Postgraduate research

Improving vocabulary acquisition in children via reading

Qualification: PhD

Department: Neuroscience Psychology and Behaviour

Application deadline: 22 August 2022

Start date: 26 September 2022 or later upon agreement




In modern societies, good reading abilities are vital for individuals to accomplish many everyday tasks that are essential for independent living. The act of reading is often taken for granted, as it seems effortless. However, reading is a complex cognitive skill that involves different psychological processes in order to comprehend a text. This skill must be learnt and takes years of practice. Children need first to learn how to sound-out words. Then, they must learn to use context to infer word meaning. Once they have learnt both strategies, they are ready to self-learn new vocabulary via reading. The more they read, the more skilled they become (Stanovich, 1986).  

A critical aspect for reading development is the acquisition of new vocabulary. It is estimated that 25-50% of a child’s annual vocabulary acquisition occurs via reading (i.e., self-learning, Share, 1995). In recent years, some studies have begun to identify factors that influence the ease and success with which new words are learnt during reading (e.g., Pagán & Nation, 2019). However, little is known about the fundamental mechanisms for vocabulary acquisition to know how this works for typical children and how it might be sub-optimal for atypical children (e.g., with autism, dyslexia, neurological disorders, etc). Therefore, this project aims to investigate key factors that can facilitate word acquisition via reading experience in typical children; and explore the implications for examining vocabulary acquisition in atypical children.  

The project will extend previous work by examining the influence of important factors on children’s incidental word learning during reading: 

a) contextual diversity (how varied are the contexts in which words are encountered); 
b) temporal spacing (the time between exposures to the same word); 
c) individual differences based on socioeconomic and ethnic background, reading skill, vocabulary size or memory capacity; 
d) the role of sleep.  

Our approach will be based on the eye movement paradigm developed by Pagán and Nation (2019). In this paradigm, participants will read novel words embedded in sentences across three different blocks of trials (pretraining, training and post-training blocks). Eye movements will be recorded during all the blocks. After training, words that are familiar (learnt) will be read quicker than words that are not, showing the influence of training on word learning. We will test how different factors (e.g., contextual diversity) modulate the effectiveness of the training. 

The research will be conducted using the existing, state-of-the-art portable eye tracking system (EyeLink Portable Duo, within NPB), enabling testing of children in schools. The student will use advanced statistical methods such as Linear Mixed Effect modelling in R. The project will adopt an open science approach by pre-registering studies and making materials/data publicly available as appropriate

These findings will provide essential information about the mechanisms underlying vocabulary acquisition in typical and atypical children; and they will serve the basis for developing pedagogical and clinical methods to improve children’s vocabulary and reading. Our findings will be communicated to academics in conferences and peer-review journals, and non-academics in outreach events.


Pagán, A. & Nation, K. (2019). Learning words via reading: Contextual diversity, spacing and retrieval effects in adults. Cognitive Science, 43(1), e12705. 
Share, D. L. (1995). Phonological recoding and self-teaching: Sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition, 55(2), 151-218. 
Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360-407. 







This 3.5 year PhD Studentship provides:

  • UK tuition fee waiver
  • Annual stipend at UKRI rates (£16,062 for 2022/23)
  • RTSG of £5,000 p.a.

Entry requirements

Entry requirements

Essential criteria: 

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor's Degree with at least first class or upper second class honours in Psychology or related discipline (or an equivalent qualification from a recognised overseas institution). 

Applicants must have a good understanding of statistics and some experience using quantitative research methods, be able to work independently and as part of a team, as well as be able to plan and manage their own work.

University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.


Informal enquiries

Informal enquiries

Project enquiries:

Application enquiries:

How to apply

How to apply

Please click on the 'Apply' button at the bottom of the page and select September 2022 from the dropdown menu.

With your application, please include:

  • CV
  • Personal statement explaining your interest in the project, your experience and why we should consider you
  • Degree Certificates and Transcripts of study already completed and if possible transcript to date of study currently being undertaken
  • Evidence of English language proficiency if applicable
  • In the reference section please enter the contact details of your two academic referees in the boxes provided or upload letters of reference if already available.
  • In the funding section please specify that you wish to be considered for the CLS Pagan studentship
  • In the proposal section please provide the name of the project supervisors and the project title (a proposal is not required)



UK (Home) applicants only

*Applicants holding EU Settled and Pre-Settled status, we will require a UK government share code so that we can verify your status (The share code we require starts with S)  please email your share code together with your application ID to once you have submitted your PhD application.

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