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Cambridge Language Sciences

Interdisciplinary Research Centre
Areas of Interest: 
Development of language from a cognitive science perspective
Cognitive benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism
Cognitive processes involved in early literacy
Artificial grammar learning
Evolution of language


I am a Professor of Cognitive Science in the Faculty of Education. My research integrates cognition, neuroscience, child development, and education into a multi-disciplinary programme aimed at improving education in three core areas: science, maths, and literacy. Using an iterative process, I link laboratory-based research with classroom learning to better understand mechanisms responsible for cognitive development and improve educational practice. I study the role of executive functions in school achievement, investigate the role of causal reasoning for learning scientific phenomena, and apply specific cognitive principles to classroom learning (e.g., simplicity and desirable difficulties). Initially trained in developmental cognitive neuroscience, my inter-disciplinary team of students and collaborators includes developmental scientists, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, educators, linguists, chemists, biologists, and physicists.


Key publications: 

Patel, J., Aldercotte, A., Tsapali, M., Serpell, Z., Parr, T., & Ellefson, M.R. (2021). The zoo task: A novel metacognitive problem-solving task developed with a sample of African American children from schools in high poverty communities. Psychological Assessment, 33, 795-802.  Preprint:  Data:  Zoo Task (Creative Commons license):

Vasilopoulos, F., & Ellefson, M.R. (2021). Investigation of the associations between physical activity, self-regulation and educational outcomes in childhood. PLOS One, 16, e0250984.  Preprint:

Paes, T., Tsapali, M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2020). Studying cognitive development in school-aged children. In G. Westerman (Ed)., The encyclopaedia of child and adolescent development (Vol. 3, Cognition).

Xu, C., Ellefson, M.R., Ng, F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2020). An East-West contrast in executive function: Measurement invariance of computerized tasks in school-aged children and adolescents. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 199, 104929.

Ellefson, M.R., Zachariou, A., Ng, F.F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2020). Do executive functions mediate the link between socioeconomic status and numeracy skills? A cross-site comparison of Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 194, 104734.

Barsham, H., & Ellefson, M.R. (2020). Can teaching upper primary about the ‘testing effect’ increase feelings of confidence about test-taking? Impact, 8. Retrieve from:

Tsapali, M., Paes, T.M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2020). Researching cognitive development in primary schools: Methods and practical considerations. Impact, 8, 52-55. Retrieve from:

Ellefson, M.R., Baker, S.T., & Gibson, J. (2019). Lessons for successful cognitive developmental science in educational settings: The case of executive functions. Journal of Cognition and Development, 20, 253-277.

Tsapali, M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2019). Using direct instruction to train primary school children in decision-making skills in the science classroom. Impact, 5, 18-21. Retrieved from:

Poletiek, F.H., Conway, C.M., Ellefson, M.R., Lai, J., Bocanegra, B. R., & Christiansen, M. H. (2018). Under what conditions can recursion be learned? Effects of starting small in artificial grammar learning of center embedded structure. Cognitive Science, 42, 2855-2889.

Paes, T., & Ellefson, M.R. (2018). Pretend play and the development of children’s language skills. Impact, 2, 60-63. Retrieve from:

Ellefson, M.R., Ng, F.F., Wang, Q., & Hughes, C. (2017). Efficiency of executive function: A two-generation cross-cultural comparison of samples from Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Psychological Science, 28, 555-566.

Teparek, M., Morgan, R., Ellefson, M., & Kingsley, D. (2017). Starting from the end: what to do when restricted data is released. Data Science Journal, 16, 10.

Goedert, K.M., Ellefson, M.R., & Rehder, B. (2014). Differences in the weighting and choice of evidence for plausible versus implausible causes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 40, 683-702.

Vousden, J.I., Ellefson, M.R., Solity J., & Chater, N. (2011). Simplifying reading: Applying the simplicity principle to reading. Cognitive Science, 35, 34-78.

Ellefson, M.R., Treiman, R., & Kessler, B. (2009). Learning to label letters by sounds or names: A comparison of England and the United States. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102, 323-341.

Christiansen, M.H., Conway, C.M., & Ellefson, M.R. (2002). Raising the bar for connectionist modeling of developmental disorders. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 752-753.

Christiansen, M.H., Dale, R.A.C., Ellefson, M.R., & Conway, C.M. (2002). The role of sequential learning in language evolution: Computation and experimental studies. In A. Cangelosi and D. Parisi (Eds.), Computational approaches to the evolution of language. New York, USA: Springer Verlag.

Christiansen, M.H., & Ellefson, M.R., (2002). Linguistic adaptation without linguistic constraints: The role of sequential learning in language evolution. In A. Wray (Ed.), The transition to language: Studies in the evolution of language (pp. 335-358). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. [Chapter selected by peer review].

Molfese, D.L., Narter, D.B., Van Matre, A.J., Ellefson, M.R., & Modglin, A.A. (2001). Language development during infancy and early childhood: Electrophysiological correlates. In J. Weissenborn and B. Hoehle (Eds.), Approaches to Bootstrapping: Phonological, lexical, syntactic and neurophysiological aspects of early language development, Volume 2 (pp. 181-229). Philadelphia, PA, USA: John Benjamins.

Professor of Cognitive Science, Faculty of Education
Fellow, Undergraduate Tutor and Director of Studies, Gonville & Caius College
Departments and institutes: 
Dr Michelle  Ellefson


Collaborator profiles: