy and learning to read – a text on pronunciation and language, one on Arabic linguistics, and one with an interesting take on orthography. Closer to my own research, the text Reading, Writing and Speech Problems in Children, published in 1937, is perhaps the first comprehensive survey of language-related disorders of childhood, notably ‘strephosymbolia’, the term Samuel T. Orton coined for what we now describe as dyslexia.
The exhibition continues through papers and artefacts illustrating our recent research, guided by contemporary theories of reading and language, and scientific evidence of the nature and causes of dyslexia. A timeline illustrates the themes and key points beginning in 2012 with the paper Learning to read: What we know and what we need to understand better in which we argued that there are three skills underpinning learning to read in an alphabetic system: letter–sound knowledge, phoneme awareness, and rapid naming skills, and culminating in 2021 with Reading Disorders Revisited: The Critical Importance of Oral Language. Thus, the decade had witnessed a shift from focusing on the skills that are directly involved in learning to decode, to the oral language skills that are the foundation not only of literacy development but also of number skills.
Against this backdrop, language difficulties place children at high-risk of reading difficulties. Unsurprisingly therefore, children at family-risk of dyslexia experience early language problems and we have argued these compromise the development of reading and reading-related skills. Indeed, our study following the development of literacy in children at family risk of dyslexia reveals that those who develop dyslexia already show signs of poor phonological processing skills in the preschool years. Such children are also very likely to develop problems with mathematics. The common co-occurrence of reading and maths problems is an example of ‘comorbidity’. Comorbidity is common in neurodevelopmental disorders and the subject of intensive research. Another disorder commonly observed with dyslexia – and possibly a forerunner of it – is the much less well-known developmental language disorder or ‘DLD’. In the middle of the decade we worked with a multi-disciplinary team led by Dorothy Bishop in a consensus study refining the definition of DLD and agreeing on its key characteristics. We can be proud that this work has had a significant impact on practice and publication in the field and, via a YouTube channel, RADLD, has increased awareness of this debilitating language-learning problem. Embracing the issue of comorbidity, and that of neurodiversity, has implications for our understanding of dyslexia.
Theoretical advances in our understanding of the nature and causes of dyslexia have important implications for children and adults with poor literacy too. Poor language and literacy are at the root of poor educational achievement and employment prospects. Indeed interventions for language and literacy have the potential to reduce educational inequalities and improve societal outcomes.
In 2018, we published the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), a preschool intervention to improve listening skills, vocabulary and narrative. The publication and subsequent scale-up of this intervention was the product of some 20 years’ work including three randomised controlled trials. The final trial in 2021 evaluated effectiveness at scale in 100 schools. For younger children, we have shown that, with appropriate support, intervention can be effectively delivered by parents; we have also reported promising effects of reading intervention in secondary school.
Beyond the UK our research has also had impact. My Very Short Introduction to Dyslexia is available in Korean and shortly will be translated into Japanese, where it will be a companion to our earlier works. We have adapted reading and language intervention for a remote community on Robinson Crusoe Island in Chile and for Portuguese language-minority children in Luxembourg and have learned a great deal about implementation in diverse educational settings. Led by my colleague Sonali Nag, Fellow of Brasenose College and the Department of Education, our work is reaching a range of stakeholders in low- and middle-income countries and holds promise for addressing at least four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Goal 3 Good Health and Well-being; Goal 4 Quality Education; Goal 5 Gender Equality; and Goal 10 Reduced Inequality.