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Identifying the comprehension abilities of non-speaking individuals

School of Social Sciences

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

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Dr A Melinger , Prof P Waller , Dr Y Kamide No more applications being accepted Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

This novel interdisciplinary project, which combines expertise from Psycholinguistics and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), will use established eyetracking techniques to assess the language comprehension abilities of individuals with severe speech and physical impairments (SSPI). Approximately 5% of the (UK) population have significant communication difficulties which greatly limit their ability to direct their own lives (NHS England/Specialised Commissioning, 2016). Recent white papers at Scottish and UK level have identified the need for improving access to education for children with SPPI. However, effective education depends on the one’s ability to assess a student’s understanding, and assessment methods for non-speaking individuals remain elusive (Geytenbeek, Harlaar, et al, 2010). Gaining insights into how listeners build up an understanding of speech over time is critical to optimizing technological and educational supports.
Theories of language production and comprehension assume the input and output systems are interconnected; you cannot have one without the other. Individuals who use AAC can typically produce between 8-12 words per minute, compared to over 150 words per minute for typical adults; individuals who use AAC therefore have comparatively limited experience of independently producing full sentences and narratives. We cannot assume speaking and non-speaking individuals comprehend in the same way. Rather, research is needed to explore the distinct processes used by non-speaking individuals so that appropriate remediation can be applied when difficulties arise.

The Visual Worlds Paradigm (Tanenhaus, et al. 1995) is an established method for assessing language comprehension processes in different populations. In these experiments, listeners are presented with a pictorial display and an accompanying spoken sentence. While the individual listens to the sentence, their eye-movements around the visual scene are tracked. Previous studies have shown that the eyes are drawn to elements on the screen that are explicitly mentioned or are predicted to be mentioned. Hence, this paradigm provides valuable insights into the time course of comprehension processes.

By applying established experimental measures of language comprehension to a new population, this ambitious project aims to have a transformative impact on our understanding and effective support of non-speaking individuals. The Visual Worlds Paradigm will be used to reveal nonspeaking individual’s moment-by-moment construction of communicative understanding as derived from the speed and accuracy of their eye movements in response to visual or linguistic cues. The resulting insights into the language comprehension abilities of individual’s with SSPI will empower educators and AAC device developers to tailor their teaching and technology to the abilities of these individuals, helping them to reach their full potential.

For informal enquiries about the project, contact Dr Alissa Melinger ([Email Address Removed])
For general enquiries about the University of Dundee, contact [Email Address Removed]

Applicants must have obtained, or expect to obtain, a first or 2.1 UK honours degree, or equivalent for degrees obtained outside the UK in a relevant discipline.

English language requirement: IELTS (Academic) score must be at least 6.5 (with not less than 5.5 in each of the four components). Other, equivalent qualifications will be accepted. Full details of the University’s English language requirements are available online:


Step 1: Email Dr Alissa Melinger ([Email Address Removed]) to (1) send a copy of your CV and (2) discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date).

Step 2: After discussion with Dr Melinger, formal applications can be made via UCAS Postgraduate. When applying, please follow the instructions below:

Apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Psychology: Select the start date and study mode (full-time/part-time) agreed with the lead supervisor.

In the ‘provider questions’ section of the application form:
- Write the project title and ‘’ in the ‘if your application is in response to an advertisement’ box;
- Write the lead supervisor’s name and give brief details of your previous contact with them in the ‘previous contact with the University of Dundee’ box.

In the ‘personal statement’ section of the application form, outline your suitability for the project selected.

Funding Notes

There is no funding attached to this project. The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses, via external sponsorship or self-funding.


Geytenbeek, J., Harlaar, L., Stam, M., Ket, H., Becher, J. G., Oostrom, K., & Vermeulen, R. J. (2010). Utility of language comprehension tests for unintelligible or non-speaking children with cerebral palsy: a systematic review. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 52(12), e267-e277.

Tanenhaus, M. K., Spivey-Knowlton, M. J., Eberhard, K. M., & Sedivy, J. C. (1995). Integration of visual and linguistic information in spoken language comprehension. Science, 268(5217), 1632-1634.
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