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Literacy: What does Executive Function have to do with it?

How many times have you read or written something in the past 24 hours? Reading and writing are key skills that we use on a daily basis. In school, in the workplace, and at home, reading serves as a vital tool for acquiring new information. Reading is especially important between 3rd and 4th grade, as this is when children are expected to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” After this point, children rely on their reading ability to learn about new topics in all school subjects.

A 2010 Annie E. Casey Foundation report found that children who were not reading at grade-level by the end of 3rd grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school. Like reading, writing is also a critical skill that allows us to communicate with others. It is also a proficiency that employers highly value in job candidates. Since reading and writing are essential for academic and life success, it is important to understand how certain cognitive skills, such as executive function, influence literacy.

 

What are executive function skills?

Executive function skills refer to brain-based skills that are used to control one’s thoughts and behaviors to accomplish goals. Most experts agree that executive function is made up of three different components: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility.

  • Working Memory refers to one’s ability to keep information in mind for a short period of time and use that information to reach goals.
  • Inhibitory Control refers to one’s ability to stop automatic or impulsive responses, as well as ignore distracting, irrelevant information in order to reach a goal.
  • Cognitive Flexibility refers to one’s ability to be flexible with one’s thoughts and actions, think about something in multiple ways, and to switch gears during activities.

 

What is the relation between executive function skills and literacy?

Research shows that children with better executive function skills perform better on literacy assessments. When children are first learning to read and write, their executive function is related to important pre-literacy skills, such as recognizing letters or learning the sounds that letters make. However, once children have mastered these basic pre-literacy skills, their executive function continues to be related to increasingly complex literacy skills such as reading comprehension.

The graph above shows the relationship between executive function and literacy achievement in 371 3- to 5.8-year-olds from the Carlson Child Development Lab at the University of Minnesota. Regardless of age, as their executive function increased, their literacy achievement increased.

 

There is also evidence that children with difficulties and disorders related to reading and writing, including dyslexia, dysgraphia (trouble with written expression), and specific reading disorders, have deficits in executive function skills compared to children without such disorders. This suggests that executive function skills play an important role in being able to successfully read and write.

 

How is executive function used when reading and writing?

In addition to enabling children to sit still and pay attention while engaging in literacy activities, there are specific ways in which executive function skills play an important role in reading and writing.

Some examples of how executive function skills affect reading:
  • Working Memory is needed when children comprehend the meaning of a text by keeping in mind what they have already read and updating their understanding of the story as they continue to read. Young children also use working memory when sounding out words because they have to keep in mind all the different letter sounds and then put them together to figure out what the word is.
  • Inhibitory Control is needed when encountering words with multiple meanings by choosing the correct meaning in the context of the story and ignoring its other meanings. For example, when reading a story about baseball, a child has to use the meaning of the word “bat” to refer to a baseball bat and inhibit its meaning that refers to an animal. It is also useful for ignoring irrelevant information when trying to comprehend a text or when young children need to distinguish between letters that look very similar such as ‘b’ and ‘p.’
  • Cognitive Flexibility helps children engage in, coordinate, and switch between multiple mental processes during reading. This includes interpreting what words sound like and what words mean, as well as being flexible in interpreting phrases as literal or figurative depending on the context of the story. For example, when children encounter the phrase, “The man had a heart of stone,” they have to be flexible enough to interpret this beyond the literal meaning to understand that it refers to someone who is cold and unsympathetic.
Some examples of how executive function skills affect writing:
  • Working Memory helps a child to keep the topic or goal of a paper in mind while writing, versus going off on a tangent. It also helps in remembering spelling and grammar rules.
  • Inhibitory Control is needed during the brainstorming/planning process of writing. This is going to help children inhibit ideas they have already covered, allowing them to think of new ideas. It is also important during the revision process for inhibiting the original way something was written in favor of a more effective way.
  • Cognitive Flexibility is important for thinking of alternative ways of saying something or to change the organization of an essay. It is also needed to take on multiple perspectives in fiction writing or to imagine both sides in a comparative essay.

Executive function skills are important during the period when children are learning to read and write. Understanding this relationship and noticing the ways in which children use their executive function skills during this time can help you to better understand and better support your children’s literacy development.

 

 Resources:          

  • Click here for information from LDA America on how executive function impacts reading.
  • Click here for information from Learning Works for Kid on suggestions for improving writing and executive function.
  • Click here for information from Understood.org on executive function difficulties.

About the Author:

Amanda Grenell is currently earning her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Institute of Child Development. Her primary research interests include how pretend play can be a context for children to learn new information. She is also interested in the role that executive function skills play in academic learning. She has been involved with research evaluation projects with several community organizations such as the Minnesota Children’s Museum and the Children’s Theatre Company.