The role of executive function in skilled reading

The role of executive function in skilled reading

First Author: Jessica Younger -- UCSF
Keywords: Executive Function, Reading development, Literacy Skills
Abstract / Summary: 

Recent research has pointed towards attention regulation or executive function (EF) skill playing a critical role in successful reading development. However, the specific role of EF may differ depending on the developmental stage and individual characteristics of the reader. In this symposium, the role of EF in various subcomponents of reading is examined across multiple stages and contexts of development. Haft et al. examines emerging readers in Kindergarten, while Younger and Gazzaley compare the relation between EF and reading skill in early vs later readers. Patael et al. use neuroimaging evidence to show EF may act as a compensatory mechanism to support reading comprehension in those who struggle with decoding. Finally, Meri and Horowitz-Krause assess the potential for an EF-based reading intervention to support skill in children with dyslexia. Implications of this work for reading instruction and intervention will be discussed.

Symposium Papers: 

Direct and indirect contributions of executive function to word decoding and reading comprehension in kindergarten

First Author/Chair:Stephanie Haft -- UC Berkeley
Additional authors/chairs: 
Jocelyn Cabellero; Hiroko Tanaka; Leo Zekelman; Laurie Cutting; Tuuko Uchikoshi; Fumiko Hoeft

Purpose: Extant research is increasingly recognizing the contribution of executive function (EF) to reading comprehension alongside established predictors like word decoding and oral language. The nature of the association between EF and reading comprehension is commonly investigated in older children and in those with reading impairments. However, less is known about this relationship in emerging readers in kindergarten, where word decoding and reading comprehension are highly intertwined. Moreover, a better understanding of the mechanisms by which EF influences reading comprehension is needed.

Method: The present cross-sectional study tests direct effects of EF on reading comprehension, as well as indirect effects through word decoding using path analysis in 97 kindergarten children. We hypothesized that EF would have a small direct effect on reading comprehension but a significant indirect effect through word decoding, given the strong tie between word decoding and reading comprehension at this age.

Results: Results indicated that there was a significant indirect effect of EF on reading comprehension, with word decoding mediating this association. The direct contribution of EF to reading comprehension was not significant.

Conclusions: These findings add to models of reading in supporting one specific mechanism by which EF can influence reading comprehension in kindergarten. EF can be used as an additional indicator of early reading difficulties, which may help implement interventions early to prevent widening achievement gaps in reading over the school years. Our results suggest that scaffolding EF in kindergarten can boost word decoding and in turn support reading comprehension.

Developmental differences in the role of executive function and print and sound-symbol correspondence knowledge

First Author/Chair:Jessica Younger -- UC San Francisco
Additional authors/chairs: 
Adam Gazzaley

Purpose: Relations between reading comprehension and executive functions (EF) have been shown across development, however the relations among individual components of EF and specific aspects of reading are yet unclear. Here, we sought to understand the individual contributions of EF components to print recognition and sound-symbol correspondence knowledge and how these relations might differ across development.

Method: First and second grade students were tested on letter-name and letter-sound knowledge while sixth graders were assessed on sight- and pseudo-word reading fluency. EFs were then assessed via five different assessments. Using linear models, we determined the specific contribution of EF components to aspects of reading skill for each age group and aspect of reading skill.

Results: In younger students, we found relations between EFs and print knowledge, but not sound-symbol correspondences. Further, these relations were only significant for students who achieved at least average performance on the letter-name task. The opposite pattern was found for older students; significant relations with EF and reading skill only emerged for pseudoword reading, and the relation was strongest for students with below-average skills. Finally, the specific EF component most strongly associated with skill-level differed by grade-level, indicating developmental differences in how EF contributes to reading skill.

Conclusions: This study provides evidence of developmental differences in how EF contributes to print recognition and sound-symbol correspondence knowledge, indicating EF plays a role across multiple aspects of the reading process. Yet, as readers develop, the way EF might support reading skill shifts as well.

Prefrontal cortex drives the dissociation between decoding and reading comprehension

First Author/Chair:Smadar Patael -- Tel-Aviv University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Stephanie Haft; Emily Farris; Jessica Black; Roeland Hancock; John Gabrieli; Laurie Cutting; Fumiko Hoeft

Purpose: Decoding and reading comprehension are highly interdependent. However, some children struggle to decode but comprehend well, whereas others with good decoding skills fail to comprehend. The neural basis underlying individual differences in this discrepancy between decoding and comprehension abilities is virtually unknown.

Method: This three-part study examined: (1) The relationship between gray matter volume (GMV) and reading discrepancy (defined as the difference between reading comprehension and decoding skills) in a cross-sectional sample of school-age children with a wide range of reading abilities (n=55); (2) Whether a discrepancy-related neural signature is present in beginning readers and predictive of future discrepancy (n=43); and 3) Whether discrepancy-related regions are part of a domain-general or a language specialized network, utilizing the 1000 Functional Connectome data and large-scale reverse inference from

Results: Results converged onto the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (LtDLPFC), as related to having discrepantly higher reading comprehension relative to decoding ability. Further, increased LtDLPFC GMV in pre-readers predicted greater discrepancy three years later. Finally, the role of this anatomical region was found to be associated with executive function and working memory.

Conclusions: Processes related to the prefrontal cortex are linked to reading discrepancy. Our results extend models of reading comprehension by showing the importance of cognitive resources as a booster for reading comprehension given a certain level of decoding. Studies such as ours provide insight into reading instructions and interventions that improve comprehension of written texts not only in those with dyslexia, but in children with all levels of decoding ability.

Training executive functions to improve reading in children with reading difficulties: an fMRI study

First Author/Chair:Raya Meri -- Technion Israel Institute of Technology
Additional authors/chairs: 
Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus

Purpose: Do we have to directly train reading in order to improve it? Or can we train a component of reading to amplify an effect? In the past years, the link between reading and executive functions has been strengthened both behaviorally and neurobiologicaly. For this study, we trained children with dyslexia using an executive-functions-based reading intervention. We hypothesized neural circuits related to both executive functions and reading would be involved in reading improvement in children with dyslexia.

Method: An executive-functions-based reading intervention that consisted of 4 weeks of training, 5 times per week for 20 minutes each time, was conducted for 8-12 year-old children with dyslexia and age-matched typical readers. Behavioral reading and executive functions measures and functional MRI data during reading and resting-state conditions were collected before and after the intervention. Data were analyzed using a functional connectivity approach to determine the differences between and within executive functions and reading networks following intervention.

Results: Results demonstrated improved reading and executive functions in both reader groups. Children with dyslexia demonstrated faster reading and better visual attention after interventional training compared to typical readers. Children with dyslexia also demonstrated increased functional connectivity between reading and executive-functions networks, as well as within-networks connectivity specifically in networks related to executive functions.

Conclusion: Reading can be trained not only by a direct reading training but also by manipulating underlying factors such as executive functions. These newly developed capabilities can be used as a compensation pathway in children with dyslexia to improve their reading ability


First Author/Chair:DISCUSSANT Jessica Younger