Most parents wish to see their children become high-flyers in many ways, and they all need a good performance in the core subjects of language and mathematics. But there are times when some children fall behind. They are not being idle. They have a learning disability. It should be borne in mind that around 15-20% of the population Professor Catherine McBride, Choh-Ming Li Professor of Psychology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), an expert in children’s literacy development and learning difficulties, observes from her previous research and notes that children with difficulties in learning foreign languages or mathematics are common. And some even have problems in all three areas, Chinese, English and mathematics. She explains that learning in these subjects is influenced by environment, the brain, and genetics in complex ways. The best ways to prevent failure depend on understanding how these factors work together in individuals.

Currently, a comprehensive assessment of learning ability requires in-person, individual testing. Parents who want an assessment of their children’s learning difficulties can only seek help from educational or clinical psychologists, and in hospitals, by a paper-based test. This traditional approach is labour intensive and costly, and many children have to wait for 6 months or longer. COVID-19 restrictions have made it virtually impossible. In the Hong Kong setting and educational system, Professor McBride and her team have made the case that there is a clear urgency for a low-cost, efficient and accessible assessment which is online.

“I have always been interested in how children learn to read around the world and whether it’s the same in all languages,” says Professor McBride. She and her team of nine have recently received two major grants amounting to a total of HK$45 million from the Theme-based Research Scheme and RGC Senior Research Fellowship Scheme of the University Grants Committee, to support her research on factors that affect individual learning, including the early prediction of literacy and learning difficulties in Hong Kong primary school children.

Professor McBride specialises in children’s reading development and impairment across cultures and has published wide ranges of literatures.

The study aims to establish multimodal, longitudinal models for Chinese, English, and mathematics learning. The multimodal predictors including genes, brain responses, behaviours and background, will help understanding of kids’ early responses to these subjects and give advance warning of problems to come in reading, spelling, and comprehension. Then, it is to design and implement online testing tools with automatic scoring features for children’s performances in these areas, and eventually develop formulas that best predict directions for developing the three core capabilities for Hong Kong Chinese children. “We focus on studying dyslexia, but also difficulties in reading and writing in foreign languages like English in Hong Kong ong Kongand how they resolve from interactions in genetics, brain functions, and the entire environment.” Professor McBride explains.

One of the most detailed datasets that makes online assessment practical

The study is building upon an existing and growing dataset established in the last 7 years by the team, on Hong Kong Chinese primary school children including 1,200 twins and singletons from around 300 local schools. It includes the results of face-to-face testing of the children on various cognitive-linguistic and academic skills, and information has been gathered on neurology responses, saliva samples on genetics, family background, and home language environment.

The new study will continue expanding this dataset, about which McBride and her team are excited because it is growing into what will become one of the world’s most detailed and comprehensive databases on children’s early learning. “I think one of the reasons why we got this large grant is because the study builds on the research findings we have had over the last seven years. The dataset is already started and we are building it more.”

This huge dataset will help the team in constructing the online assessment with a longitudinal impact. “I want to highlight that it’s on different levels which is what is unique about this dataset,” emphasises Professor McBride. It is a big part of the study, and will set tasks gauging capabilities in the three core subjects. Children only have to answer questions online regarding characters reading, word stress, reading comprehension, and simple arithmetic calculations. Then, there will be automatic scoring of these online tasks which will improve their effect by giving immediate test results and show early if any child is at risk from academic failure. From these results, learning for individual children can be modeled. “Many of the tests will be self-performing so you won’t have to have a clinical psychologist monitoring it that closely,” explains Professor McBride. “You will need an adult but it will run relatively on its own.”

A preliminary example of a test of morphological awareness and reading developed by the team.

The dataset will eventually be open-source. “An open-source detailed dataset, should be freely available to researchers all over the world by year 5 of the study,” says Professor McBride. It will likely change the ways in which researchers approach early learning in children. The innovations in online testing will enable efficient monitoring of learning progress and planning of learning strategies, as well as benefitting many dedicated to helping children to succeed, including teachers, clinical and educational psychologists, and parents. For those children who are diagnosed early, one way to help is by playing games related to different aspects of literacy; whatever is interesting to the children. Motivation will allow them to stick with online games longer. Inevitably, those with literacy or mathematics learning difficulties must do more work to get to the same level, so targeting particular skills will help them to improve. In the long run, it is hoped to test some of the team’s measures across different regions worldwide, so that other societies can equally benefit from low-cost and efficient online testing.

An early attempt by the team of an online English word reading test is available here: