Marcus Taft is a psychology professor at the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales and one of the leading authorities in psycholinguistics. His work on the lexical process of reading and reading ability spans more than three decades. Among his career achievements was his election as an Honorary Fellow by the Academy of Social Science in Australia in 2008.
Marcus can trace his interest in the structure of words and the relationship between different languages to high school, although he says he doesn’t actually know why because he can only speak English. When he discovered the existence of a branch of experimental psychology that explored word recognition, he was captivated by it.
He nurtured this interest and knew he would one day become an academic. “My father was an academic and I always expected to follow in his footsteps. So, a PhD was a natural progression once I established the area I wanted to specialize in. In fact, I found my PhD research to be exciting rather than demanding and stressful.”
A Fascinating Study of Words
For more than 30 years Marcus has been investigating the influence of letters and their sequences in words (orthography) and the structure and form of words (morphology) on reading ability.
He believes when a prefixed word (a word added to the beginning of a word to alter its meaning) has been recognised, such as “prepay”, it is split into the prefix (pre) and the stem (pay) and that reading of the word is based only on the stem.
“This was my very first published finding and remains my most cited work (Taft & Forster, 1975, Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour).”
“Since that time, I've published on a range of different topics in relation to word recognition, not just in relation to English, but also French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. General topics include the processing of syllable structure, the involvement of phonology in silent reading, the processing of letter position, and the activation of orthographic information in spoken word recognition.”
The challenges Marcus has encountered during his research are familiar to many in the academic world including the disappointment of an experiment not producing an expected result.
“When that happens, I re-consider whether or not the design of the experiment was optimal and, if it was, just plug on regardless.”
“Apart from the difficulties in putting together a clear-cut set of results that tell an interesting story, it's almost impossible to have a paper accepted by a journal without revision. And that's when things are going well! More often than not, the paper is rejected outright.”
Following his Research
For anyone interested in getting up to speed with the focus and intent of Marcus’s research, he recommends a few key reading choices:
“A book chapter that overviews a range of my experiments provides the best representation of my research and theoretical position. The most up-to-date of these would be: Taft, M. (2006). A localist-cum-distributed (LCD) framework for lexical processing. In S.M. Andrews. From inkmarks to ideas: Current issues in lexical processing. Psychology Press.
“However, given the difficulty of locating a book chapter, I alternatively recommend the more specifically focused journal article: Taft, M., & Nguyen-Hoan, M. (2010). A sticky stick: The locus of morphological representation in the lexicon. Language and Cognitive Processes, 25, 277-296.”
Top Tips from Marcus
Acquiring funding - “You should find a researcher to collaborate with who already has an established track record. Don't be deterred by failure to receive a grant in the early stages of your career. Keep trying.”
Working with Marcus – “I'm happy to take on PhD students who have a strong academic record in cognitive psychology and who are interested in mechanisms of lexical processing in any language or in bilinguals. Prospective students should have particular questions they would like to address.”
During his spare moments away from university life, Marcus enjoys relaxing at home. He is a keen collector of Australian social memorabilia. His main collection is of old grocery packaging with packets, tins and jars on shelves lining a room just like you would see in an old grocery store.
However, even when taking time out, his research is never far from his thoughts. “Some of my best ideas emerge when idly thinking in the shower or while lying in bed in the middle of the night.”