Five students gathered around a school bookby Linda R. Hecker

When I talk with educators across the country, they often lament that students don’t read much anymore, especially in the face of ubiquitous social and multimedia distractions. Even students with intact decoding and fluency complain that reading is just too hard, not worth the effort.

Why is reading such a challenge for so many?

One often overlooked factor is the role that executive function plays when we engage with text. Broadly put, executive function (EF) describes the cognitive processes that regulate self-directed behavior toward a goal.

Anytime we plan, prioritize and organize; maintain effort and focus over time; use working memory; resist temptation; or suppress a negative emotion, we engage our EF. It is well established that our EF processes require more mental effort and cognitive resources than routine or automatic behaviors. We can even measure the higher amounts of glucose (the brain’s fuel) that EF processes consume.

If we think about what students face when they tackle a textbook, 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. In short, reading equals hard mental work.

Research by Laurie Cutting and George McCloskey has clearly established the contributions of EF to the reading process. EF integrates and synchronizes the many subprocesses involved in reading, such as phonological and orthographic aspects of word identification, retrieval of word meanings and concepts from long-term memory, and integration of prior knowledge with new information. EF is also involved when we deploy strategies to pace our reading appropriately (not too fast, not too slow), monitor comprehension and repair comprehension breakdowns.

Building upon their research, we can use Thomas E. Brown’s model of executive function to identify an individual’s EF-based reading challenges. Even more importantly for those who teach, tutor or coach, Brown’s model guides us to scaffolds and strategies we can use to address those difficulties.

Brown’s model includes six areas of EF that act singly and in combinations to shape behavior:

1. Activation

The first step in reading involves planning and preparing to read.

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. This is especially true when we’ve been assigned something to read, as opposed to selecting it ourselves. This is because the neural networks for EF activation are routed differently for tasks we want to do versus tasks someone else tells us to do.

Internally driven production is much easier to accomplish than external. Students can show stark contrasts gearing up for self-selected reading compared to assigned texts. Their reluctance to read is often attributed to personality traits such as lack of responsibility, apathy or oppositional defiance, rather than stemming from wiring differences in the brain’s reward networks.

Our instinctive response to assigned reading is to avoid it, or at least 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, such as when we’re well rested and not hungry.

We’ll program our smartphone or watch alarms to remind us as the time approaches; if we use the services of a coach, we’ll schedule 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 in overcoming inertia for getting started.

2. Focus

At the point-of-performance, our EF switches to maintaining focus and effort.

When we’re confused or lose focus 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 multisensory and engaging than hard copy.

3. Effort

We may need to break a long reading into manageable chunks, with short breaks for rewards, hydration and aerobic exercise.

It helps to set a timer for bouts of focused effort and to resume reading when break time is over. A flexible approach to pacing is critical: Zoom along when content is familiar or repetitious (perhaps skim over a list of examples or an attention-grabbing anecdote), but slow down when the sentence patterns get more complex or introduce unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts.

4. Working memory

Working memory is taxed heavily by text reading. We have to hold onto multiple bits of information as we digest a paragraph, mentally uncovering the relationships that glue the concepts together into a comprehensible whole. Ditto for connecting patterns of thought from paragraph to paragraph to understand a thesis and evaluate evidence for its validity.

We need to actively monitor our comprehension, so we don’t get to the end of a selection and realize we stopped absorbing information three pages back. For longer and more complex selections, we need to “outsource” our working memory by annotating or highlighting the text, creating visible “breadcrumbs” of our thinking.

5. Emotion

If this is an assigned text that’s not intrinsically interesting or appealing, our first task is to tamp down reluctance and resistance. We might have to promise ourselves a reward for finishing the reading or visualize how satisfied we’ll feel when it’s behind us.

Some readings may trigger a variety of negative emotions (anger, shame, sadness) that color our ability to separate the author’s views from our own long enough to understand the topic from his/her perspective. Probably the most common emotional block to fully engaged reading is boredom or apathy.

Again, using customizable digital text, enhanced with human-like text-to-speech can help many readers. Referring to a syllabus to understand the relevance of the reading to our course goals may heighten the saliency of the reading or at least remind us of its place in the conceptual schema of the subject we’re studying.

6. Action

Action refers to the ability to monitor behaviors to see if they are advancing us towards our goals or leading us astray. If we’re struggling to make sense of a passage, or falling asleep over the page, we need to change strategies. We may need to take a five-minute break with a drink of water, or find a different location (not in bed) or position for reading. Following a checklist of steps for active reading can anchor our strategic approach.

For classroom teachers, appreciating the critical contribution of EF to reading can help us structure reading assignments for success, building in scaffolds such as guided questions and reflection points, illustrating new concepts with vivid examples, making sure students understand the why as well as the what in order to enhance relevance.

We want to talk candidly with students about EF challenges and work collaboratively with them to individualize strategies. We can also give them feedback on how well they deploy those strategies.

For coaches, parents or reluctant readers, I hope some of the approaches outlined here will contribute to a higher ratio of engagement/frustration with academic reading.