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Reading Comprehension and Working Memory's Executive Processes: An Intervention Study in Primary School Students

 | Sep 13, 2013

Kelly Cartright
by Kelly Branam Cartwright
Christopher Newport University
September 12, 2013

"Reading comprehension and working memory's executive processes: An intervention study in primary school students" by Juan A. García-Madruga, María Rosa Elosúa, Laura Gil, Isabel Gómez-Veiga, José Óscar Vila, Isabel Orjales, Antonio Contreras, Raquel Rodríguez, María Ángeles Melero, and Gonzalo Duque. Volume 48 Reading Research Quarterly (RRQ) (2013)

Why, even though she can read aloud beautifully, does my student not understand what she reads? It's as though she isn't even processing the meaning of the text at all! If you have ever found yourself thinking these thoughts about a student who struggles with reading comprehension, this research may be of particular interest to you:

We all know that reading comprehension is a tremendously complex task that requires the coordination of many kinds of information, such as our world knowledge, various ideas gleaned from text, the sounds and meanings of individual words and more. And, just as important, successful reading comprehension also requires that we focus on constructing a text interpretation that squares with the resources at hand—the text as it has been uncovered at any point in the comprehension process and the knowledge base that readers conjure up to render the text sensible.

These mental abilities—holding and updating information in mind while continually working on a task, coordinating and making connections between multiple types of information, focusing on a particular task while ignoring distracters—are called executive skills. They are the general cognitive abilities that enable us to control our thought processes and complete many types of tasks. As such, they are just as important for reading comprehension as they are for mathematical problem solving or for navigating around a new city (without the aid of your GPS!). Yet, when we consider reading comprehension, students are often expected to learn to do this complex cognitive juggling on their own, without explicit instruction in how it’s done.

García-Madruga and his colleagues hypothesized that if students were taught explicitly how to engage the executive skills important for reading comprehension, then students’ reading comprehension might improve. The researchers designed 10 text-related tasks that tapped five executive skills—focusing, switching (between elements of a complex task), connecting with prior knowledge, semantic updating in working memory (such as updating your interpretation of a text as you read and hold that text’s meaning in mind), and inhibition (or ignoring distractions)—and used the tasks to teach 3rd grade students in Spain how to deploy their executive skills while reading, yielding promising results in two studies.

Their training program preserved instructional elements we know to be effective for reading comprehension (1) explicit or direct explanation of executive skills, (2) teacher (or researcher, in this case) modeling of the tasks, (3) guided practice, and (4) independent practice. Training tasks included things like

  • putting story elements in order
  • interpreting instructions for and performing complex action sequences
  • solving multiple anaphora (pronoun referent) problems and remembering the solutions in order
  • detecting inconsistencies in texts
  • making inferences
  • keeping track of changing information in stories, and
  • integrating knowledge from various sources.

(See article for further description.)

Students were tested on reading comprehension, nonverbal intelligence, and working memory before and after the training. As expected, García-Madruga and his colleagues observed improvements in reading comprehension and working memory for trained students. Moreover, students’ nonverbal intelligence also improved (a surprising finding)!

On closer analysis, the researchers discovered improvements in reading comprehension were driven primarily by improvements for those students with initially low reading comprehension. In contrast, improvements in intelligence were driven primarily by improvements for those students with initially high reading comprehension. García-Madruga, et al. suggested their executive skills training improved reading comprehension for students who previously struggled with reading comprehension due to poor executive skills; however, for students who already had adequate reading comprehension, the training benefited them more broadly, resulting in improvements in nonverbal processing.

What do these findings mean for the students in your classroom who struggle with reading comprehension? First, executive skills associated with reading comprehension can be taught in a rather brief training program, resulting in improvements in reading comprehension – especially for students who struggle with reading comprehension at the outset.

Furthermore, although some people believe executive skills and intelligence (which is closely related to executive skills) cannot be changed, García-Madruga and colleagues demonstrated that executive skills can be taught, resulting in improvements in executive processing and in nonverbal intelligence. This finding is particularly important for students, parents, and teachers who believe students’ cognitive abilities (or lack of abilities) cannot be changed; understanding that processing can be improved with instruction and practice promotes educational success for all students.

Reader response is welcomed. Email your comments to LRP@/

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