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Executive Function Challenges in Academic Reading

Open hardcover book on table

by Linda Hecker, M.Ed.
Lead Education Specialist, Landmark College Institute for Research and Training

We all know academic writing is hard and requires large amounts of Executive Function for planning and organizing, maintaining effort and focus over time, exercising working memory, and suppressing negative emotions that lead to procrastination, perfectionism, or panic.

It’s less obvious that academic reading also involves lots of executive function (EF) brainpower. However, if we think about what students face when they crack open their text books, we can see EF at work, from planning where and when to read to extracting meaning in a way that supports understanding, retaining, and applying information.

Rows of books in library, seen from belowTwo metaphors associated with EF help explain the many dimensions of EF involved in academic reading: the brain’s CEO and the brain’s Orchestra Conductor. In some ways, our brain’s EF are like the CEO of an organization: managing operations over time by creating a vision and mission, setting goals, mobilizing a strategic plan with deadlines and deliverables, and delegating most of the actual work to others. 

In other ways, our brain’s EF are like the conductor of an orchestra, coordinating and synchronizing other functions in the moment, by maintaining focus and effort, inhibiting distractions, tamping down interfering emotions, monitoring to see if we’re still on track, and changing course if we’re not. This wonderful diagram by Hollis Scarborough illustrates how EF coordinates and synchronizes that many sub-processes that go into reading.

Reading places high demands on our EF CEO’s to plan for reading over time and on our EF conductors to navigate the challenges of reading in the moment.

The first step in reading involves the critical EF, Activation: planning and preparing to read. Let’s look at how the EF CEO and Conductor impact Activation and some strategies for overcoming those challenges.

When we’re faced with a typical academic reading assignment, we know it’s going to require a period of intense concentration and mental effort. Our instinctive response is to procrastinate, but if we anticipate this tendency, we’ll use our calendar to schedule a time and place for reading when our EF reserves are up to the task. We’ll program our computer or smartphone alarms to remind us as the time approaches; if we use the services of a coach, ideally we’ll have a point-of-performance check-in by text or IM to add a layer of accountability. We’ll also prioritize our assignments to tackle the hardest ones first, and plan an appropriate strategy. Depending on length and complexity and our purpose for reading, some assignments can be skimmed; others need close reading and annotation. We’ll gather our tools (pencils, highlighters, laptops or tablets) and materials. All these planning/strategizing moves engage our EF CEO for Activation.

E-reader seen from above in hand of reader

At the point-of-performance, our EF Conductor takes over, overcoming inertia, maintaining focus and effort. We may need to break a long reading into manageable chunks, with short breaks for rewards, hydration, aerobic exercise. We mustn’t forget to set our timer for stretches of focused effort AND to resume reading when break time is over. We need to actively monitor our comprehension, so we don’t get to the end of a selection and realize we stopped absorbing information 3 pages back. When we’re confused or bored we need to activate a strategy to repair comprehension or keep us awake. For some readers, digital text, with its customizable font type, size and color, column width, and words per page, can make the difference between staying engaged and falling asleep. Text-to-speech makes digital reading more multi-sensory and engaging than hard copy.

If you’d like more detail about the role of EF and Academic Reading you can access my recent webinar “Procrastination, Perfectionism and Panic: The Role of EF in Academic Reading” for replay. If you have questions, just email me: lhecker@landmark.edu. I’d love to know if looking at Academic Reading from an EF perspective has helped you in your work with students.

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