PhD Opportunity: The role of cultural institutions in promoting language learning opportunities

The University of Manchester, via the NWSSDTP, is currently offering an ESRC funded CASE PhD studentship looking at the role of cultural institutions in promoting language development. The PhD is open to UK/EU students and will be supervised by Prof Anna Theakston and Dr Katie Twomey. The deadline for applications is Monday 12th February 2018. Full details below.

Project Description

Language development during the early years is a key predictor for academic success and life chances (Law et al., 2017), whereas poor language is closely associated with social, emotional and mental health problems in children and adolescents (Whitehouse et al., 2011). It is widely recognised that many preschool children from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds have poor language skills (Fernald et al., 2013), raising concerns about their long-term outcomes. However, language can be improved through the provision of supportive language learning activities and environments (Law et al., 2017). A wealth of research demonstrates that cultural institutions such as museums have beneficial impacts at multiple levels and timescales, for example by increasing an individual’s knowledge of a topic (Anderson et al., 2007), catalysing long-term interest (Anderson & Shimizu, 2007), or fostering the social integration of minority communities (Schultz, 2011). However, much of this work focuses on adults. At the same time, there has been a huge increase in provision of events within cultural institutions aimed at young children and their families in an attempt to engage and enrich their experiences, reflecting the assumption that such experiences will enhance learning and development.

This project capitalises on a collaboration between the University of Manchester, the Manchester Museum, and a Manchester educational trust which incorporates primary schools situated in areas of social deprivation, and will address the following research questions:

  1. What are the perceptions of cultural institutions amongst caregivers, children and teachers in disadvantaged communities, and does this change as a function of engagement with cultural institutions?
  2. Can vocabulary development in the early years be enhanced by museum contexts, and are there any knock-on benefits for broader language skills?
  3. How is the quality of the school language learning environment impacted by the community background of the children and the context for learning?

The MRes provides a thorough grounding in advanced research methods. Further specialist training is available including corpus data and analysis, experimental design, behavioural measures, and advanced statistical analysis in R. The student will receive additional training from the Manchester Museum Learning Team and the Educational Trust, covering topics around teaching and learning in schools and public engagement in cultural institutions. Engagement with the partners will take place across all four years, involving the student spending some time within the partner organisations to gain experience of the working environment.

In addition to the project-specific training/techniques, students are expected to get involved in lab activities such as reading groups and statistics workshops, and contribute to the many public engagement and outreach activities undertaken by the child study centre (training provided as needed).

Further subject-specific and transferable skills training is provided by the LuCiD Centre and by the Manchester Doctoral Academy.

How to apply
Applications should be made through the University of Manchester’s online application system (see Guidance for applicants on the University's website). Please select PhD Psychology on the online application form, Professor Anna Theakston as the supervisor, and use the title of the studentship (above) as the heading for your application [Note, although this is a funded studentship, it will not be listed under ‘funded programmes’ on the application website, the CASE studentship is different from the standard application route to the NWSSDTP]. Informal enquiries can be directed to [email protected]

Funding Notes

The start date will be September 2018 for 4 years. This is a 1+3 studentship consisting of 1 year MRes in Psychology and 3 year PhD. EU applicants must have resided in UK for three years in order to be eligible for full award. 

Applicants are expected to hold, or be expected to obtain before September 2018, a minimum upper second class undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in Psychology, Linguistics or a related discipline (with some background in language acquisition research). Experience working with children would be an advantage.


- Anderson et al. (2007). Understanding the long-term impact of museum experiences. In Falk et al. (Eds.). Museums as Learning Institutions.
- Huttenlocher et al. (2002) Language Input and Child Syntax. Cognitive Psychology, 45, 337–74.
- Law et al. (2017) Language as a child well-being indicator. Report: Early Intervention Foundation.
- Rowe (2012) A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child Development, 83,762–74.
- Twomey et al. (2017). All the right noises: Background variability helps early word learning. Cognitive Science


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