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Literacy

Executive Skills and the Struggling Reader

Learn how executive skills—like working memory and cognitive flexibility—play an essential role in reading.

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Editors note: This piece is adapted from Kelly B. Cartwright’s Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension: A Guide for Educators, now available from Guilford Press.

Students who struggle with reading often lack the thinking skills, such as memory, planning, and the ability to shift focus when necessary, that seem natural to skilled readers. For many teachers, the process of reading is so familiar that they often have difficulty explaining it to students. Much like riding a bicycle, we know we can do it, but explaining how it happens is another story entirely!

Recently, I had a conversation with a reading specialist colleague who was worried about a young reader who didn’t seem to have the memory skills to understand text. I mentioned that the student might have difficulty with executive skills, which can sometimes explain the difference between good and poor readers. Research is just beginning to show the importance of executive skills for reading comprehension (e.g., Borella, Carretti, & Pelegrina, 2010; Cain, 2006; Locascio, Mahone, Eason, & Cutting, 2010), and understanding that importance has the potential to change the way we teach our students.

What Are Executive Skills?

Think of the term executive skills as an umbrella term that refers to a set of mental tools we use to manage tasks and achieve goals (Anderson, 2002; Dawson & Guare, 2010; Goldstein & Naglieri, 2014; Meltzer, 2010). Just as a chief executive of a company sets goals for the company and manages that company’s operations to achieve those goals, our executive skills are what we use to engage in self-regulated, goal-directed behavior in any area of life, from planning and executing a trip to the grocery store to reading and understanding a complex journal article. Other words used to describe executive skills are executive control processes and executive functions, and these terms are used interchangeably in the literature on this topic.

There is fairly wide agreement that the core, or most basic, executive skills are cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibition (Best & Miller, 2010; Diamond, 2013; Miyake, Friedman, Emerson, Witzki, & Howerter, 2000).

  • Cognitive flexibility is the ability to shift attention from one task to another. Students must shift attention during classroom transitions, such as when shifting from recess to math. Likewise, skilled readers actively shift focus between many things, such as word and story meanings or converting letters into sounds.
  • Working memory is the child’s capacity for holding information in mind while working with part of that information, such as when a child remembers the steps involved in the classroom’s morning routine (i.e., remembers what comes next) while engaging in each of the steps​. Similarly, when building a mental model of a text’s meaning, a good comprehender must keep in mind the various text ideas presented, note the causal links between them, and update the model as he or she encounters new ideas in text.
  • Inhibition involves the ability to resist engaging in a habitual response as well as the ability to ignore distracting information. You might think of this as stifling a gut reaction, such as when a child resists the impulse to grab a nearby toy. Similarly, good comprehenders must inhibit incorrect or irrelevant associations, such as ignoring ideas about financial institutions when reading about the banks of a river.

More complex executive skills also include planning, which involves setting and working toward a goal, and organization, which involves ordering and sequencing information or subtasks in ways that support completion of a goal. For example, a shopping trip requires planning, such as making a shopping list, as well as organization, such as arranging the items on your shopping list by the sections in the store. You cannot reach your goal without a plan, and you can do so most effectively if you are aware of the steps you need to take, in the proper order, to ensure that your goal is met.

Can We Assess Executive Skills?

In short, yes! Dawson and Guare’s Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention provides a thorough overview of existing assessments for executive skills. In addition, I have developed a rubric that you can use to informally assess students’ executive skills as they read (see Appendix A in my book). You can also download and print graphic organizers, rubrics, and planning and assessment forms through the "reproducible materials" link on Guilford’s website.

Children who have difficulties with reading comprehension, despite having age-appropriate word reading skills, may have lower levels of executive skills than their peers with better comprehension (Borella, Carretti, & Pelegrina, 2010; Cain, 2006; Locascio, Mahone, Eason, & Cutting, 2010). These discoveries are important for all educators because reading comprehension is the foundation for all other learning in school: Students cannot understand, enjoy, or respond to literature without effective reading comprehension; likewise, students cannot gather new information from science, math, or social studies texts when they don’t understand what they read. Fortunately for educators and for our students, executive skills can be taught, which can support our students’ current—and future—academic success.

Notes

  • Anderson, P. (2002). Assessment and Development of Executive Function (EF) During Childhood. Child Neuropsychology, 8, 71-82.
  • Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A Developmental Perspective on Executive Function. Child Development, 81, 1641-1660.
  • Borella, E., Carretti, B., & Pelegrina, S. (2010). The Specific Role of Inhibition in Reading Comprehension in Good and Poor Comprehenders. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 541-552.
  • Cain, K. (2006). Individual Differences in Children’s Memory and Reading Comprehension: An Investigation of Semantic and Inhibitory Deficits. Memory, 14, 553-569.
  • Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2010). Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
  • Goldstein, S., & Naglieri, J. A. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of Executive Functioning. New York: Springer.
  • Locascio, G., Mahone, E. M., Eason, S. H., & Cutting, L. E. (2010). Executive Dysfunction Among Children With Reading Comprehension Deficits. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 441-454.
  • Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Miyake, A., Friedman, N. P., Emerson, M. J., Witzki, A. H., & Howerter, A. (2000). The Unity and Diversity of Executive Functions and Their Contributions to Complex “Frontal Lobe” Tasks: A Latent Variable Analysis. Cognitive Psychology, 41, 49-100.
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Brian Kissman's picture
Brian Kissman
Brian Kissman is passionate about innovative best practice for all things literacy and learning.

Great piece - a critical skill set for learning to learn. We have had success modeling executive skills, including think-alouds to name it and make it explicit. Thank you for making clear a strategy for developing lifelong learners. Brian Kissman, Head of School, Kalamazoo Country Day School

Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.'s picture
Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Teacher Preparation at Christopher Newport University

Thanks, Brian! Explicit teaching is so important for making these invisible mental processes visible to students. That's a critical first step to enabling students to regulate their own thinking toward the goal of understanding text.

danilee511's picture

Great article! Many people underestimate the complexity of reading comprehension and do not understand how crucial it is to learning in all subjects. I was very intrigued by the idea of being able to teach certain executive functioning skills, such as inhibition or cognitive flexibility, because I thought these were all things that had to be dealt with on an individual basis. Knowing that we can actually help teach better executive functioning skills is revolutionary to reading education and will hopefully enable teachers to improve on their students' reading comprehension skills.

Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.'s picture
Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Teacher Preparation at Christopher Newport University

Thanks, Danilee! You've identified an important issue - people do underestimate the complexity of comprehension. Perhaps because reading happens so automatically for us as teachers and skilled comprehenders, we don't even notice the complex processes that underlie our reading success. It's only when our students struggle with comprehension that we begin to realize that some kinds of processes may not be in place. Executive skills are important contributors to reading comprehension that may be weak in our struggling students, but they're often invisible to teachers. We used to think that executive skills couldn't be taught, but more recent research suggests that they can if we teach them in ways specific to reading processes. For example, improving children's cognitive flexibility by having them think about multiple aspects of pictures (like color and shape) doesn't do much for reading comprehension. However, improving children's reading-specific cognitive flexibility - their flexibility at thinking about both sounds and meanings of printed words - does improve reading comprehension. This is good news for our struggling students and for classroom teachers! I'm looking forward to seeing how the field continues to develop reading-specific ways to support these important thinking skills in our students.

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On the Road to Reading / Bree's Book Bus's picture

Self-regulatory skills are crucial to all learning in school and beyond. We teach these skills beginning in PreKindergarten and continue to do so throughout the grade levels. Beginning with games and embedded throughout the school day, teaching executive functioning skills has shown a decrease in behavioral problems and an increase in happier children!

When we begin formal reading instruction, mid-year in Kindergarten, time-on-task has increased and most children move quickly ahead, especially with writing skills.

On the Road to Reading / Bree's Book Bus's picture

Dr. Cartwright, I very much agree with what you said. I have my teachers working on EF skills from day one of PreK and Kindergarten. Through games and explicit practice built into our day, our students are not only happier, but ready to read when formal instruction begins. Their writing skills are well developed prior to their reading skills as we use dramatization to increase comprehension skills prior to teaching reading skills! I am working on an online course for teachers on the subject as I write this. It is that important!

Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.'s picture
Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Teacher Preparation at Christopher Newport University

That's great news! Even our youngest learners benefit from executive skills. And, better executive skills also translates into better responsiveness to intervention. Preschool students with higher executive skills benefit more from comprehension interventions than those with lower executive skills. Thanks for sharing your experience!

Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.'s picture
Kelly B. Cartwright, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Teacher Preparation at Christopher Newport University

Thank you! That is wonderful news. It sounds like you are doing a great job of helping your young students learn to manage their own thinking processes, which supports their learning. Thanks for helping to train teachers to understand how to work this instruction into the school day.

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