Teaching psycholinguistics

Date: 20 June, 2008
Location: Essex University
Event type: Seminar

workshop attendees

Past event summary

This event was for anyone who teaches or researches in the field of psycholinguistics and who is interested in pedagogic practice in the teach of this field of linguistics. Topics covered included:

  • curriculum development
  • research-led teaching
  • teaching research methods

The day included a panel discussion and a lunchtime exhibition of Tools and Resources for Project-Based Assignments.

Programme for 20 June 2008
Time Session
10.00 - 10.30 Registration and welcome
10.30 - 11.10 Thinking like a psycholinguist
John Field
Download: powerpoint icon presentation (powerpoint)
11.10 - 11.50 Curriculum development for psycholinguistics
Harald Clahsen, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex
11.50 - 12.30 Resources and tools for project-based assignments and research-led teaching
Sonja Eisenbeiss, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex
12.30 - 13.40 Lunch and poster session
Tools and resources for project-based assignments (elicitation games, tutorial-packages for the use of reaction-time software, databases, etc.)
13.40 - 14.20

Teaching first and second language acquisition
Nigel Duffield and Ayumi Matsuo, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, University of Sheffield
Download: powerpoint icon presentation (powerpoint)

14.20 - 15.00 Teaching language disorders
Susan Edwards, Department of Clinical Language Sciences, University of Reading
15.00 - 15.40 Teaching morphological and syntactic processing
Claudia Felser, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Essex
15.40 Tea and panel discussion
Teaching psycholinguistics in different academic environments


Event report: Teaching Psycholinguistics

by Yi-An Lin, Cambridge University

Teaching psycholinguistics was hosted by the University of Essex. This event aimed to gather people with a variety of teaching experience to share ideas on the nature of psycholinguistics and the practicalities of course design at undergraduate level. The event was divided into 6 sessions which are detailed below:

Session 1: Thinking like a psycholinguist

John Field, University of Reading

The first session dealt with the definition of psycholinguistics and highlighted the need to teach undergraduates to think scientifically when they take psycholinguistics courses. Since the boundaries of psycholinguistics are usually very fuzzy, John clarified the areas of psycholinguistics which could be included in an undergraduate course. Furthermore, he noted that there are two different routes for students into psycholinguistics courses which leads to a diversity of students: those coming from a language background and those from a psychology background. Each group therefore will need to acquire the knowledge and skills from one or other area which can lead to problems in a mixed group.
Two other important issues and solutions for students were also discussed. First, when students are encouraged to read articles in the literature related to the course, they may feel frustrated because of the dense terminology and statistics. Thus it may help to choose some topics (i.e., the introduction of animal communication or language evolution) which are easier to approach without needing to know specific terminology. The second issue raised concerned the methodologies used in psycholinguistics which may be unfamiliar to students which can be off-putting. A solution proposed for this was to have an introductory session in the course, showing the students the basic tools and methodologies they will need in class.

Overall, John Field pointed out that in a psycholinguistics course, students need to be able to interpret data and investigate and interrogate the subject by themselves. A useful way to do this is to take the discovery approach. The introductory seminar can include  task sheets which contain some introductory explanations and exercises based on samples of data for analysis or for the application of a theory.

Session 2: Curriculum development for psycholinguistics

Harald Clahsen, University of Essex

This session discussed undergraduate curriculum development in psycholinguistics, mainly taking University of Essex as an example. Harald first defined the criteria for developing curricula for psycholinguistics which included coverage of the subject, empirical methods, statistics and student progression. Next, he discussed the specialist schemes in psycholinguistics at the University of Essex. It seems that BA degrees in the subject are not common in UK HEIs and in his experience are not popular and at Essex led to the programme being closed. One explanation for this, he suggested was that  students think that psycholinguistics sounds too scientific. He reported that once the name of the programme was changed i.e. given an appealing title such as Language and Communication (although the content was kept more or less the same) recruitment increased. Another approach which is common in many HEIs is to offer psycholinguistics in combination with other language or psychology subjects. Failing this he suggest that a ‘virus approach’ whereby psycholinguistics modules form part of another programme such as English Language and Linguistics and are included as either compulsory or optional modules in all three years of the degree. This, he suggested, was preferable to an ‘odd-module’ approach as it does offer a psycholinguistics pathway which comprises breadth (year one) as well as specialist areas (year two) and scope for original research (year three)

Session 3: Resources and tools for project-based assignments and research-led teaching

Sonja Eisenbeiss, University of Essex

Sonja’s talk focused on issues of introducing research into the psycholinguistics classroom. She began by noting that staff research interests can have a great deal of influence on their teaching and this can take a variety of forms (Griffiths 2004) from research-led (relating to staff or discipline research) to research-oriented (emphasis on research skills and processes) to research-based (centred around students as researchers).

For the teaching of psycholinguistics courses, Sonja suggested a project-based assignment approach to create a means of incorporating  research into teaching. Such project-based assignments promote student understanding of the research process, e.g creating/implementing an experiment and later helps them to develop their own research-related projects.
Examples of the outcomes of this approach were demonstrated during the lunch break, by students who showed some examples of the research software they had used in class which included CHILDES database of child language corpora (http://childes.psy.cmu.edu/), ELAN annotation software (www.lat-mpi.eu/tools/elan) and DMDX reaction-time software (www.u.arizona.edu/~kforster/dmdx/dmdx.htm). The students showed the audience how experiments can be carried out or designed and with these tools.

Session 4: Teaching first language acquisition

Ayumi Matsuo, University of Sheffield

Ayumi talked about an approach to teaching first language acquisition that she has been using at the University of Sheffield. In her department both cognitive and generative approaches to first language acquisition are covered. In her course the focus is on acquisition of syntactic (and semantic) knowledge. The students taking this course are expected to develop theoretical and methodological skills in the field. After taking this course, they should be able to collect, transcribe and analyse language data from a child. Moreover, this course has various ways to assess students’ achievement, including mini-quizzes, mid-term assignment, proposal for final project and final project.

Ayumi also showed a very good and interesting way to measure students’ understanding of journal articles. She and the students have a journal blog in Web CT. Students first write the summary of a journal article on the blog, and Ayumi and the other students add comments or suggestions to it later.

Since making a project is essential in studying psycholinguistics, Ayumi pays great attention to this part in the course. The main goal of this project is to create a proposal (abstract), oral presentation (conference presentation) and a write-up (paper) during the exam week. This process not only helps students to develop relevant skills but also introduces them to the core academic skill or delivering and writing conference papers. Ayumi reported that students benefited a great deal from the project work and that some of them even extended their interests in psycholinguistics to a half-year dissertation.

Session 5: Teaching language disorders

Susan Edwards, University of Reading

In this session, Susan demonstrated how psycholinguistics is taught in the context of language disorders such as aphasia. The course aims to help students understand how models of normal sentence production inform understanding of sentence processing deficits. It also introduces methods of analyzing spontaneous speech production. Furthermore, the above message is conveyed by introducing a real adult case. By doing so, students are expected to look at narrative data and identify patterns of deficit. Using both real case data and theoretical frameworks acquire skills in identifying and diagnosing speech disorders.

Session 6: Teaching morphological and syntactic processing

Claudia Felser, University of Essex

Claudia began by stating that language processing is an important sub-area in psycholinguistics. Taking the University of Essex as an example, Claudia demonstrated how she teaches morphological and syntactic processing to undergraduates. In a three-year (‘virus’ type) programme, students take a ‘foundations of psycholinguistics’ module in their first year and a further psycholinguistics course in their second year. In the third year, they proceed to more specialised courses, such as the mental lexicon or sentence processing. The students thus acquire knowledge of some contemporary issues in this area and gain the necessary skills and knowledge to engage in further research.

In the first year, the aim is to provide students with an overview of current issues in language acquisition, processing and disorders. In the second year theoretical models and experimental methods are introduced which is intended to equip students with the necessary background for studying psycholinguistics at a more advanced level, taking more specialised courses which are offered in the third year. An example of this is sentence processing. The unit provides students with an overview of existing models of parsing and current issues in sentence processing research and discusses the current scientific debates in this area. Students are introduced to psycholinguistic experiments that exemplify, for example, the way in which questions about how sentences can cause processing difficulties can be addressed.

At the end of the presentation, Claudia pointed out some challenges and solutions concerning the above courses. In the first year, students are not familiar with the basic descriptive terms. For this reason the department offers a compulsory course in the ‘Foundations of Linguistics” so that the students can have a chance to become familiar with some basic linguistic terminology. In the second year, students often find grammatical analyses quite difficult. This is addressed through group projects linking grammatical analysis to real life situation or applications. She also suggested that by making the group work competitive by introducing quizzes and mini-projects motivation and interest in increased. In the third year, undergraduates receive little or no research methods training which would complement their project work, and Claudia suggested that an optional research-skills module could be offered.