5 ways executive function challenges can impact reading

Kids with executive function challenges may struggle with reading. Find out why, and learn how to help.

Executive function plays a big part in learning to read. It’s key to mastering the alphabet. And to understanding what words mean. So when kids have trouble with executive function skills, it can create difficulties with reading.

Here are five ways executive function challenges can affect reading.

1. Executive function and letter recognition

Kids with executive function challenges may confuse letters that look similar when they’re learning the alphabet. That’s because once they’ve learned something, it can be hard for them to leave it behind and adopt new rules.

Take the letters P and R. A child who learns P first may not recognize that R is similar, but it has an extra stroke. The child may still reflexively see it as P.

Focus also plays a role. Kids need to be able to sustain attention long enough to realize that an extra stroke turns a P into an R.

2. Executive function and sounding out words

New readers need to be able to sound out unfamiliar words letter by letter. That can be tricky for kids with executive function challenges. To or sound out a word, they have to keep the letter sounds from the beginning of a word in mind as they work through the rest of the word.

But trouble with working memory, a key executive function, makes it hard to do this. It can also impact overall understanding of a text. Kids may be so focused on decoding one word that they lose track of the meaning of what they’re reading.

3. Executive function and words with multiple meanings

Words that have the same sound and spelling but a different meaning can trip up even advanced readers. Kids have to use flexible thinking, another executive function skill, to grasp how a word can be used in more than one way.

For example, if kids come across the phrase a fork in the road, they’ll first consider the literal meaning. Then they’ll decide if it makes sense based on the context. Is there really a fork in the road? Or does it mean something else in this case?

Kids may also have trouble using context clues, like other words and pictures in the text. Because of that, they may not understand what they’ve read. Or it may take them longer to get through the text than it takes most kids.

4. Executive function and passive voice

When kids first learn to read, most sentences are in the active voice. “Sophie pushed Kevin” is an example of active voice. Over time, sentences become more complicated. “Kevin was pushed by Sophie” means the same thing but it’s in a passive voice. Trouble with executive function can cause kids to misinterpret the sentence. They might think it means that Kevin pushed Sophie, rather than the other way around.

To grasp the correct meaning, they have to hold the idea of “Kevin” in their mind as they read on to find out who the doer of the action is. This places a greater demand on working memory. It takes them longer to read the sentence. And there’s a greater chance they won’t correctly remember what happened.

5. Executive function and focus

Learning anything new takes effort, and reading is the same. You have to sit still, pay attention, and not get distracted.

Kids with executive function challenges often struggle with focus. That can make it hard for kids to decode. It can also make it hard to figure out the meaning of what they’re reading.

How you can help

Learning to read requires many skills. Kids with executive function challenges may need extra practice to master the basics of reading.

For families:

  • If your child is struggling with reading, talk to the teacher about ways to help.

  • You can also talk about getting an evaluation for special education. An evaluation can help you better understand what’s causing your child’s trouble with both reading and executive function.

For teachers: Learn about classroom accommodations for executive function challenges.


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