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Development and validation of an observational measure of children’s conversational skills: application to children who have Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder or High-functioning autism spectrum disorder

Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health

About the Project

Social communication impairments in school-aged children are a fundamental feature of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and are prominent in a type of language disorder called Social (Pragmatic) Communication Disorder (SPCD). A persistent characteristic of both these groups of children is an evident difficulty with pragmatics (rules governing the social use of language) such that there are difficulties with verbal interactions with peers and adults. As part of our programme of research on social communication intervention we wish to refine and validate an observational assessment of conversational ability for the children described above. We want this to function as a key measure in the evaluation of interventions and the development of evidence that could make an impact on clinical and educational services.

The development of better pragmatic assessment instruments has been identified as a priority in recent CATALISE consensus research in Developmental Language Disorders (Bishop et al. 2016). Adams and colleagues have developed an observational measure, the Targeted Observation of Pragmatics in Children’s Conversation (TOPICC), in order to capture outcomes after an intensive social communication intervention. Further modification of the analysis (TOPICC-2) in a recent feasibility study detected significant improvement made in pragmatic skills associated with intervention and potential for TOPICC-2 to serve as a confirmatory outcome in conjunction with other measures. TOPICC-2 now needs to be subjected to extensive validity analyses and further reliability checks as well as extending normative data sets.

The PhD project will be conducted in four phases: 1) a review of the literature, 2) a cross-sectional study of the developmental trajectory of pragmatic skills (as listed in TOPICC-2) in typically developing children aged between 4 and 11 years; 3) development of exemplars of coding levels for pragmatic skills listed in TOPICC-2; 4) content validity, concurrent validity, inter-rater reliability evaluation of TOPICC-2.

Entry Requirements:
Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a related area / subject. Candidates with experience in child language development research or paediatric speech and language therapy research are encouraged to apply. An excellent standard of English language will be required for this project given the nature of the language analysis required. The project is suitable if you require excellent research training, in a stimulating and active environment, in order to become an independent, international researcher. It will also be suitable to you if you are a health professional whose career aspirations involve a combination of research with clinical activities.

Training/techniques to be provided:
As PhD student you will receive training in (I) the research process; (II) quantitative analysis skills inducing reliability and validity analyses; (III) training development; (IV) qualitative analysis skills.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

Applications are invited from self-funded students. This project has a Band 2 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

As an equal opportunities institution we welcome applicants from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status. All appointments are made on merit.


Adams, C., Lockton, E., Freed, J., Gaile, J., Earl, G., McBean, K., & Law, J. (2012). The Social Communication Intervention Project: a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of speech and language therapy for school‐age children who have pragmatic and social communication problems with or without autism spectrum disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 47(3), 233-244.
Bishop, D. V., & Adams, C. (1989). Conversational characteristics of children with semantic‐pragmatic disorder. II: What features lead to a judgement of inappropriacy?. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 24(3), 241-263.
Bishop, D.V., Chan, J., Adams, C., Hartley, J., and Weir, F. (2000). Conversational responsiveness in specific language impairment: Evidence of disproportionate pragmatic difficulties in a subset of children. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 177-199.
Bishop, D. V., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T., & Catalise Consortium. (2016). CATALISE: A multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study. Identifying language impairments in children. PLOS one, 11(7), e0158753.
Sturrock, A., Marsden, A., Adams, C., & Freed, J., (2019) Observational and Reported Measures of Language and Pragmatics in Young People with Autism: A Comparison of Respondent Data and Gender Profiles. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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