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Is it enough to know how to read a text to fully understand its meaning? Experience tells us no. Science confirms it. A very recent study shows that it is not enough to know the words, there are processes in the brain that contribute to the ability to focus and maintain information and that can have influence.

Reading and understanding a text is one of the most important goals of the early years of schooling. There is extensive research on learning to read, but even today the capacities involved in the process of understanding a text are discussed. Nowadays, it is recognised that a good reader is not limited to the good ability to decode written symbols, although that is absolutely determinant in the initial learning of reading. The contribution of executive functions in the individual variation of reading comprehension has gained consistency in this debate and has been reinforced in a recent study.

What leads students to misunderstand what they read?

When students do not successfully remove information from a text it may be because

1. they do not know the meaning of some words;

2. they make a mistake and do not realise that they do not understand the text;

3. they do not make inferences.

The importance of the first two reasons is easy to evaluate, while the importance of inferences may be less obvious. However, part of the problem might even be related to the amount of inferences required during reading. Let us look at the following example:[1]

John was busy with the bucket and the shovel. The sand castle was almost finished. Then a huge wave came in from the shore. Seeing that the day's work had been ruined, John began to cry.

Inference: John was building a sand castle.

Necessary previous knowledge: a bucket and a shovel are used to build with sand at the beach.

Inference: the sand castle has been shattered by the wave.

Necessary previous knowledge: the rising tides and the waves on the beach destroy the sand sculptures.

In order to comprehend the passages of a text, even the short ones, as in this example, it is necessary that several components are integrated in what ends up being a dynamic interaction between the reader and the text. Reading comprehension is thus a complex process that requires a set of cognitive abilities, since the reader's work involves extraction and simultaneous construction of meaning.

Despite the fact that in order to extract meaning, it is necessary first of all to read with a fair degree of fluency, and then, of course, to possess language skills such as mastery of prosody [2] and knowledge of vocabulary, as well as previous knowledge of the topic under analysis [3], the latest empirical data also highlight the role of executive functions. In the case of general knowledge, those functions - unlike decoding - are not specific to reading. However, several studies suggest that difficulties in integrating various pieces of information or ideas into a coherent whole may also be linked to difficulties in executive functioning. This functioning plays a role in the direction of cognitive resources during reading, in that it guides not only attention but also the ability to hold information and manipulate it until the task is accomplished, that is, to extract meaning from the text read [4]. In the neurobiological explanation, some of the brain regions required in this process seem to be multifunctional, i.e., reading comprehension incorporates both regions known as specific to reading, as well as regions designated as general domain, in which the executive functions are included [5].

The (in)direct contribution of executive functions to the understanding of reading

The discussion on how executive functions can facilitate the coordination of skills involved in reading has increased in recent years [6]. A study recently published by the British Psychological Society [7] reinforces the role that the three components of executive functions (inhibition ability, working memory, and planning) can have, directly or indirectly, in understanding reading.

This research analysed Dutch children on two occasions (when they were in their 4th year of schooling, and one year later) and found a significant direct relationship between working memory and reading comprehension, and an indirect relationship, via decoding, underlining that working memory is necessary in decoding in order to effectively link graphemes (writing symbols) to the corresponding phonemes (sound units).

On the other hand, the results for the remaining two components of the executive functions (inhibitory control and planning) are not as clear. Inhibitory control is understood as the ability to control cognitive processes, behaviour and emotions so as to counter a hasty response and take more appropriate action [8].  Although there has also been a direct relationship with reading comprehension, the specific nature of the contribution of inhibition (different types of inhibition may contribute to different aspects of reading comprehension) and planning, namely the weight of the ability to monitor one's own reasoning, remains unclear.

The current scientific discussion reveals that more data on these relationships is called for, but while it is necessary to first form a solid basis for decoding words, understanding what is read does not only involve knowledge of the language. In short, helping children from an early age to work on their focus of attention, and resisting the first impulse of distraction, is also essential for the reading comprehension.


1 Cain, K., «Reading Comprehension Development and Difficulties: An Overview», Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42 (2), 2016, pp. 9-16.

2 Lopes, J., Silva, M. M., Moniz, A. V., Spear-Swerling, L., & Zibulski, J., «Prosody Growth and Reading Comprehension: A Longitudinal Study from 2nd Through the End of 3rd Grade», Journal of Psychodidactics, 20(1), 2015, pp. 5-23.

3 Oakhill, J. & Cain, K., «Supporting reading comprehension development: From research to practice», Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42 (2), 2016, pp. 32-39.

4 Cirino, P. T., Miciak, J., Ahmed, Y., Barnes, M. A., Taylor, W. P., & Gerst, E. H., «Executive function: association with multiple reading skills», Reading and Writing, 32, 2018, pp. 1819-1846.

5 Hudson, N., Scheff, J., Tarsha, M., & Cutting, L. E., «Reading Comprehension and Executive Functions: Neurobiological Findings», Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 42 (2), 2016, pp. 23-29.

6 Haft, S.,  Caballero, J., Tanaka, H.,  Zekelman, L., Cutting, L., Uchikoshi, Y., & Hoeft, F., «Direct and Indirect Contributions of Executive Function to Word Decoding and Reading Comprehension in Kindergarten», Learning and Individual Differences, (76), 2019, pp. 1-10.

7 Nouwens, S., Groen, M. A., Kleemans, T., & Verhoeven, L., «How executive functions contribute to reading comprehension», British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2020.

8 Diamond, A., «Executive Functions», Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 2013, pp. 135-168.


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