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How Do Executive Function Skills Contribute to Reading Proficiency?

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Executive Function Skills contribute to phonological processing, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Neurobiological and cognitive assessment data analysis show that visual attention, executive functions, and phonological awareness significantly contribute to reading comprehension (Taran et al., 2022).

Students with well-developed executive function skills including previewing, planning, attention, response inhibition, memory, and cognitive flexibility often read with higher levels of competency and greater ease. Here are a few of the ways in which executive function skills contribute to reading proficiency.

Cognitive Flexibility and Reading Comprehension: Cognitive flexibility, refers to the ability to switch between tasks or mental sets and adapt to changing task demands and expectations. Cognitive flexibility plays a role in reading comprehension by enabling children to monitor and adjust their understanding of the text, make inferences, and integrate information.

When students are able to “flex” their cognition, they are better able to adjust their mental imagery when reading and understanding a written story. Research studies have found positive associations between cognitive flexibility and reading comprehension in children (Colé,, 2014; Hund et. al,., 2023; Kieffer et al., 2013; Lengua et al., 2010).

Inhibition and Decoding: Response inhibition, the ability to suppress irrelevant or impulsive responses, is involved in decoding skills, which refer to the ability to sound out and recognize words. Response inhibition helps children focus on the relevant print information and resist both internal and external distractions. This suppression skill contributes to accurate and efficient decoding. Research has shown a positive relationship between inhibition and decoding skills in children (Blair & Razza, 2007; Brock et al., 2009; Haft et al., 2019).

Planning and Reading Fluency: Planning involves sequencing and organizing actions or steps in a sequence. In the context of reading, planning skills are related to phonological processing, decoding, encoding, and reading fluency, which is the ability to read text accurately, smoothly, and with appropriate expression. Nouwens et al., 2021 found that both working memory and planning uniquely contributed to reading comprehension.

Effective planning skills help children pace their reading, make predictions, and use appropriate prosody when they read. Planning has been shown to be a moderator of academic achievement (Shi & Qu, 2022).

Working Memory and Phonological Processing: Working memory is the part of short-term memory that allows our brain to hold onto information for a brief period of time in order to facilitate the use of the information when executing a task or goal-directed action. Working memory is crucial for phonological processing, which is the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds of language.

Evidence for phonological working memory deficits in children with dyslexia is strong (Gray et al., 2019). Research has shown that working memory capacity is positively associated with phonological awareness, decoding, and reading comprehension skills. Working memory also facilitates planning, reasoning, and problem-solving (Cowen, 2013; Nouwens et al., 2017; Orsolini et al., 2022).

Executive function skills provide the cognitive foundation necessary for various reading processes, including phonological processing, reading comprehension, decoding, encoding, and reading fluency.

These are just a few examples of how executive function skills contribute to reading proficiency and comprehension in children and adolescents.

Related Citations:

Baddeley, A. D. (2002). Is working memory still working? European Psychologist, 7(2), 85–97.

Blair, C., & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, 78(2), 647-663.

Brock, L. L., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Nathanson, L., & Grimm, K. J. (2009). The contributions of ‘‘hot’’ and ‘‘cool’’ executive function to children’s academic achievement, learning-related behaviors, and engagement in kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 24(3), 337-349.

Colé, P., Duncan, L. G., & Blaye, A. (2014). Cognitive flexibility predicts early reading skills. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 565.

Cowan N. (2014). Working Memory Underpins Cognitive Development, Learning, and Education. Educational psychology review, 26(2), 197–223.

Gray, S., Fox, A. B., Green, S., Alt, M., Hogan, T. P., Petscher, Y., & Cowan, N. (2019). Working Memory Profiles of Children With Dyslexia, Developmental Language Disorder, or Both. Journal of speech, language, and hearing research: JSLHR, 62(6), 1839–1858.

Haft, S. L., Caballero, J. N., Tanaka, H., Zekelman, L., Cutting, L. E., Uchikoshi, Y., & Hoeft, F. (2019). Direct and Indirect Contributions of Executive Function to Word Decoding and Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten. Learning and individual differences, 76, 101783.

Hund, A. M., Bove, R. M., & Van Beuning, N. (2023). Cognitive flexibility explains unique variance in reading comprehension for elementary students. Cognitive Development, 67, 101358.

Kieffer, M. J., Petscher, Y., Proctor, C. P., & Silverman, R. D. (2013). Do linguistic and metalinguistic deficits constrain English language learners’ reading fluency? Developmental Psychology, 49(1), 59-73.

Lengua, L. J., Honorado, E., & Bush, N. R. (2010). Contextual risk and parenting as predictors of effortful control and social competence in preschool children. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31(4), 301-310.

Nouwens, S., Groen, M. A., Kleemans, T., & Verhoeven, L. (2021). How executive functions contribute to reading comprehension. The British journal of educational psychology, 91(1), 169–192.

Nouwens S., Groen M.A., Verhoeven L. (2017). How working memory relates to children’s reading comprehension: The importance of domain-specificity in storage and processing. Read. Writ. 30:105–120.

Orsolini, M., Federico, F., Vecchione, M., Pinna, G., Capobianco, M., & Melogno, S. (2022). How Is Working Memory Related to Reading Comprehension in Italian Monolingual and Bilingual Children? Brain sciences, 13(1), 58.

Shi, Y., & Qu, S. (2022). The effect of cognitive ability on academic achievement: The mediating role of self-discipline and the moderating role of planning. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 1014655.

Swanson, H. L., & Jerman, O. (2007). The influence of working memory on reading growth in subgroups of children with reading disabilities. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 96(4), 249-283.

Taran, N., Farah, R., DiFrancesco, M., Altaye, M., Vannest, J., Holland, S., Rosch, K., Schlaggar, B. L., & Horowitz-Kraus, T. (2022). The role of visual attention in dyslexia: Behavioral and neurobiological evidence. Human brain mapping, 43(5), 1720–1737.

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