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What Do You Mean by “Cognitive Capacity?”

What Do You Mean by “Cognitive Capacity?”

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A webinar hosted by EdWeb was provocatively titled, “4 Lies the System Teaches School Leaders about Struggling Readers.”  The first “lie,” according to the presenter is that struggling readers have a lower cognitive capacity than typical readers.  Is that a lie?  Well, whether or not this is a lie depends on what you mean by cognitive capacity.

If we define cognitive capacity as we usually do, as having well-developed cognitive skills essential to learning, then many struggling readers do have a lower cognitive capacity than typical readers.  That is not a lie.  In fact, if you give a cognitive assessment to struggling readers, you will find that many, if not most, perform below national norms on one or more skills like attention or working memory or cognitive flexibility or verbal memory or verbal reasoning.  In other words, there is a reason that these students struggle with reading that may not be related to reading instruction, but how their brains have developed.  (More information on the cognitive skills involved in reading is included in many of our webinars.)

If we define cognitive capacity specifically related to reading, then we might have in mind the fact that building a reading brain is no trivial matter and that there are specific connections the brain needs to develop for reading.  As humans we evolved for language.  But reading is not natural (for more on this see our earlier blog on the subject).  Each brain needs to build its own reading pathway.  If that pathway is in place, then reading will likely be very challenging.  So, in this sense as well, some struggling readers do have lower cognitive capacity than typical readers. (See, for example our recent webinar called You Don’t Have to Be Dyslexic to Have Trouble Learning to Read English.)

It turned out that the EdWeb presenter had another definition in mind.  Cognitive capacity in her context related to content.  Essentially, the point was that a 12-year old who struggles with reading is interested in and can engage in thinking about content that other 12-year olds are interested in and can engage in thinking about.  Her point was that dumbing down the content and the subject matter for struggling readers is wrong.  In this context, and using her definition, assuming lower cognitive capacity fro struggling readers would be mistaken and counter-productive.

The problem is that when you say something is a lie and don’t define your terms, you risk misleading your audience. This is particularly problematic if, as this presenter did, you show pictures of the brain and tell the audience that struggling readers’ brains are the same as the brains of typical readers.  If her information wasn’t wrong, it was incomplete and misleading. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even necessary to make her point.

So, the belief that struggling readers have lower cognitive capacity is not really a lie. In fact for many students, having educators throw the concept out would be detrimental to efforts to help students with learning to read.

One other important facet of cognitive capacity, defined either as the cognitive skills involved in learning in general or as the specific reading pathways in the brain, is that they can be developed and strengthened.  Thus, even when struggling readers do lag their typically developing peers in certain cognitive processes, that is a gap that can be addressed.  (See Minding the Gap.)