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).

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

Together with Laura Jackson, a recent graduate from Speech, I have recently finished a research project on Dynamic Assessment, a form of assessment which also involves intervention at the same time. I have found that children's ability to acquire an unfamiliar construction during the Dynamic Assessment task, strongly predicts their performance on static standardised assessments (TROG and RAPT). This suggests a language system where learning and processing are closely interrelated as proposed by Dell and Chang in their "P-chain" model (2013)

I have also recently won some internal funding for a project on children learning English as a second language. These children pose a real conundrum for speech and language therapists as it is difficult to determine whether poor English reflects limited exposure to English or some deeper underlying difficulty. Together with Ewa Dabrowska, Carolyn Letts and Rachel Ramsey I am working on an assessment employing collocations which will hopefully provide a behavioural measure of English exposure.

Grammatical development

I am currently conducting research on Relativised Minimality with Maria Garraffa. RM is a syntactic constraint which determines what type of complex sentences children find most difficult. It has recently made a big impact on the field of language impairments. Together we are testing a functionalist account of this phenomenon.  

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.

I have co-supervised PhD students in the field of second-language learning with Martha Young-Schoulten (Newcastle Linguistics) - Walid Kahoul (completed) and Abdulrahman Alzamil (current).

I am very keen to supervise further PhD students in the fields of language acquisition and childhood language impairments. Interested students should take a look at our Doctoral Training Centre, which provides funded integrated PhDs for UK students, and IdeaLab a World-wide multi-site programme with a focus on neuroscience. The best way to make initial contact is by email.