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Executive Functioning As It Relates To The Reading Process

What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of mental processes that help us guide and manage our actions. These processes help us self-regulate our behavior so that we can take actions to work towards a goal. For example, executive functions assist us in understanding tasks, developing and having a plan to complete tasks, initiating and following through on the plan, and revising the plan if necessary. Executive functions have been described as mental processes that help us connect our past experiences with our current actions. Therefore, they are the central managers when it comes to our ability to plan ahead, organize, initiate action, monitor our actions to complete activities on time, efficiently multi-task, attend to detail, connect prior learning and knowledge to current situations, evaluate and reflect upon actions, and self-correct. In order to work, executive functions require access to our attention and memory.

What is reading?

The purpose of reading is to understand written information. Skilled readers typically read for two purposes: to gain knowledge or for pleasure. They are able to effortlessly read words and access prior knowledge to comprehend the written message, they monitor multiple viewpoints, and they are able to evaluate and reflect upon what they have read. More often than not, skilled readers don’t reflect upon the process of individual word reading, and they are typically unaware of the extent that executive functioning is involved in the reading process. They are skilled readers because these actions have become automatic.

Reading begins when we receive sensory input in the form of visual symbols, i.e., letters and words, printed on a page or computer screen. The visual make up of words is referred to as their orthography. Once we receive orthographic information two simultaneous events take place. The phonological processor, which is responsible for the sounds of letters and letter combinations, is automatically activated; and the meaning processor, which retrieves from memory the meaning of words, is activated. These processors assist with the accuracy of word identification and meaning. In addition, the meaning processor activates the context processor which helps ensure that the words we are reading are appropriate to the context as well as assists with ambiguous word identification. The interaction of all of these processes assist in progressing from word recognition to constructing meaning from visual symbols. Skillful reading is produced by the coordinated interactions of these processes.

How Are Executive Functions Part of the Reading Process

Executive Functions are an inherent part of reading. They play a part in word recognition, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. For word recognition, executive functions direct our immediate and sustained attention to the printed symbols for accurate letter and word perception. They monitor the accuracy of orthographic processing, inhibit inaccurate responding, and help regulate the rate of word recognition. When word recognition errors occur they provide a self-regulating feature that activates appropriate self-correcting strategies.

Reading fluency is the ability to read accurately, quickly, and with appropriate inflection. Executive functions related to fluency include the regulation of speed and word identification, sustaining effort, and self-monitoring. In addition, fluent reading requires the monitoring of syntax in order for accurate prosody to take place.

Executive functions play a key role in reading comprehension. In order to construct meaning from text we need to effectively allocate and manage our cognitive and attention resources in order to focus on meaning. Reading comprehension requires us to flexibly shift from retrieving and interpreting background knowledge to interpreting and prioritizing new content. We have to combine our understanding of new content to our prior knowledge, which requires active attention and thought. Executive functions assist us in drawing inferences and conclusions, processing redundant information, and separating main ideas from details.