In the previous article we talked about a study on the executive functions that predict mathematical skills.

This time, however, thanks to a study by Johann and colleagues [1], we will talk about executive functions and reading. In particular, for reading, decoding and understanding, two independent but highly correlated components, will be examined.

The hypothesis is that different subcomponents of executive functions may play an important role in reading. In particular:

  • La working memory in general, according to recent studies (in particular the meta-analysis by Peng and colleagues [2]), it correlates significantly with reading skills, especially in the early years, or in the acquisition phase of reading, while working memory oral in particular it would be more useful in the later stages.
  • La flexibility it could play an important role in managing the transition between the important information just read and the new information to be acquired during the reading.
  • The inhibition it could be used to identify the relevant information during the reading, leaving out the less important.

A systematic review

The study was conducted on 186 German children third and fourth graders who supported:

  • A span task (working memory)
  • A stroop-like task (inhibition)
  • A switching task (flexibility)
  • A reading test
  • A test of fluid intelligence (colored matrices of Raven)

In the German test battery (ELFE 1-6) the evaluation of understanding is carried out on three levels:

  • Word (72 items): the subject observes the image and must choose the corresponding word from 4 phonologically similar words (3 minutes to make as much as possible)
  • Sentence (28 sentences): the subject must choose the word to complete the sentence from 4 phonologically similar distractors (3 minutes to make as much as possible)
  • Understanding (13 short texts): the subject must read the texts and answer the 20 multiple choice questions to be asked in seven minutes
You may also be interested in: Samples of executive functions

The results

The study showed that:

  • The working memory span and inhibition they correlate significantly with reading speed, but (surprisingly) not with understanding text
  • Flexibility correlates significantly with the understanding of the text
  • Fluid intelligence correlates both with the comprehension of the text and with the reading speed

In general, as we have seen for the relationship between executive functions and mathematical skills, studies like this begin to delineate the relationships between the individual subcomponents and the results we try to achieve, and this can certainly be useful in planning interventions. On the other hand, it is always good to remember that the model of executive functions is, as always, a model, and that often the processes involved are more than those that are included in a study; the risk of having missed the possible confounding variables is, therefore, to be taken into consideration.

Furthermore, as anticipated at the beginning, the relationship between working memory and reading seems to vary with age, therefore a study like this, centered on third and fourth grade children, may not be generalizable to the lower and upper classes. However, it remains a good starting point to try to understand the different mechanisms that underlie the speed of reading and understanding, two highly correlated functions but, as confirmed by this study, also in some independent ways.

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mathematical executive functionsText comprehension