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How is Executive Function Related to Language and Reading?

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

Words That Work: How Verbal Short-Term Memory Opens Doors to Gains in Speech and Literacy

About the Study:

This article describes the findings of the study ”Verbal Short-Term Memory Underlies Typical Development of “Thought Organization” Measured as Speech Connectedness’ Mota et. al, Mind, Brain, and Education, 14(1), 51-60. The study examined the relationship between language ability, memory, and reading fluency in typically developing children. Language ability, referring to the coherence and flow of spoken language, holds a pivotal place in understanding how children’s cognitive abilities evolve, especially in the realm of literacy acquisition.

Key Findings – What Should You Get from All of This?


1. Language Ability and Memory:

The research discovered a substantial connection between language ability and short-term memory in the verbal domain. Simply put, children with more robust verbal short-term memory skills were better equipped to produce coherent and connected narratives. This correlation underscores the importance of memory in the context of language development. 


2. Reading Fluency:

The study also probed into the relationship between language ability and reading fluency. In the second grade, there was a discernible tendency towards a positive association. Children who demonstrated higher levels of language ability tended to exhibit improved reading fluency. However, intriguingly, this link seemed to dissipate as children transitioned into the third grade, indicating that as they acquired reading skills, the influence of language ability on reading fluency waned.


3. Memory, Reading, and Language Ability:

A fundamental takeaway from this research is the potential role of memory in the acquisition of literacy skills. While the study highlights the connection between language ability and reading fluency, it suggests that memory performance might be the key that unlocks a more comprehensive understanding of this relationship.


From the data, the researchers found a significant correlation between language ability and verbal short-term memory. In other words, children who showed a high language ability score also did better on a verbal short-term memory test. The researchers also found a significant correlation between language ability and reading fluency; higher language ability scores were related to higher reading fluency. These findings suggest that the link between language ability and working memory is important in helping children plan and verbalize complicated stories, such as summarizing a story they read or recounting the events of something they experienced.

Practical Applications – Put Knowledge into Action!

1.Encourage Storytelling:

Encouraging children to participate in storytelling activities can significantly boost their language skills and memory. Storytelling requires the child to connect ideas and thoughts into a coherent narrative, thereby improving their language ability. For example, you might encourage your child to retell their favorite story. 


2. Practice Reading:

The correlation between language ability and reading fluency suggests that consistent reading practice can be instrumental in enhancing both skills. Engaging children in regular reading sessions can contribute to improved reading fluency and, indirectly, language ability. For younger children, this can involve rereading books with which they are familiar or books that they find simple and easy to understand. 


3. Monitor Memory Skills:

Pay close attention to a child’s memory skills, particularly in the verbal domain. Incorporating simple memory exercises and games into their daily routines can be a fun and effective way to enhance their memory capabilities. For example, you might ask your child to recall a simple list of things that you want to get at the grocery store during a shopping trip. Or, encourage your child to remember simple steps that are involved in a food recipe that you prepare together. 


4. Consider Developmental Milestones:

Recognize the importance of developmental milestones related to memory, speech, and reading. Children develop at their own pace, so it’s essential to tailor your support and expectations to their specific needs and readiness. For example, children who are initially slow to pick up early reading skills often can become skilled readers with a little parental encouragement. 


5. Seek Professional Guidance:

If you have concerns about your child’s cognitive development or are noticing significant challenges, consider seeking professional guidance or assessments. Early intervention can be pivotal in addressing potential obstacles and ensuring your child’s successful development. For example, children can often develop language skills a little slower than what is considered typical. However, children who are behind in multiple areas related to language (e.g., engaging in social interactions and reading) may consider seeking a professional just to make sure that your child does not need special guidance. 


The Bottom Line:

In conclusion, this study illuminates the intricate web of connections between language ability, memory, and reading fluency in typically developing children. While language ability and memory are closely intertwined, their impact on reading fluency evolves as children progress through their academic journey. The practical applications offered here empower parents and caregivers to play a vital role in nurturing a child’s cognitive development. However, caregivers should always remember that these skills develop at different paces for every child.

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