Dr Nick Riches
Lecturer in Speech & Language Pathology

  • Email: nick.riches@ncl.ac.uk
  • Telephone: +44 (0) 191 208 8720
  • Address: School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences
    Room 1.9
    King George VI Building
    Newcastle University
    Queen Victoria Road
    Newcastle upon Tyne
    NE1 7RU

Background

After a Masters in Theoretical Linguistics at University College London, I undertook a PhD on children with “Specific Language Impairment” at the University of Manchester, with Gina Conti-Ramsden. This focused on word- and construction-learning in children with SLI, investigating in particular, the role of frequency. Following on from this, I completed two post-doctoral projects; on language impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorders at Guy’s Hospital / King’s College London, and sentence repetition in Specific Language Impairment at the University of Reading, before taking up my current position as a lecturer in Speech and Language Pathology, at Newcastle.

I am particularly interested in “linguistic” approaches to SLI. Much of the literature on SLI is dominated by theories of memory, e.g. phonological short-term memory, which is a particular preoccupation of psychologists. However, I believe that performance on linguistic memory tasks is strongly influenced by how linguistic information is represented and organised in the mind. To understand this we need to take theoretical linguistics into account. In particular, I am keen on Construction Grammar and Cognitive Linguistic approaches as they are good at explaining a number of psycholinguistic and linguistic phenomena, such as the role of frequency, the gradual development from rote-learned to productive language use, and the prevalence of idiomatic or semi-idiomatic constructions in adult language.

Roles and responsibilities

I handle BSc admissions for the department. 

I am also the secretary of the British Association of Clinical Linguistics (BACL). I will be organising the next colloquium here at Newcastle.

Other

I am a keen consumer of fiction. In fact my first degree was English Literature. I enjoy fine wine, ale and running, but not at the same time.

If you see me on Whitley Bay beach making funny arm movements, I’m probably trying to attract the attention of Heffie, my deaf English Setter.

Assessment

My British Academy Post-doctoral Fellowship at the University of Reading investigated Sentence Repetition as an assessment of language difficulties. In particular it investigated the cognitive mechanisms underpinning this task, and whether sentence repetition could be used to diagnose difficulties with particular constructions. While the data supported the role of self-contained memory mechanisms, e.g. phonological short-term memory, there was also ample evidence that this task is sensitive to underlying linguistic representations, e.g. representations of syntactic structure in long-term memory. An intensive analysis of errors on simple versus complex sentences came to the conclusion that children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) do not actually present with a qualitatively different profile. In other words, while their language is weak, it is debatable whether it is in fact disordered.

Intervention

My PhD at the University of Manchester investigated the role of frequency in word- and construction learning. It found that the optimum intervention regime consisted of learning episodes which were highly repetitive, but were widely spaced. I have recently conducted an intervention study on a novel method to teach the passive construction to children with SLI. This is based on theories of Constructivism / Construction Grammar. I firmly believe that these approaches have enormous potential for intervention.

Assessment and intervention combined

I have faculty funding to conduct a research project on Dynamic Assessment in children with low-to-moderate language, a form of assessment which also involves intervention at the same time. Carrying on from my PhD work on frequency in language learning, I am interested in how quickly young children (Reception and Year One) can acquire a novel construction, and whether their learning rate is a good indicator of their language abilities. I am interested in the role of frequency in language difficulties, and whether low-language children require more language input than children with good language.

SLI and Autism

My research at Guy’s Hospital / Kings College London investigated the hypothesis that there is an overlap between SLI and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The research I conducted on phonological processing, and the representation of syntactic structures such as compound nouns and relative clauses, provided evidence both for and against this hypothesis. This is a much disputed area, and it is currently too early to make a call. One possibility is that the apparent overlap between SLI and ASD in clinical settings results from a “referral bias”, whereby children with multiple difficulties are more likely to referred to a speech and language therapist. I have a number of embryonic ideas for future research into language in ASD. One is to train children with ASD to ask questions, which could be a very useful way to bootstrap communicative development. I am also interested in the very subtle language difficulties exhibited by high-functioning adults with ASD, which is an almost completely unexplored area.

Projects

I am responsible for the Linguistics (Syntax, Semantics, Pragmatics), and Psycholinguistics courses. I also have "guest spots" on other courses where I lecture on Specific Language Impairments, Autism, Williams Syndrome, modularity and genetics. I teach on both the BSc and MSc courses.