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Why are language and literacy interventions effective? An investigation of the mechanisms behind successful educational interventions

   School of Social Sciences

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  Dr Anna Cunningham  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

There is a plethora of successful educational interventions for school teachers to choose from to improve outcomes for their pupils. Traditionally research only shows whether the interventions work or not, not why. This inter-disciplinary project (Psychology/Education) will investigate the mechanisms behind effective language and literacy programmes for school-age children. Is it the result of gains in the specific skills trained during the intervention, which in turn lead to improved test results? For example, research from the supervisors shows that a small-group reading programme improves Key Stage 1 literacy results due to gains in comprehension and decoding skills (Vousden et al., 2021). But what is it about these intermediary skills that translates to an educational outcome? Research suggests it might be due to ‘near-transfer’ effects – this is the ability to learn specific items trained during an intervention, and apply this knowledge to other contexts in a similar domain. For example, Melby-Lervag et al., (2020) show that the effect of a preschool language intervention on a school-entry language test can be explained by children’s ability to define the specific words trained in the intervention. However, it may be that near-transfer effects are more likely to drive an improvement in outcome where the intervention focuses on less generalisable content such as the acquisition of vocabulary. Other literacy interventions that teach generalisable skills may drive improvements in educational outcomes via intermediary abilities such as decoding, which can be applied more widely in other contexts. We propose a project whereby the student conducts a small-scale language and literacy intervention in a school setting. Pre and post-test measures of near-transfer effects and intermediary skills will be taken to determine whether both/ one play a role in mediating the link between intervention and educational outcome, such as Key Stage 1 or 2 literacy results or language and communication from the Early Years Foundation Stage profile. Such mediation models allow a better understanding of the relative strength of mediated paths and will ultimately inform intervention design.

The successful student will learn how to design and implement literacy interventions within a school setting. This will involve developing skills to work with children and stakeholders (schools). The successful student will learn and develop advanced statistical skills in order to evaluate interventions as well as understand what the key ingredients of successful interventions are. This will allow them to develop a range of skills desirable in both education and psychology.

Entry requirements

Candidates entering from Undergraduate must hold or expect to hold at least a 2.1 degree in Psychology or similar discipline. Candidates entering from Postgraduate must hold or expect to hold at least a merit/commendation with their UG or PG qualification in Psychology or related discipline.

How to apply

For a step-by-step guide and to make an application, please visit NTU's how to apply page.

Funding Notes

This project is a self-funded but applicants can contact project leaders to discuss potential funding opportunities.


Melby‐Lervåg, M., Hagen, Å. M., & Lervåg, A. (2020). Disentangling the far transfer of language comprehension gains using latent mediation models. Developmental science, 23(4), e12929.
Vousden, J. I., Cunningham, A. J., Johnson, H., Waldron, S., Ammi, S., Pillinger, C., Savage, R., & Wood, C. (2021). Decoding and comprehension skills mediate the link between a small‐group reading programme and English national literacy assessments. British Journal of Educational Psychology, e12441.

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