Can We Improve Our Students’ Executive Function? Will That Help...

Here’s a fun exercise. I’m going to give you a list of words. You try to sort them into two groups, based on the sound they begin with:

cup, bag, bread, can, box, cookie, cake, bucket, corn, beans, crate, banana

Presumably you came up with /k/ sounds and /b/ sounds:

cup, can, crate, cookie, cake, corn

beans, bread, banana, box, bag, bucket

Okay, now go back and RESORT those words into two groups, based on the category they belong to.

Presumably you came up with containers and foods:

cup, can, crate, box, bag, bucket

cookie, cake, corn, beans, banana, bread

If you succeeded, BRAVO! You demonstrated cognitive flexibility: an executive function that allows you to change your thought process mid-stream.

Believe it or not, we have to learn this particular skill.

In video below, for instance, 3-year-olds sort cards according to their color (“red goes here, blue goes there”). They’re usually good at that. However, when the rules change to focus on shape (“trucks go here, flowers go there”), they struggle to follow the different instructions.

Why? Because they haven’t yet developed the executive function of cognitive flexibility.

New Research: Improving Reading

For a number of reasons, we might think that this general executive function (cognitive flexibility) might support a specific academic skill (reading).

If that’s true, then maybe we can help struggling readers by training their cognitive flexibility. (This possibility relies on several assumptions; the scholars who did this work have lots of research supporting each one.)

To test this possibility, Kelly Cartwright & Co. had teachers spend several weeks training a group of 2nd – 5th  graders in cognitive flexibility.

Basically, those students repeated that word-sorting/resorting exercise you did at the top of this post. And, they tried a more complicated fill-in-the-blank version of that task as well.

The results?

Compared with other struggling readers, these students got better at cognitive flexibility. And — here’s the big news — they got better at reading as well. (More specifically: they didn’t get better at individual word recognition, but they got better at reading comprehension and grade level reading.)

So, in this research, Cartwright’s team found that training a particular executive function helps struggling readers do better.

Technically speaking, that’s awesome.

As Always, the Caveats

First: as Dan Willingham says in his Twitter bio, “One study is just one study, folks.” Even if Cartwright and Co. did everything right, it’s possible their results are a fluke. We won’t know until many other scholars succeed in replicating and extending this finding.

Second: We shouldn’t extrapolate too far based on this study. We don’t know if training other executive functions would help struggling readers. We don’t know if training EF benefits typical readers; or, people first learning to read; or, improves the performance of sophisticated readers.

Those questions are important — but not addressed directly by this research.

Third: Both reading instruction and executive function are hotly controversial topics. (Heck, I wrote a post about a month ago questioning the very idea of a “general” executive function.) I wouldn’t be surprised if this research (or my summary of it) prompted stern rebukes from scholars/practitioners with a different understanding of reading/EF processes.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if those stern rebukes were correct. If you’ve got an alternative perspective (and some research behind it), please let me know.

But, with those caveats in mind, this research strikes me as exciting and potentially powerful. Any strategy to help struggling readers should get our attention. One that a) costs essentially no money, b) doesn’t take very long, and c) can be done so easily might be a real boon to schools, students, and readers.

Watch this space…

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