There are varied opinions among education and neuroscience researchers regarding how many executive functions are involved in human cognitive processing, but the role that executive functions play in reading comprehension has become much clearer in recent years. This is important to recognize for a number of reasons. First, students with less developed executive functions struggle with comprehension, even when they are able to decode and read with fluency. Second, practicing decoding and fluency does not automatically develop comprehension. And third, executive functions can be developed with the right kind of mental exercise in a way that translates to rapid gains in reading comprehension.
Here are some examples of executive functions that are required for reading comprehension:
- Planning. This is what we do when we read a text and are looking for specific information.
- Working Memory. Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds while we manipulate it. In many ways, this is the essence of comprehension – the ability to think about what we are reading, while we are reading it. The role of working memory can also be as simple as remembering the beginning of the sentence until we get to the end.
- Sustained and Selective Attention. While we are reading, we need to sustain attention for an extended period of time and filter out distractions. The ability to select the information that we are looking for (using our Planning skills) is also an aspect of Selective Attention.
- Response Inhibition. This is the self-regulatory part of our cognitive processing that we put to use when we correct something we’ve misread or when we continue to bear in mind multiple possibilities until we reach the conclusion and can be sure there is no additional information that might change our understanding of the text.
- Sequential Processing. Keeping the order of events in mind as we read and grasping which happened before and after are essential to reading comprehension.
Another obvious but important aspect of executive functions is that they apply to everything we do, not just reading, of course. We have to sustain attention when listening to a weather alert on the radio. We have to plan when we are preparing a recipe for a family dinner. We use working memory to follow a set of verbal instructions, such as how to get to a friend’s house. We inhibit responses when we are angry but don’t lash out. We use sequencing skills when we organize our work. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that students with reading problems also commonly exhibit problems with organizing their work, following set of instructions, and staying on task.
Just how integrally executive functions are involved in reading comprehension can be appreciated by looking at some of the recent research on programs that develop executive functions. For example, students who used BrainWare SAFARI, a comprehensive and integrated cognitive skills development program (www.mybrainware.com) for 12 weeks improved their performance on the Woodcock Johnson III Passage Comprehension subtest by 1 year 11 months, compared to no change for a control group. Ramps to Reading and SkateKids (https://www.mybrainware.com/skate-kids-and-ramps-to-reading/) are reading programs that explicitly develop key cognitive skills, along with phonics and comprehension application. They have shown a dramatic impact on the development of reading comprehension.
Our education system has gotten really good at teaching phonics and phonemic awareness and at giving students plenty of practice to develop fluency. Now it’s time to get just as good at developing the executive functions required for the ultimate goal of reading – Comprehension.