Executive Functions and Reading

The term executive function (EF) has become common over the past few years. Often executive function issues are associated with kids and adults with ADHD. However, more recently research is reveals connections between executive function,  more specifically cognitive flexibility, and reading.

So what is executive function?

Executive function refers to high-level cognitive skills necessary for independent, goal-directed behavior, including intentionally shifting attention between aspects of the task, holding information in working memory, and problem solving (Dawson & Guare, 2010; Jacobson, et. al, 2017). Dawson and Guare (2010) defines executive function through 11 areas: (a) response inhibition, (b) working memory, (3) emotional control, (4) sustained attention, (5) task initiation, (6) planning/prioritization, (7) time management, (8) organization, (9) goal-directed persistence, (10) flexibility, and (11) metacognition (thinking about what you are thinking about).

How does EF connect to reading?

Executive functions play an intricate role in the academic achievement of students. Competent reading requires a variety of skills beyond those for basic word reading. Meltzer (2010) states that “research shows the importance of reading flexibility, or a reader’s ability to adapt their reading skills to the demands and purpose of the material.” The skill of reading requires students to develop and apply cognitive flexibility (also referred to as shifting; Jacobson, et al., 2017) across all academic domains.


At an elementary age, students are required to accurately and efficiently shift between letter-sound decoding, use of sight word vocabulary, use of context clues, and use of analogies. As students further develop as readers, they are required to process the meaning of text, “flexibly accessing their background knowledge, recognizing the purpose or goal of reading, and monitoring their own comprehension” (Meltzar, 2010, p. 142).


What can you do?

There are a variety of resources parents can access to help develop your child’s executive function skills (see our resources below). LDA Minnesota regularly offers executive function workshops for parents and teachers that provide an overview of the EF areas. Additionally, LDA provides an Executive Function Skill Building course for middle and high school students. Enrolling your child in our Executive Function Course will develop awareness to each student’s areas of strength and areas of needed improvement, as well as provide them with strategies for immediate application outside of the course.



Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has a valuable online resource for families: Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence

The Search Institute has a tip sheet for parents and teachers: Strengthening Executive Function in Children: Tips for Parents and Practitioners

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