Can Improving Executive Function Also Improve Reading?

So, I want to be clear … this blog post is NOT meant to oversimplify reading complexity by providing a panacea to reading deficiencies. What I want to share with you at this time is the potentially exciting news that executive function CAN play a role in successful reading.

I’ve read some recent research on how COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY (a key Executive Function) may be one of the important determinants in reading fluency. One of my favourite sites (Learning & The Brain) had a great article on COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY and it being a key to reading success.

OK … Let’s play a game.

Read this short list of items:

cup, bag, bread, can, box, cookie, cake, bucket, corn, beans, crate, banana

Now, mentally sort them into two groups based upon the initial sound of their word. You likely came up with:

  • cup, can, crate, cookie, cake, corn (“K” sounds)
  • beans, bread, banana, box, bag, bucket (“B” sounds)

Now, I want you to change your sorting system. Sort them into two different groups, this time based on the CATEGORY of objects they belong to. You likely came up with:

  • cup, can, crate, box, bag, bucket (containers)
  • cookie, cake, corn, beans, banana, bread (foods)

Most of us can mentally change focus like this fairly easily — we are pretty good at COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY — an executive function that allows us to change our thought processes to accommodate a new set of circumstances.

I want you to watch a short video. It shows a ‘typical’ 3-year old who has difficulty with cognitive flexibility because it is not yet fully developed. He is at a normal stage of his develop. Take a look at how he is first asked to sort by COLOUR and then by SHAPE — not an easy task as it turns out:

One research study (Near-and far-transfer effects of an executive function intervention for 2nd to 5th-grade struggling readers, Oct 2020) set out to study the correlation between cognitive flexibility and reading ability. Researchers had struggling readers practice sorting exercises, similar to what you did earlier in this blog, and had them repeat it several times to become successful.

What did they find?

Compared with other struggling readers, students who got better at cognitive flexibility showed improvement in their reading as well. More specifically: they didn’t just get better at individual word recognition, they got better at overall reading comprehension.

Again … I don’t want to oversimply this to give you the impression that cognitive flexibility is a ‘fix’ for all struggling readers. But, the early research is showing that we MIGHT be able to help some struggling readers by training this important EF skill. Certainly, there’s much to clarify in the study as well as testing a bunch of other hypotheses, but the idea is definitely intriguing.

Early research is usually exciting as it can open up new solutions to old problems. However, as any good educator knows we need to be careful not to read too much into this particular study. For example, we actually don’t know if EF skills actually benefit typical readers or sophisticated readers or when people first start to read. These are all important questions to explore.

But, this kind of thing is what makes education such an exciting field. There’s always more to learn and more to discover.

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