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Executive Functioning: The Key to Reading Failure?

Try harder. Just focus. Pay attention! Turn in your work. Listen to the instructions the first time. Get organized.

These are messages that students hear every day in classrooms across the country. These are hard-working, good-intentioned educational professionals who are trying to help kids be successful. Often, however, these messages have the effect of “death by a thousand paper cuts” as my colleague calls them. Hearing “pay attention” once a day may sting a bit like a small paper cut, but day after day in class after class and pretty soon a child is figuratively bleeding out from the thousands of times they have been told they aren’t smart enough, focused enough, organized enough, and trying hard enough.

Take a look at the word cloud below. This broad group of cognitive skills all belong under the big umbrella of executive functioning skills. Many students and adults have difficulties with one or more of these areas. Often, these individuals are labeled with “ADD” or “ADHD” but executive functioning includes far more than attention and inhibition. These weaknesses can have a significant impact on their academic learning, professional achievement, and self-esteem. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus very narrowly on how they impact reading achievement.

Reading is an incredibly complex task. Our brains are hard-wired for learning spoken language, but not for reading. Pathways have to be laid in the brain and trained over time for a child to become a proficient, fluent reader. It requires very complex coordination of cognitive skills, including phonological processing, phonemic awareness, phonics, orthographic processing, and yes, executive function. Think of executive function as the air traffic controller of the brain. We have all of these tasks, messages, sensory inputs, emotions, physical needs, and thoughts bombarding us at any given moment. Our executive function skills coordinate all of the information and help guide the function of the rest of the brain. Think about a child sitting in class listening to a read-aloud with his teacher during circle time. In order to do this, she has to regulate her balance and body to sit quietly, block out the ticking clock, the boy snapping his fingers next to her, and the ant she sees crawling on the carpet. She has to listen to the story and sustain that attention to the end. She has to remember what was read(auditory memory)and then when the teacher asks her a question, pull the answer from her working memory. All of the skills described for this one task are those of executive function. Although this example was of a child being read to and thus listening comprehension, it is a good illustration of the types of cognitive skills needed to succeed in a classroom.

Now, let’s turn to reading. If you have worked with your child or taught anyone to read, you know the basics-phonological processing, phonemic awareness, and phonics. Phonological processing includes skills like rhyming and phonemic awareness is the ability to identify, isolate, blend, segment, and manipulate sounds. For example, “what is the first sound in bat” “/b/”. Replace the /b/ in “bit”with /s/. What do you get? “sit”. Phonics is connecting sounds with letters, also known as the alphabetic principle. This is how we sound words out. A few years ago, the concept of orthographic processing became widely embraced. Orthographic processing is the way we store words in memory. It is the brain’s ability to remember a sequence of letters and store them for rapid retrieval. 90% of the instructional focus in most classrooms is on phonemic awareness and phonics. However, some students still struggle with learning to decode even though they have decent phonemic awareness and phonics skills. Even with multiple years of “intervention” they still do not progress. Children like this, whom I have termed “persistent non-responders” may have significant difficulties with their executive function skills.

Executive Functioning skills are regulated by the prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop and is housed right behind your forehead. One particular part of the PFC, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, is highly involved in reading, learning, and speech. It regulates sustained and divided attention, is involved in speech articulation, ocular-motor (eye tracking) skills, and more. If the DLPFC is underactive, you most likely see a speech delay or poor speech articulation, attention challenges, poor visual skills, and poor academic performance overall.

EF skills are highly overlooked by the educational system and cannot be diagnosed by a school psychologist. Only a neuropsychologist can diagnose it through specialized testing or a neurologist/psychiatrist through specialed brain scans which are never used, unfortunately. Most schools will use attention checklists to determine if there are attention problems, but attention is only one piece of the EF puzzle and really overlooks all the ways in which we use EF to succeed in school and life.

The great news is that EF skills can be taught and this part of the brain can be activated through several different approaches. Somatic approaches such as Rhythmic Movement Training and Primitive Reflex Integration can help establish the needed neural pathways for this to happen. Then, neurofeedback such as Play Attention or listening therapy such as the Focus Program can specifically train the PFC and EF skills.

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