The Link Between Literacy and Executive Function
Literacy teachers, do these questions keep you up at night? How do I help students who respond well to phonics-based instruction but still struggle to read fluently? What else can I do to help them? What’s the missing piece of the puzzle?
Luckily, researchers are tackling these very questions, and we can benefit from their knowledge. As a neuroscientist and speech-language pathologist with more than 20 years of experience working with children, I know how the current science of reading research makes interventions effective, and more importantly, how we can use it to help our students succeed in reading.
Executive Function Matters
Literacy researcher Tim Shanahan recently wrote a thought-provoking blog post responding to a third-grade teacher’s question about the role executive functions (EFs) plays in teaching literacy. Shanahan writes, “executive function is closely related to reading ability. Students who demonstrate the best working memory, cognitive flexibility, self-control, and so on tend to be the best readers.”
Shanahan’s observation will come as no surprise to most educators, but there’s an important caveat. Shanahan explains that when taught generally (and disconnected from reading), executive function skills will not necessarily improve reading achievement. However, when reading-specific executive function skills are embedded in a literacy program, children can improve their executive function and reading skills.
Does such a literacy program exist? Shanahan doesn’t offer one, but I’m here to tell you–it does. I’ll explore the profound impact it can have on a reader who struggled to read by way of example. I’d like you to meet Mark.
Mark’s Literacy Struggles
From an early age, Mark had difficulty reading. Like other students who struggled with reading, he had trouble decoding and comprehending and received intensive direct phonics instruction during second grade. Mark also completed a computer-based supplemental reading program. Yet, he continued to read slowly and effortfully, and comprehension problems persisted even when he decoded accurately.
Toward the end of third grade, a school psychologist diagnosed him with attentional problems and verbal and nonverbal working memory issues. The psychologist found that Mark had learned to decode accurately, but his distractibility caused him to lose his place frequently. His poor working memory meant he forgot what he’d read, further compounding his comprehension problems. As a result, he repeatedly re-read texts with little to no benefit and became frustrated by the effort required to complete his assignments.
At this point, Mark was demoralized, his parents were concerned, and his teachers weren’t sure what to do next. Since reading well is one of the major predictors of academic success, not to mention a stepping stone to greater confidence, everyone wanted Mark to succeed.
Mark’s Literacy Successes
As soon as Mark was referred to me, I suggested he begin participating in a different computer-based intervention than the one he’d been doing. The program included the decoding and comprehension lessons he was used to, but the reading tasks included training in building attention and working memory as they pertained to reading. It also had literacy-specific components designed to build other executive function skills, such as cognitive flexibility and self-regulation. Lastly, the program was highly adaptive, meaning that it addressed Mark’s specific challenges and prioritized the skill-building Mark needed most.
So what was this reading program that provided executive function skills embedded in literacy training? It’s called Fast ForWord.
And did it work? Absolutely.
By the middle of fourth grade, Mark was an avid reader. He enjoyed reading so much that, according to his mother, he now read independently on nights and weekends. Sometimes Mark became so mesmerized by books that he would get annoyed when his parents interrupted his reading. Although very social, he often ignored texts from his friends until he finished a chapter.
When his parents asked Mark why he now liked reading so much, he said, “I’m really good at it. My teacher says I’m one of her best readers.”
Although Mark is an exceptional example of the power of Fast ForWord, many clinicians like me have seen students like Mark make a U-turn in as little time as a year. Of the hundreds of students I’ve worked with, the vast majority improved significantly using Fast ForWord. Several moved out of special education, and others stopped requiring supplemental services altogether. One of my Fast ForWord users recently became a licensed pediatric clinical psychologist, another a well-respected software engineer.
Executive Function and the Science of Reading
Think back to the many Marks you’ve taught. Even after appropriate interventions, did they continue to struggle? If the answer is yes, this may be because effective reading instruction isn’t just about learning fundamental literacy skills. It’s also about executive function, and developments in science of reading research are beginning to tell us why. Mark needed the direct phonics-based instruction he originally received, but as long as the executive function deficits weren’t addressed, traditional literacy instruction would only do so much.
Practically speaking, how should teachers of all the Marks out there proceed? Are you now required to learn how to teach EFs? How do you define executive function skills as they pertain to literacy specifically? And, once you’ve done this, how do you start incorporating these executive function skills into literacy instruction effectively? It’s a lot to manage, and this is where a program like Fast ForWord can help.
Fast ForWord Teaches Executive Function Skills in a Literacy Context
The Fast ForWord exercise Flying Fish provides an example of an activity that embeds executive function skill-building into literacy instruction.
In this exercise, a student repeatedly hears and sees a word that will appear again within a stream of other words, requiring the student to quickly select the correct word among the foils. The foils are presented on screen, one at a time, moving left to right, with the correct word appearing in a random order in each new sequence. This simple activity builds vocabulary recognition while simultaneously strengthening working memory.
Learning from Mark’s Literacy Experience
Circling back to Mark, our reluctant reader turned literacy all-star, Fast ForWord was the right program for him because his reading struggles were as tied to executive function issues as they were to basic literacy skills. The executive function tasks embedded in Fast ForWord augmented Mark’s other reading instruction and helped him overcome both his literacy and executive function challenges.
What’s the lesson in all this? All students—including those who initially struggle—can become our best readers if we combine direct reading instruction with supplemental training that builds literacy-specific executive function skills. Teaching these essential executive function skills as they are used in reading might be the missing people of the puzzle needed to help all students thrive as confident readers.
Explore Fast ForWord
Interested in learning more about the reading program that helped Mark learn to read with joy and confidence? Fast ForWord improves literacy fundamentals like phonemic awareness and vocabulary while also focusing on executive function skills like memory, attention, and self-regulation.
Here’s to a future where every Mark gets the reading help they need.
Barber, A. T., Cartwright, K. B., Stapleton, L. M., Klauda, S. L., Archer, C. J., & Smith, P. (2020). Direct and indirect effects of executive functions, reading engagement, and higher order strategic processes in the reading comprehension of dual language learners and English monolinguals. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, 101848.
Cartwright, K. B., Bock, A. M., Clause, J. H., August, E. A. C., Saunders, H. G., & Schmidt, K. J. (2020). Near-and far-transfer effects of an executive function intervention for 2nd to 5th-grade struggling readers. Cognitive Development, 56, 100932.
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Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.
Taboada Barber, A., Cartwright, K. B., Hancock, G. R., & Klauda, S. L. (2021). Beyond the simple view of reading: The role of executive functions in emergent bilinguals’ and English monolinguals’ reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 56, S45-S64 First published: 02 March 2021 https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.385
Dr. Martha Burns is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University and has authored four books and over 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication. Dr. Burns’ expertise is in all areas related to the neuroscience of learning, such as language and reading in the brain, the bilingual brain, the language to literacy continuum, and the adolescent brain. Dr. Martha Burns is a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Director of Neuroscience Education for Carnegie Learning.Explore more related to this author
Struggling readers can become our best readers if we combine direct reading instruction with supplemental training that builds literacy-specific executive function skills.
Dr. Martha Burns, Neuroscientist, Professor, and Director of Neuroscience Education, Literacy