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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

How Do We Teach Executive Function in Reading?

January 16, 2022

Teacher question: Could you tell us how to teach “executive function skills”? We don’t teach them at our school, and our core program doesn’t emphasize them. However, the graduate program I’m in says they are important. Our school district emphasizes the reading rope, and it doesn’t even mention executive function. But my professor showed us the “Active View of Reading Model” which does include it. Which of these is the science of reading and what should I be doing to teach executive function? I teach third grade.

Shanahan's response:

Let’s first try to figure out what executive function is. Basically, the term executive function (EF) refers to a set of neurocognitive processes that we use for self-control or self-regulation. People have goals, they plan, they coordinate their actions, they focus their attention and shut out distraction, they adjust their focus and emphasis, and so on. EF is the boss man (or woman) in your head that takes charge of regulating your behavior and directing your attention and so on.

At the general level — and my description was pretty general — there isn’t much disagreement about EF. However, when you drill down you start finding nagging discrepancies and contradictions. For instance, when I was in grad school a hot topic was metacognition, our awareness and management of our own thinking. Studies at that time showed that good readers monitored their reading — their metacognition was on the lookout for mistakes and misunderstandings so it could unleash fix up strategies (e.g., “I don’t get it, I should reread that part”).

These days, not all treatments of executive function include metacognition (Roebers, 2017). Some EF experts don’t mention it at all, and others claim it to be a separate category of self-regulation, though why we’d have multiple people in our heads taking on those kinds of problems I don’t know.

Another puzzler has to do with the role of “working memory.” Working memory is the limited capacity system that holds information temporarily while we think about it. That’s where we figure things out and solve problems and so on. Most or all definitions of EF include some prominent mention of working memory.

But there are disagreements about what that entails. Working memory can only manage a small number of items at a time — and that capacity is more due to neural architecture and genetics than training. It seems contradictory that executive function would be focused on working memory given that it is out[side] of conscious control. Nevertheless, there have been many studies aimed at increasing the capacity of working memory as a way of addressing executive function.

Another way to conceptualize working memory is as a cognitive system that includes not only a limited capacity processor, but also the attentional processes that determine what enters working memory, our abilities to rehearse and otherwise renew information so it doesn’t disappear before we’re done with it, ideas about how to chunk information or move it along to long term memory, and so on. Those attention and memory management tools certainly seem to belong to EF.

If you look at that “Active View” model that you mention (Duke & Cartwright, 2021), you’ll see that its authors lump several processes together under “self-regulation,” including motivation, executive function, and strategy uses (not just comprehension strategies, but the ones we use when decoding or dealing with word meanings).

That model ignores metacognition (though the article mentions a study that included comprehension monitoring in its model), and it separates executive function and reading strategies (though they are each listed within the self-regulation category).

One thing is clear, even across a variety of definitions: 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.

With that information on the table, let’s turn to your question about teaching. You wanted to know how to teach executive function in reading, but there is an even more fundamental question that must be asked. Can we teach EF?

The answer to that question may depend to some extent upon what you include in the EF drawer.  

If you focus on something like working memory capacity, you’ll likely conclude that EF can’t be taught or that it can’t be taught sufficiently well to allow someone to read or learn to read any better (Melby-Lervåg, & Hulme, 2016). I was able to find one study in which general EF instruction had impacted reading achievement (Johann & Karbach, 2020), but it wasn’t clear to me why this general flexibility training affected some reading tasks but not others (it improved student ability to choose words to fill blanks in sentences, but not reading comprehension or word reading ability), why only a game version of the training had any impact on reading, or whether the results were replicable.

On the other hand, if you include items that are more of the “applied EF” or “reading-specific EF”, then the possibilities are greater. I myself would include all those monitoring skills and reading strategies as part of EF, since EF is intentional and strategic in nature.

However, if you set those aside, the pickings are much slimmer, but Duke and Cartwright (2021) point out one really interesting example. Cartwright (and her colleagues) conducted a series of studies in which children in grades 2-5 learn to respond to words flexibly — sorting them both based on letters and meaning — which improved word reading abilities (Cartwright, et al., 2020). (The kids would sort words into a 2 X 2 matrix, with two meaning categories and two spelling patterns… words that begin with “B” are placed in the “B” column, but some of these words may be foods and others are toys, so “bread” must be put in both the “B” column and the food row, etc.).

Whether that training is leading to greater cognitive flexibility generally (executive function), or whether it is only helping kids to be more flexible in the specific task of switching between decoding and word meaning in reading I don’t know. I presume the latter and suspect that in the long run, we won’t be trying to teach EF but rather EF-like abilities specific to reading. (Either way it’s a cool instructional task that would be easy to adopt into classroom practice and the results were impressive.)

The reason for my EF skepticism has much to do with “learning transfer.” Getting people to apply their learning to tasks, problems, and situations very different from the ones that were the focus of their training is difficult and rare in all aspects of learning.  

Fundamentally, EF is bound up in intentionality and self-regulation.

When it comes to teaching reading, we want kids to try to learn. That’s why it can be so helpful to be specific about learning goals and why giving kids a clear idea about the purpose of lessons is so beneficial.  

When it comes to reading, we want kids to try to understand texts based on their reading of an author’s words. That’s why classroom culture needs to convey a deep commitment to meaning in reading and writing.

Providing tools for solving problems and a sense of the conditionality or the need for flexibility is critical. For instance, teaching kids a phonics pattern like VCVe should include attention to words that don’t follow that pattern (done, come, gone) as well as guidance towards flexibility (“if you try the long vowel and it doesn’t make sense, try some alternatives”). Likewise, comprehension strategies need to be applied in different ways depending upon how difficult a text is or its length, and instruction should give students the opportunity to gain such insights.

What I’m arguing against here is a set of lessons on executive function.

What I’m arguing for is that we encourage students to be intentional, purposeful, goal oriented, self-aware, flexible, and strategic. Instruction should consider the role that EF must play in all aspects of reading. If something needs to be learned to the point of automaticity, then students should know that, and they need to know why drill and practice might play such a big role in those instructional activities. Likewise, if a skill needs to be applied conditionally, then students should be taught where to direct their attention to make the appropriate determination.

At this time, we don’t have any set of executive function skills that if taught generally will improve reading achievement. Teaching the specifics of these EF skills within reading as they apply to reading is what is called for.

Oh, one more thing. Your school and your graduate program may not be as far apart as you fear. The reading rope was created by Hollis Scarborough in the 1990s to illustrate some of the complexity of reading and learning to read, organizing a set of skills efficiently into a single-page graphic (Scarborough, 2001). At that time, there were only a handful of studies on executive function within reading. Since 2000, that change; there are now hundreds of such studies. Not surprisingly, Scarborough added that variable to her model later on (Cutting & Scarborough, 2012). Both the rope and the active graphics are useful conceptions for conveying some broad ideas; don’t expect either to provide a comprehensive representation of all that is known about reading, nor a roadmap for what to teach.

References

Cartwright, K.B., Bock, A.M., Clause, J.H., Coppage August, E.A., 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, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2020.100932

Cutting, L.E., & Scarborough, H.S. (2012). Multiple bases for comprehension difficulties: The potential of cognitive and neurobiological profiling for validation of subtypes and development of assessments. In J.P. Sabatini, T. O’Reilly, & E.R. Albro (Eds.), Reaching an understanding: Innovations in how we view reading assessment (pp. 101–116). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Duke, N.K., & Cartwright, K.B. (2021). The science of reading progresses: Communicating advances beyond the simple view of reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 56(S1), S25-S44. https://doi:10.1002/rrq.411

Johann, V.E., & Karbach, J. (2020). Effects of game-based and standard executive control training on cognitive and academic abilities in elementary school children. Developmental Science, 23(4), https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12866

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2016). There is no convincing evidence that working memory training is effective: A reply to Au et al. (2014) and Karbach and Verhaeghen (2014). Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23(1), 324–330.

Roebers, C.M. (2017). Executive function and metacognition: Toward a unifying framework of cognitive self-regulation. Developmental Review, 45, 31-51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2017.04.001

Scarborough, H.S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (vol. 1, pp. 97–110). New York, NY: Guilford.

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