First of all, congratulations on being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Can you summarise the research that this recognises?
I was thrilled to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS). For the last 30 years, my work has focused on children’s reading and language acquisition, across languages. I think I’ve got close to understanding what goes wrong in the brain when some children are unable to read and learn language as others do.
My elections as a Fellow of the British Academy and now as an FRS are in recognition of this, I believe. I’m breaking through the existing theories. It was seen as left-field in past years, but now others are beginning to see that my theory could be plausible after all.
As we’re on the subject, and jumping straight in at the deep end, can you tell us a little about your research?
I use insights from simple sensory measurements taken in my brain imaging lab to understand language acquisition – primarily measuring acoustic rhythm and motor rhythm. There’s a lot of rhythm and movement involved in talking, and therefore in learning how to talk; you can see it with television newsreaders who move their heads and arms as they talk. I work on phonology (the system of speech sounds) and on how a baby learns language. Babies are constantly listening and trying to work out where and what the key sounds are, the key words, and then trying to make those sounds themselves.
‘Babble’ is really important, and it depends on the language that a baby hears. For instance, Cantonese babble is different from Arabic babble or French babble. Rhythm is fundamental to language processing.
I’ve found that there’s an auditory component of rhythm patterns that people with dyslexia don’t discriminate very well. The existence of dyslexia is very contentious, but actually dyslexia is found in every language. It doesn’t depend on IQ, though it really only tends to be noticed if a child has a high IQ.
It’s analogous to the problem that deaf children face. But with a cochlear implant, we can affect how the brain hears sound. We have that technology: we can help deaf children to hear. In principle, a similar device could be used with children with dyslexia, to help them process the rhythms that they need to hear.
But here we get into moral questions. Should you give an implant to a child? This debate exists also for deaf children. And for people with dyslexia, the argument is even less clear. The way the dyslexic brain works is very important. MI6 actively tries to recruit people with dyslexia because the way they process things is less step-by-step, less predictable.
What first piqued your interest in the subject?
When I was a child, I thought I’d grow up to be a primary school teacher. Later, I thought I might become an educational psychologist, for which you needed a teacher training degree and two years’ teaching experience. So when I finished my undergraduate degree, I did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. In watching children trying to learn to read, sounding out one letter after another and then forgetting what sound was at the start of a word by the time they got to the end, I could see that the traditional approaches weren’t really working. Professor Peter Bryant FRS in Oxford had started working with children’s reading development, but no one else was interested. So I thought I would do a doctorate with Peter.
It was after my DPhil that I decided to go into academia rather than become an educational psychologist. I found the research so valuable and interesting. I applied for the first Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) that came up and it happened to be at Merton. It gave me a chance to build on that interest.
Thinking back to your time as a JRF at Merton, what were your first impressions?
The historian John Roberts was Warden. I don’t think the College had any psychology researchers at that stage. I turned up for my interview in my smartest clothes – a white blouse and black skirt – and someone said afterwards: ‘How clever of you to wear sub fusc to your interview!’ Anyway, I was offered the role. I think I was one of the first female Junior Research Fellows at the College.
I found Merton very welcoming, in all respects. When I walked through the Lodge for the first time, the Head Porter was so friendly – it was like a breath of fresh air. It was a small fellowship – it was very intellectually inclusive, and it was assumed that I had a right to be there, just as much as everybody else.
How did your time at Merton shape your research? And the year that you spent in the United States as a Harkness Fellow?
Having a JRF is such an amazing privilege, because it gives you the time to do the research you want. I was given a salary for three years to do the research I wanted to do. It set me up for my career.
I was offered a Harkness Fellowship at the same time as I was offered the JRF. But Merton cleverly suggested that I spend a year at Merton first, then do the year in the USA, and then come back to Merton. The year I spent in the States, at the University of Illinois, was very formative. I was working with a female principal investigator, Ann Brown. She was my first role model of a successful female academic. She sent me to other labs led by women, which was unusual because at the time it was mostly men in charge of the labs.
It was while I was in the States working with Ann that I learned about her work on children’s reasoning by analogy; it’s a subject I’m still working on.
After Merton, you had a lectureship at Cambridge and then a professorship in London before moving to your current position back at Cambridge. How has your research developed over the years?
It was very important that I left Cambridge for a while and go to London. As a lecturer at Cambridge I felt rather swamped with teaching and administration and had little time for my own research. Being a woman, I was on lots of committees. I found that I had less and less ‘brain time’.
My husband was working in London, so it made sense for me to move there too. I got a research chair at the Institute of Child Health, University College London (UCL), which meant I had time to think again. The Institute of Child Health is attached to Great Ormond Street Hospital, and it was suggested that I look at atypical children as well as typical children. So that’s where I started research with children who are dyslexic and/or deaf.
It was a real change in my research direction. I was surrounded by neuroscience because of the hospital, so I had access to all the brain imaging equipment needed.
Let’s turn to the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. When – and why – did you set that up?
I’d been at UCL in London for five years. The Education Faculty at Cambridge University was looking to become more empirically focused, and wanted an empirical research leader. They wrote to a number of people who might be interested, myself included. I had been trying to get funding for neuroscience – it was difficult – and so I wrote back, explaining my plan to set up a dedicated research centre to apply neuroscience to education, outlining the approaches it would take, and was offered the job.
The Centre for Neuroscience in Education was opened in 2005, and I have been its director since then.
If there’s one thing that you would like people to remember about your research from reading this interview, what would it be?
My message to young scientists is, if you have an idea, and you believe in your data, you’ve got to stick to it. I kept getting data sets (in my work on rhythm) that didn’t fit in with the theories of the time, but I believed in my data and so I stuck to my theory, which is now becoming more accepted.
Is there one thing in your career of which you are most proud?
Yes: having this idea about the importance of the novel acoustic parameter of ‘rise time’ for language acquisition by children. At UCL, I went to a PhD presentation by one of the graduate students, which sparked off my idea. She said that if you speak deliberately to a rhythm – for instance, repeat the words ‘Street Sweet’ over and over again – you will find you’re subconsciously timing when you produce the speech energy related to the vowel. This energy is the ‘rise time’ of the syllable.
I thought that was interesting; my rhyme analogy work at Merton had been about dividing syllables at the vowel, as in str-eet. So maybe there was some acoustic parameter in processing speech rhythm that a child with dyslexia doesn’t discriminate well, linked to syllable segmentation. And my research led on from there.
Do you have a network of children for your research, or a child of your own to practise on?
Yes, and that’s one reason that I haven’t moved around much career-wise. I have had to build up networks of participating schools and that takes time and trust, as you’re taking children out of lessons. That has become more difficult over the years: rather than it being an opt-out arrangement, now every parent has to give their consent and sign a form.
I currently have several large ongoing studies: about 120 babies for the infant project on language acquisition; and around the same number of children for the dyslexia project (about half of whom are dyslexic); and a group of children with developmental language disorder, which makes talking and listening difficult.
And yes, I do have a child myself, a daughter. We now realise she is clearly dyslexic, but she was never diagnosed formally because she’s high-functioning. She got a First at university. With dyslexia, you’ve got to think what’s best for the child. My daughter has got where she is anyway, despite the lack of early diagnosis. The message is: if you have dyslexia, you can still do very well.
Are your research findings aimed at academics, educational psychologists, or parents?
All three. I have always tried to write books that are accessible to a wide audience. I try and talk in an accessible way to educational audiences, and when I speak at schools or at conferences. Parents will often get in touch with me as a result of what I’ve written.
What is your favourite memory of your time at Merton?
Merton was such a beautiful environment in which to do my research.
I remember that, as a Fellow, I had a key to Christ Church Meadow. Often after dinner, when the public weren’t around, I would take out my key and go for a walk in the Meadow. It felt very special.
Finally, having been at both Oxford and Cambridge, who do you support in the Boat Race?
Cambridge! Especially when I have a student in the crew, or have some connection with one of them.