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This project, a language and reading intervention programme for Chile, piloted in the Robinson Crusoe island population, is being funded by a research grant from the ESRC.

The project will run from February 2016 to the end of September 2018.

project summary

Robinson Crusoe Island forms part of the Juan Fernández archipelago situated 667 km west of Chile. This small island (population ~800 inhabitants) is geographically and culturally isolated with limited amenities and access to educational opportunities. The population has a high incidence of language and learning disorders (De Barbieri et al., 1999, Villanueva et al., 2008) and its vulnerability was exacerbated by a tsunami which eliminated municipal facilities, including the school, in 2010. Classes now take place in a shipping container with little space for individual tutoring or quiet lessons.

Studies show that explicit training in phonological (speech-sounds) awareness, letter knowledge and reading can provide long-term educational advantages for children with language difficulties (Snowling and Hulme, 2012). This project will therefore build on an existing alliance between the Universities of Chile and Oxford to pilot a language/reading intervention programme in the Robinson Crusoe community. The programme will draw upon interventions that have proven success and develop materials and qualified trainers to allow their delivery in Chilean school settings. Strong language foundations bolster literacy development and numeracy skills and provide a wider framework for classroom learning maximising employment opportunities and promoting economic and social well-being in the longer-term.

Aims and objectives

This project aims to design and pilot a language and literacy intervention programme that may be used for rural, isolated and indigenous populations in Chile (and beyond).

The direct objective of the programme is to evaluate the value of reading and language intervention within vulnerable Chilean populations. 'Value' will be measured across different aspects: (i) the integration of the programme into school life, (ii) the educational gains associated with intervention, (iii) the efficacy in different educational and clinical subsets of children, (iv) the transfer of skills into the community, and (v) the feasibility of such a programme across other isolated and mainland populations.

Dr Dianne Newbury describes recent research with the population of Robinson Crusoe island here.

Expected outcomes

  • Development of a culturally and linguistically appropriate intervention programme and associated materials
  • Training and support of local individuals to deliver the programme
  • Monitoring and evaluation of the programme delivery
  • Evidence that intervention programmes that have proven successful in developed educational systems can be effective for Chilean populations
  • Baseline assessments of rates of language, reading and learning difficulties
  • Measures of immediate and longer-term gains produced by the intervention programme
  • Information regarding the efficacy of the programme in different developmental subsets (in terms of age and associated language/reading disorders)
  • Increased understanding of barriers to learning in challenging contexts
  • Recommendations for future development of the programme and applicability to other populations
  • Strengthened alliance between the University of Chile and the University of Oxford
  • Knowledge exchange between the UK and Chile and strengthening of research capacities in Chile
  • Increased research capacity in the UK and Chile in the use of RCTs in education
  • Transfer of skills into society promoting long-term growth

Research team

The UK research team consists of Dr Dianne Newbury and Professor Maggie Snowling from the University of Oxford and Professor Charles Hulme from University College London.

Dianne Newbury is an MRC Career Development Fellow in the Nuffield Department of Medicine and has previously worked with Professors Villanueva, de Barbieri and Fernandez on projects in the Robinson Crusoe population. She has published widely on risk factors for language impairment and dyslexia and is a member of many international research groups and collaborative efforts. She was awarded first prize in the MRC centenary celebration of international collaboration for her work with Professor Villanueva.

Maggie Snowling is a world-renowned expert in dyslexia and was a co-director of the Centre for Reading and Language at the University of York with Charles Hulme. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and served as a member of Sir Jim Rose’s Expert Advisory Group on provision for Dyslexia in 2009 and as an expert member of the Education for All: Fast Track Initiative group in Washington DC in 2011.

Charles Hulme holds a Chair of Psychology at University College London. He is a distinguished researcher in the development of reading and language skills in children, and developmental disorders of these skills including Dyslexia and Speech and Language Impairment. He was the joint recipient of the Dina Fietelson Award of the International Reading Association for research on reading intervention and was awarded the Marion Welchman Award by the British Dyslexia Association in March 2016.

The research team at the University of Chile includes Professor Pia Villanueva, Professor Zulema de Barbieri Ortiz and Professor María Angélica Fernández.

Pia Villanueva is an Associate Professor in the School of Speech and Hearing Services at the University of Chile and a clinical speech and language pathologist. She has over fifteen years of research history on the Robinson Crusoe Island and has built strong relationships with the island authorities across the city hall, education and clinical services. On the mainland, she has a proven track record in the assessment of language difficulties and their treatment and has published extensively in this field.

Zulema de Barbieri is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine and is the Director of the Department of Speech Therapy at the University of Chile. She has worked extensively with children with learning and language disabilities and has published papers in national and international journals related to language skills and reading processes in children with SLI. Her expertise in phonology includes the development of a Spanish phoneme deletion and swapping task - Prueba de Evaluación de Conciencia Fonológica (PECFO, Varela and De Barbieri).

María Angélica Fernández is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Chile and has expertise in orofacial motor co-ordination.

All the researchers on the Chilean team have previously worked together in projects involving the assessment of speech and language abilities of children on the Robinson Crusoe Island.