PhD Study : Keep it simple? Eye-tracking the learning of numbers in early childhood

   Faculty of Life and Health Sciences

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  Dr Abbie Cahoon  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Achievement gaps in numeracy start early, with children with low mathematical skills displaying a lower growth rate in mathematical achievement over time (Cahoon et al., 2021; Duncan et al., 2007). More research is necessary to understand how children develop mathematical knowledge and mathematical language in early years (3-5-year-olds) and how this may lead to the individual differences in mathematical development observed at school start.

Research has shown that shared storybook reading offers benefits for children’s cognition, communication skills, and mathematical talk (Hargrave & Sénéchal, 2000; Hendrix et al., 2019). However, eye-tracking studies show that children may perform poorly in literacy development or have difficulties in mathematical learning when there are extraneous illustrations detailed in storybooks, attentional competition, or attention difficulties (Eng et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2020). Research has shown how important it is to enact constructive methods of communicative interactions during shared storybook reading (Bautista et al., 2018; Cárdenas et al., 2020). Cognitive Load Theory suggests that effective instruction facilitates learning by directing cognitive resources toward activities that are relevant to learning rather than toward unnecessary text or illustrations (Chandler & Swellwe, 1991). However, there is limited research on whether text, illustrations, and communicative interactions are engaging or distracting during storybook reading with number books for 3-5-year-olds and what conditions enhance mathematical learning outcomes.

This project will be experimental in design. The objectives are:

1.To use innovative research methods (i.e., eye-tracking technology) to investigate children’s eye-tracking gaze under different conditions (i.e., extraneous versus streamlined illustrations; communicative versus no communicative interactions) during storybook reading with number books.

2.To investigate whether children’s level of mathematical knowledge influences children’s engagement or disengagement of storybook reading with number books.

3.To explore individual differences of early mathematical performers to understand what could influence gaze shifts away from text, illustrations, or communicative interactions.

Essential Criteria - Degree in Psychology

Please note: Applications from those holding or expecting to hold a 2:1 Honours Degree in Psychology are strongly encouraged to apply.  Applications for more than one PhD studentship are welcome, however if you apply for more than one PhD project within Psychology, your first application on the system will be deemed your first-choice preference and further applications will be ordered based on the sequential time of submission. If you are successfully shortlisted, you will be interviewed only on your first-choice application and ranked accordingly. Those ranked highest will be offered a PhD studentship. In the situation where you are ranked highly and your first-choice project is already allocated to someone who was ranked higher than you, you may be offered your 2nd or 3rd choice project depending on the availability of this project.

Psychology (31)


Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005). The bioecological theory of human development. In U. Bronfenbrenner (Ed.), Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development (pp. 3 – 15). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (Original work published in 2001)
Cahoon, A., Gilmore, C., & Simms, V. (2021). Developmental pathways of early numerical skills during the preschool to school transition. Learning and Instruction, 75, 101484.
Cárdenas, K., Moreno-Núñez, A., & Miranda-Zapata, E. (2020). Shared book-reading in early childhood education: Teachers’ mediation in children’s communicative development. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 2030.
Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1991). Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction. Cognition and instruction, 8(4), 293-332.
Davis‐Kean, P. E., Domina, T., Kuhfeld, M., Ellis, A., & Gershoff, E. T. (2021). It matters how you start: Early numeracy mastery predicts high school math course‐taking and college attendance. Infant and Child Development, e2281.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., ... & Japel, C. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental psychology, 43(6), 1428.
Eng, C. M., Godwin, K. E., & Fisher, A. V. (2020). Keep it simple: streamlining book illustrations improves attention and comprehension in beginning readers. NPJ science of learning, 5(1), 1-10.
Hendrix, N. M., Hojnoski, R. L., & Missall, K. N. (2019). Shared book reading to promote math talk in parent–child dyads in low-income families. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 39(1), 45-55.
Purpura, D. J., & Logan, J. A. (2015). The nonlinear relations of the approximate number system and mathematical language to early mathematics development. Developmental Psychology, 51(12), 1717.
Purpura, D. J., Napoli, A. R., Wehrspann, E. A., & Gold, Z. S. (2017). Causal connections between mathematical language and mathematical knowledge: A dialogic reading intervention. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(1), 116-137.
Purpura, D. J., Schmitt, S. A., Napoli, A. R., Dobbs-Oates, J., King, Y. A., Hornburg, C. B., ... & Rolan, E. (2021). Engaging caregivers and children in picture books: A family-implemented mathematical language intervention. Journal of Educational Psychology.
Zhang, X., Räsänen, P., Koponen, T., Aunola, K., Lerkkanen, M. K., & Nurmi, J. E. (2020). Early cognitive precursors of children's mathematics learning disability and persistent low achievement: A 5-year longitudinal study. Child development, 91(1), 7-27
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 About the Project