Projects

Candidates are highly recommended to write a proposal that fits into one of the following research lines and are recommended to contact the relevant supervisors when developing proposals. Other projects may be developed but the potential supervisors at the partner universities MUST be contacted prior to application.

Pronoun processing in (primary progressive) aphasia

Aphasia is an acquired communication disorder that adversely impacts language skills, rendering daily communication impossible. This project seeks to unveil how people with aphasia struggle to process pronouns (e.g. she/him) by examining people with aphasia’s moment-by-moment sentence-comprehension and its associated brain activity in both post-stroke aphasia and primary progressive aphasia (PPA, a form of aphasia resulting from brain degeneration). This will advance the understanding of pronoun processing in aphasia, evaluate theories of language dissolution in aphasia, and thereby enable clinicians to develop more effective protocols for its treatment. Potential topics include (but not limited to) investigating the deterioration of pronoun comprehension and production in sentences in people with post-stroke aphasia and primary progressive aphasia using eye-tracking and/or electrophysiological measures (i.e. ERPs).

Supervisors: Dr. Seçkin Arslan (Macquarie University, seckin1984@gmail.com)
Prof. Lyndsey Nickels (Macquarie University)
Prof. Roelien Bastiaanse (University of Groningen)

Processing strategies in spoken and written language in adolescents with developmental language disorders

Children diagnosed with developmental language disorders (DLDs) may have impairments that persist into their teenage years and adult life. These impairments have an impact in their quality of life, including in forming social relationships and in employability. The current project characterizes the language abilities of adolescents with a history of developmental language disorders using behavioral methods. Furthermore, Event Related Potentials (ERPs) and resting state electroencephalography connectivity patterns will be employed to study differences in processing strategies between low language performers with DLD, high language performers with DLD, and age and language-matched controls.

Students may choose to study oral or written language processing. Degree of impairment in oral or written language abilities will be measured with standardized tasks. Studies will focus on the relation between neurophysiological correlates of phonological processing and morphosyntactic processing and oral or written language impairments in adolescence. This project aims to describe cognitive and neurophysiological mechanisms or strategies that can account for better language performance in adolescents with DLDs. Knowledge of such mechanisms can be crucial to develop therapeutic interventions.

Supervisory teamleader:
Dr. Vânia de Aguiar (University of Groningen, vania.de.aguiar@rug.nl)
Proposed supervisory team:
Prof. Genevieve McCarthur (Macquarie University)
Dr. Roel Jonkers and Prof. Roelien Bastiaanse (University of Groningen)

USING EYE-TRACKING TO UNDERSTAND AND ASSESS READING COMPREHENSION

This 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.

Supervisory team leads:
Prof. Genevieve McArthur (Macquarie University, genevieve.mcarthur@mq.edu.au)
Prof. Erik Reichle (Macquarie University; erik.reichle@mq.edu.au) Supervisory team:
Dr. Lili Yu (Macquarie University)
Dr. Titus von der Malsburg (University of Potsdam)

INDIVIDUALLY TAILORED TREATMENTS IN DEVELOPMENTAL DYSLEXIA

Developmental dyslexia is a heterogeneous disorder (e.g., Jones, Castles & Kohnen, 2010). Some children who struggle to learn to read have difficulties learning the letter identities (e.g., Brundon et al., 2006), other children struggle to learn how to map graphemes onto phonemes (e.g., Temple & Marshall, 1983), or learn the long term memory representations of written words (e.g., Friedmann & Lukov, 2008; Kohnen et al., 2018), or with processing letter position accurately (e.g., Friedmann & Rahamim, 2007; Kohnen et al., 2012). According to cognitive neuropsychological approaches to treatment, a remediation protocol should address the actual deficits that are found in the cognitive architecture of a child with poor reading (e.g., letter identities, grapheme-phoneme correspondences, long term memory lexical representations). However, there are very few studies that actually investigated whether using this tailored approach are more successful than more generic treatments or treatments which are not individually tailored (e.g., Gustafson et al., 2007; Rowse & Wilshire, 2007). 
 In this project, the following main question will be answered: Do individually tailored treatments lead to better reading outcomes in developmental dyslexia than more generic treatments? 
 
Supervisors:
Dr. Saskia Kohnen (Macquarie University; saskia.kohnen@mq.edu.au)
Dr. Nicole Stadie (Potsdam University)

PRINCIPLED RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN DYSLEXIA AND WORD FINDING DIFFICULTIES

Approximately two children in a class of 30 have both dyslexia and developmental language disorder. Both of these neurodevelopmental disorders have potentially severe negative impacts on academic outcomes, mental health and job opportunities. To effectively treat these conditions and improve long-term outcomes, it is important to understand if the disorders can be addressed by the same treatment or not. Cognitive models make some clear predictions about the processing components that might cause these co-morbidities. Previous research has identified several associations between the oral and written domains, yet, links to theoretical models and practical outcomes (treatment) are missing.
This project will fill these gaps by investigating children who have both difficulties in word-finding and reading. Some children with developmental language disorder may struggle learning the meanings and/or phonology of words. Sometimes, a particular word may be sufficiently well specified to allow for comprehension but not reliable production of the word. This difficulty may impact on children’s reading. For example, if they can’t produce spoken words reliably (due to word-finding difficulties), they may struggle to read these same words accurately and quickly.
Referring to cognitive models of processing will allow this research to advance the search for the proximal causal reasons for these co- morbidities.

Supervisory team leader:
Dr. Saskia Kohnen (Macquarie University, saskia.kohnen@mq.edu.au)
Supervisory team:
Prof. Lyndsey Nickels (Macquarie Unversity)
Dr. Christina McKean (Newcastle University)
Prof. Wendy Best (University College London (external institution))

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN READING AND LANGUAGE IMPAIRMENTS AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH

There is growing concern amongst educators, clinicians, and scientists that children with reading and/or language 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 theories, interventions, and test batteries for emotional problems in children with reading and/or language problems. 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.

Supervisory team leader:
Prof. Genevieve McArthur (Macquarie University, genevieve.mcarthur@mq.edu.au)
Supervisory team:
Deanna Francis (Macquarie University)
[Supervisor from partner institution to be determined]

INVESTIGATION OF SPEECH PERCEPTION IN CHILDREN WITH SPEECH SOUND DISORDER

Speech sound disorder is one of the most prevalent developmental disorders in childhood and is characterised by unintelligible speech production. It has longer-term adverse consequences including difficulty with reading acquisition.  Theories and clinical practice patterns have been driven largely by the production difficulties that occur, and speech-language pathologists almost exclusively assess and treat speech production difficulties.

Although speech perception in speech sound disorders has been investigated over the past two decades, inadequate and inconsistent methodologies have limited our understanding of the role it has in speech sound disorder:  some studies claim that children with speech sound disorder have no speech perception difficulties.

This potential PhD Project would be an empirical-experimental investigation of speech perception in children with speech sound disorder, with implications for the perception-production link in phonological acquisition, and enhancement of our theoretical knowledge, with a view to informing and improving clinical practice.

Supervisory Team:
Dr. Jae-Hyun Kim (Macquarie University, jae-hyun.kim@mq.edu.au)
Dr. Titia Benders (Macquarie University, titia.benders@mq.edu.au)
[Supervisor from partner institution to be determined]

BUILDING ARTICULATORY ROUTINES IN MORE THAN ONE LANGUAGE

This project looks at the acquisition of laterals in German-Arabic, AusEng-Arabic and UKEng-Arabic bilingual children using a combination of impressionistic, articulatory (using Ultrasound) and acoustic techniques. Laterals involve complex lingual articulations and are typically acquired late and are amongst the sounds that require clinical intervention. Laterals vary in the involvement of the tongue dorsum alongside the tongue tip as well as in the co-ordination with these two gestures, creating a continuum of gestural timing which manifests itself in what is impressionistically referred to as ‘clear’ (palatalised) or ‘dark’ (velarized/pharyngealised) /l/s. The realisation is of course gradient rather than binary and is governed both by linguistic (prosodic and morphological) conditioning as well as dialectal and cross-linguistic systematic variation.
Given that the gestural organisation of a syllable with a lateral requires gestural co-ordination with surrounding sounds, children must learn these co-articulatory patterns from an early age, along with their linguistic conditioning. Little is known about how these co-articulatory routines develop if a child is learning two languages with different phonetic realisations of laterals as well as different morpho-phonological rules for the employment of tongue tip and tongue body gestures and their timing. Arabic and German typically have clear laterals in all word positions and contexts, Newcastle English generally has clear laterals in onset positions and dark laterals in codas (but with morphological conditioning as well), while Australian English has dark laterals throughout.
This project will investigate how bilingual or multilingual children come to acquire language-specific gestural timing and articulatory routines for laterals in each of their languages, and how their acquisition patterns may compare with monolingual children acquiring these languages. The findings will improve our understanding of the acquisition of gestural co-ordination across languages and multilingual contexts and will feed into our understanding of atypical acquisition of laterals.

Supervisory team:
Dr. Ghada Khattab (Newcastle University, ghada.khattab@ncl.ac.uk)
Dr. Aude Noiray (University of Potsdam, anoiray@uni-potsdam.de)
Prof. Felicity Cox (Macquarie University, felicity.cox@mq.edu.au) Dr. Michael Proctor (Macquarie University, michael.proctor@mq.edu.au)

UNDERSTANDING SPEECH IN BACKGROUND NOISE

Understanding speech in background noise is critical to communication in many everyday listening environments. Many individuals who experience difficulties listening in noise have otherwise normal hearing, leaving the cause of their listening problems undiagnosed. Using neurophysiological measures of brain function—electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG)—this project will explore listeners’ abilities to hear out speech in background noise, making use of binaural (two-eared) cues. Specifically, it will assess the extent to which listeners can separate ‘foreground’ sounds from ‘background’ sounds, and determine whether this correlates with their ability to understand speech in noise. A problem separating foreground from background sounds per se suggests potential contributions to speech-in-noise problems by early brainstem processing, which are reflected in the neural signatures for spatial listening in auditory cortex.

Supervisory team:
Prof. David McAlpine (Macquarie University, david.mcalpine@mq.edu.au)
Dr. Lindsey van Yper (Macquarie University)
Prof. Deniz Baskent (University of Groningen)