Research points to the importance of four essential cognitive skills.
During my long career as a special education teacher and educational diagnostician, I worked with many students who struggled with reading. Looking back, I can see that their challenges were not only related to poor literacy skills but also tied to weak processing and working memory. While there are many students I will never forget, one of the most memorable was a kindergartener named Julia.
Julia had great difficulty remembering phonemes and their corresponding letters. We practiced every day, and it always seemed like she was learning something completely new. We tried everything to make it stick: guessing games, pictures, rhymes, flashcards, but I never knew if she would be able to match sounds to letters the next day. It was as if we repeatedly built the foundation of a tower, but instead of building it higher the next day, we had to keep making the foundation from scratch.
Knowing what I know now, it's clear to me that Julia wasn't simply having memory issues. She was struggling with processing and retaining phonemes. These cognitive skills would have to be addressed first before Julia could finally learn letter/sound correspondence, and eventually, reading.
If you have students, whether they're kindergarteners or high school seniors, who struggle with reading, the key to unlocking their literacy might be strengthening underdeveloped cognitive skills. Here's everything you need to know.
The Five Pillars of Literacy–and the Foundation That Holds Them
The science of reading has taught us that there are five essential components of literacy:
Since The National Reading Panel identified these pillars in 2000, reading specialists and teachers across the country have worked tirelessly to equip their students with these proficiencies.
What we don’t talk about enough is what I wish I had known when I was working with Julia. The foundation beneath these pillars is composed of the underlying cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing–what we call MAPS. Strong MAPS skills are like the base of a tower: if they are weak, reading proficiency can only go so high.
So, how do MAPS skills impact reading? Let’s dive in.
What Does the Science of Learning Tell Us About MAPS Skills and Reading?
To understand just how vital MAPS skills are, let’s examine their connection to literacy.
Both long-term and working memory allow us to understand and retain information, which is crucial to successful reading. We’ve probably all asked a student to recap a paragraph they’ve just read, only to be told, “I don’t remember what happened.” This response indicates that the student’s working memory, which holds temporary information to use at will, needs some strengthening.
According to research by professors Shinmin Wang and Susan Gathercole, “Children with reading difficulties often have pervasive deficits in simple and complex span tasks and have poorer abilities to coordinate two cognitively demanding tasks. These findings indicate that reading difficulties may stem directly from working memory problems and a deficit in the central executive functions.”
Memory is the key to building letter/sound correspondence and remembering the meaning and pronunciation of words. If, like Julia, a student has to relearn that “B” makes a “buh” sound every time they encounter it, because they didn’t remember this from a previous reading session, this will dramatically impede their reading progress.
Memory also allows us to connect earlier information to ideas we come across later, which is essential for learning since acquiring knowledge is, going back to our previous metaphor, like building a tower with one block stacked atop another. If students can’t retain information in their working memories long enough to commit it to their long-term memories, that tower isn’t going to get taller.
Memory and attention often work hand-in-hand since, to remember effectively, we have to be able to focus and not get distracted. Enter our next MAPS skill.
Think how many times you’ve asked your students to pay attention. Well, cognitive science has your back on this one.
The ability to focus on specific information, sustain focus, and ignore distractions while carrying out a task is a necessary component of successful literacy. But for many of our students with executive function challenges, being told to pay attention doesn’t work because they can’t stay focused for any length of time. And this, of course, impacts reading ability.
Attention issues can start early and have huge educational impacts. During kindergarten and, especially, first grade, attention deficits can lead to children not acquiring early reading skills to the same extent as their peers, explains researcher and child clinical psychologist Dr. David Rabiner. "When students don’t acquire these important [attention] skills during first grade, it significantly increases the likelihood that they will struggle with reading in the grades ahead," Rabiner adds.
On the flip side, a 2017 study on readers’ attention, fluency, and comprehension concluded that “attention in good readers who have grade-level reading skills is significantly associated with reading speed, prosody, reading comprehension, and word recognition.” As every classroom teacher already knows, attention is one of the first steps to successful learning, reading included.
For decades, education privileged fast processors, and to some extent, it still does. The kids who raise their hands quickly are seen as the smart ones and the kids who don’t as the not-so-smart ones. It was probably ten years into my teaching career before I heard advice like, “Don’t be afraid to let your students sit in silence before asking for answers,” or “Give your students time to think before a discussion.” I didn’t initially realize that my slower processors were often some of my most adept thinkers until I incorporated more journaling, reflection pauses, and small group work into my classroom.
While processing speed is not the same thing as intelligence, and classroom activities should accommodate a range of processing types, it is undeniable that processing is a fundamental component of strong literacy.
Our processing ability allows us to interpret, digest, and integrate auditory and/or visual information. We know from reading science that phonemic awareness (connecting letters to their sounds) is critical for reading, but what happens when children struggle with perceiving or processing those sounds?
Neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal studies how our brains learn to attach sounds to letters and how we put those sounds together to make words and sentences. She also looks at why some learners’ brains have such difficulty processing sounds. “Acoustically, ‘buh,’ ‘duh,’ and ‘guh’ are almost the same except for just tens of milliseconds difference at the onset,” she explains. “And if your brain has lumped together or has fuzzy edges between these different sounds, recognizing and hearing the differences will be challenging.
The teacher might be saying, ‘this is ‘buh.’ It goes with ‘B.’ And this is ‘duh.’ It goes with ‘D.’ But some students will hear no difference between the two sounds. They are visually confusable, but they are also the most acoustically confusable sounds we have.”
The bottom line is that if students can't process the phonemes within words, they will have difficulty decoding, spelling, and reading. And down the road, they will also struggle to process the information they do manage to read, meaning they won’t be able to recall it, discuss it, or write about it in class the following day or week.
Rounding out our MAPS skills, we have sequencing, which is the ability to track the order of things, such as the sounds in a word, words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, or events in a story. Basically, reading = sequencing.
Research links sequencing to reading comprehension. A 2017 study showed that students with strong reading comprehension skills created more accurate sequences of a story than those who had lower comprehension levels. This gave researchers preliminary evidence of the importance of sequencing for children's comprehension of narrative texts.
Students start sequencing in preschool when we ask them to string beads, arrange tiles, or–wait for it!–build block towers following a specific pattern. Beads and blocks quickly progress to numbers, sounds, letters, and words. Strong sequencing skills, in which students can quickly recognize a word based on the letter pattern and don’t have to sound out each letter, allow for automaticity in reading. Sequencing gets more complex as reading advances and students are required to recognize increasingly complicated patterns as words, paragraphs, and chapters get longer and sentence structure gets more intricate.
Two Sides, Same Coin: Build MAPS and Literacy Skills Together
While it’s true that students with poor MAPS skills are likely to struggle with literacy, there’s hope on the horizon.
And that hope starts with the brain.
As neuroscientist Michael Merzenich tells us, “The real way to change a brain is by engaging it to change itself. And the good news is that we all have a tremendous capacity to drive corrective change.” In other words, students with weak MAPS skills can build these skills by forging new neural connections that will lead to stronger cognition and better reading.
Studies show that students learn literacy skills and executive functions more effectively when taught in tandem. But teaching all these skills congruently can feel like a tall order, and it can be hard to know where to start.
We’ve got some ideas.
Cory Armes has eighteen years’ experience in K-12 education as a general and special education teacher and educational diagnostician, specializing in working with students with learning disabilities and behavioral issues. She has worked in Texas throughout her career and is glad to be on the ELAR team at Carnegie Learning.Explore more related to this author
Strong cognitive skills are like the base of a tower: if they are weak, reading proficiency can only go so high.
Cory Armes, M.Ed, former special education teacher and reading intervention specialist