Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Irene Altarelli

Université Paris Cité

Research Focus

Irene Altarelli’s research aims at understanding how we acquire new skills, focusing in particular on reading acquisition – a dramatic example of pervasive inequalities among children. Irene investigates the key ingredients for successful reading acquisition at the individual level, as each of us is a mosaic of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, which interact with the environmental conditions we are in.

Being convinced that understanding sources of individual variability should go hand in hand with acting on the right levers to make every child reach their full potential, she also works on personalised intervention strategies to improve reading in school.

My plans for the fellowship period

Despite its importance, the general question of what helps or hinders progression in the acquisition of a given skill is well beyond the field’s current understanding. Indeed, two children might reach the same milestone eventually, but what makes one of them get there at a fast steady pace, while another shows very slow progress in time is unclear.

During my fellowship, I plan to take the study of reading acquisition in childhood as an opportunity for an innovative investigation of learning progression. The questions I want to address – among others – are the following: can we identify cognitive and environmental factors whose values at a given point in time are related to growth in reading or lack thereof – e.g., in other terms, is progress in reading related to where you start at in a given cognitive domain? Can we identify factors whose change or growth is related to growth in reading – in other words, are progress in reading and progress elsewhere potentially coupled?

And finally, with crucial practical implications, can we use that knowledge to predict who will subsequently show progress and who will not, and set up appropriate personalized remediation strategies?

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

Among children’s first and arguably most essential learning challenges in school is reading acquisition. Success in learning to read is a strong predictor of educational outcomes and socio-economic status in adulthood. Yet a wide share of the population worldwide struggles in learning to read, with 23% of 15-year-olds across OECD countries failing to decipher the meaning of simple texts. Reading acquisition is thus marked by substantial inequalities both within and between countries.

The understanding gained through my Fellowship should provide some answers to these issues. One of my Fellowship’s objectives is to make use of the knowledge gained on learning trajectories in order to be able to build predictions about steady versus slower learning. Being able to determine early on which children may be at risk of lagging behind is a crucial step if one is determined to develop targeted interventions, finely titrating them not only in terms of content but, crucially, in terms of timing too.

The overarching aspiration behind this work is a reduction of learning inequalities, that is, gaining a better understanding of how individual differences influence learning, so as to be in the best position to help each and every child reach their full potential.