Classroom Strategies

Executive Functions and Literacy Skills in the Classroom

Understanding and increasing our students' ability to attend to academic tasks

Student X: (Reading out loud from text) “Last night, I saw a deer drink from the river bank.”

Student Y: “Why would a deer go to the bank?”

This is an actual conversation overheard between two of my former students last year. While at first I just thought it was funny and maybe Student Y wasn’t really paying attention, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this happens all the time with my young readers.

Let’s think about some of the skills that must be mastered in order to not only decode but also comprehend this sentence:

  • Remember and appropriately apply all of our phonics skills.
  • Understand the intended meaning of the words “night,” “deer,” “bank.”
  • Hold onto the syntax and structure of the sentence from beginning to end.
  • Pick up on the timing phrase of “last night” in order to gain context.
  • Remember the order of the letters in the word, the order of the words in the sentence, and the intended meaning of the words.

That is a lot of juggling to do for an adult brain, never mind a six-year-old’s!

Recently, I have begun to get deep into research on executive functions. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child calls it “The Brain’s Air Traffic Control System.” Executive function, or EF, is what helps us remember where we are driving, which pedal is the gas, what errands we have to run after work, and what to do when the light turns green. Executive function skills help us plan, focus, transition, and juggle multiple tasks. Humans are not born with these skills, but we are all born with the capacity to develop them.

Think about the students you have in your classroom. Think about the major world events that have shaped their short lives already. Many of our young learners have spent the first few years of their lives in some form of lockdown and/or pandemic learning. The early experiences that are crucial building blocks in the development of executive functioning skills weren’t possible for almost three years! Believe it or not, the experience that has the most impact on developing EF skills in children is free play—the thing we weren’t allowed to do for years due to social distancing and pandemic restrictions.

Remember my readers from the beginning? We spent a lot of time strengthening foundational reading skills, but we also worked on becoming organized and flexible thinkers. Before we began our reading for the day, we would do a 10-word gist of the story to build ourselves an outline to use for reference during reading as a built-in comprehension check. This step ties well into the attention and planning skill set of EF. Working memory and flexible thinking are key executive function skills that help kids become good readers. In fact, research says students who demonstrate the best working memory, cognitive flexibility, self-control, and so on tend to be the best readers.

What can we do? The good news is that EF skills are very easily integrated into the classroom routines. These are the skills that need to be strong for student success in elementary school.

EF SkillIntegrating EF Skill into the Classroom
Self-regulation – managing strong emotions and inhibiting impulsive behaviorsEngage in vocabulary development with feelings words—this can be done through purposeful read-alouds. Some students may need help finding the right words to articulate how they are feeling; once they have the ability to name the feeling, it is much easier to diffuse and become aware of the triggers for dysregulation.
Attention – sustaining focus, especially for multi-part tasksSince brain breaks and proprioceptive input through physical movement before academic tasks have been shown to help students maintain focus for longer, encourage students to take brain breaks during longer tasks. They can do wall push-ups or toe touches and then return to finish the task.
Task Initiation – starting a non-preferred taskGive students a visual checklist that they can use for their schedule. Try to break it into morning and afternoon. Use sentence starters, frames, or templates for writing tasks. (Writing tasks tend to be the sticking point for many students with EF needs.)
Organization – maintaining materials at home and in schoolsGive students a picture of their space when it’s organized. Share the expectation (for their work space, desk space, locker, cubby space) and integrate it into the daily routine. Students can do this in pairs.

Also, give students a prep minute. This was a game changer for me when it was shared. Let students know what they will need at hand before the task begins. Give them a minute to put unrequired materials away and take out what is needed before the lesson begins. Modeling is huge here!
Planning – mapping out multi-step tasks such as longer-term class projectsActivity idea: Give students/groups a task like making dinner, doing laundry, etc., and have them draw and act out what happens if they’re missing something versus if they are prepared.

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About the Author: Sarah Armstrong, she/her (Twitter @harveycanread) is a Reading Specialist in a school in Dutchess County, New York. She has over ten years experience teaching both in the classroom and as support staff. She has a CAS from Teachers College in ReiMagining Education and has a Masters in Literacy and Education. She is passionate about achieving literacy for all by empowering educators to be advocates for change and action within their schools and communities.