I’ve written before
about children’s motivation to read and their attitudes to reading and the
extent to which these relate with their reading attainment.Indeed, there is considerable evidence that children
who report more positive attitudes to reading, confidence in their reading
skills and greater motivation to read typically have higher levels of reading
attainment (e.g., Baker &
Wigfield 1999; Chapman & Tunmer 1997; McGeown et al., 2012; Morgan &
Fuchs, 2007; Wang & Guthrie 2004).However, it is likely that there is a reciprocal relationship between
children’s reading affect (i.e., attitudes, confidence, motivation) and reading
attainment – i.e., affect influences attainment but also attainment influences
post is concerned with considering individual differences within this
relationship.For example, is there any
evidence that the relationship between reading affect (attitudes, motivation,
confidence) and reading attainment is closer among boys compared to girls?What about comparisons of good vs poor
readers?If group differences do exist, what
are the implications of these?
I’ll consider gender
differences initially.Research by Oakhill and Petrides (2007) using reading
comprehension SATs scores and children’s reported interested in the content of
the SAT’s found that boys reading comprehension performance was more closely
related to their level of interest in the topic.Similarly, Ainley, Hillman, and Hidi (2002)
found that girls were more likely than boys to persist with a text that was of
lower topic interest. Indeed, Williams, Burden, and Lanvers (2002) found that
both boys and girls felt that girls are more inclined to put effort into work
even if it is tedious, while boys need to find enjoyment in it in order to work
hard.This suggests that for boys in
particular, being interested is important in terms of the influence this has on
their behaviours and effort (and potentially attainment).
Based on the results of these studies, I expected that boys’
attitudes towards reading (Logan and Johnston, 2009), confidence in reading
(Logan & Medford, 2011) and motivation to read (Logan & Medford, 2011)
would be more closely associated with their levels of reading attainment,
compared to girls, as these affective factors would have a greater influence on
behaviours conducive to good reading attainment.Indeed, this was what was found (Logan &
Johnston, 2009; Logan & Medford, 2011).However, given that this relationship is likely reciprocal, it may be
that boys’ affect (attitudes, confidence and motivation) plays a more
significant role in the effort they put into reading. This suggests a greater
discrepancy between competence and performance in boys if they are unmotivated,
have poor attitudes or do not feel confident in their abilities.Additionally however, it could be that boys,
to a greater extent than girls, need to be successful at reading in order to
have positive affect for reading.Therefore, boys with low levels of attainment may be more likely than
girls to become disengaged or de-motivated as a result of their negative
This therefore has implications for how to support boys in their
reading; it may be particularly important to encourage and promote positive
reading affect among boys if the aim is to enhance reading attainment;
encouraging positive reading affect among girls, while worthwhile, may be less
likely to impact on their reading behaviours and reading attainment.
And what about ability differences?In a different research project (Logan et al., 2011), my colleagues and
I examined the extent to which children’s motivation to read predicted their
reading comprehension (after taking into account language and decoding skills)
and also the extent to which it predicted growth in reading comprehension
(after taking into account previous reading comprehension attainment).In both analyses, motivation to read was
particularly important for poor readers compared to good readers.Therefore reading motivation may contribute
more to the reading performance of poor readers compared to good readers. Why would this be?
It could be that poor readers, when faced with the same reading task
as good readers, have a slower and more frustrating process ahead of them; those poor
readers with high motivation may be more inclined to persevere with the difficult reading material,
thus developing their reading skills and resulting in higher reading attainment
levels. Poor readers who lack motivation however, may be more inclined to
become disengaged and frustrated with the whole process, leading to poorer
performance.On the other hand, for the
good readers, reading motivation is less important, as the reading task
presented to them is not as challenging, therefore their motivation plays a
less important role.
We know that poor readers typically have lower levels of reading
motivation (Lau & Chan, 2003; McGeown et al., 2012) compared to good
readers; and this research suggests that interventions aimed at increasing reading
motivation of poor readers may be particularly important for developing their reading
Ainley, M., Hillman, K., &
Hidi, S. (2002). Gender and interest processes in response
to literary texts: Situational
and individual interest. Learning
and Instruction 12,
Baker, L., & Wigfield, A.
(1999). Dimensions of children’s motivation for reading and
their relations to reading
activity and reading achievement. Reading
Research Quarterly 34,
Chapman, J. W.
& Tunmer, W. E. (1997). A longitudinal study of beginning
readingachievement and reading
self-concept. British Journal of
Educational Psychology, 67, 27-291.
Lau, K., & Chan,
D. W. (2003). Reading strategy use and motivation among Chinese goodand poor readers in Hong Kong. Journal of Research in Reading, 26 ,177−190.
S., & Johnston, R. (2009). Gender differences in reading ability and
attitudes: examining where these differences lie. Journal of Research
in Reading, 32, 199-214.
Logan, S., & Medford, E.(2011). Gender differences in
the strength of association between motivation, competency beliefs and reading
skill. Educational Research, 53, 85-94.
Logan, S., Medford, E., & Hughes, N.(2011).The
importance of intrinsic motivation for high and low ability readers' reading
and Individual Differences, 21, 124-128.
McGeown, S. P, Norgate, R., &
Warhurst, A.(2012). Exploring intrinsic
and extrinsic reading motivation among very good and very poor readers. Educational Research, 54, 309-322.
Morgan, P.L., & Fuchs, D.
(2007). Is there a bidirectional relationship between children’s
reading skills and reading
Oakhill, J.V., & Petrides,
A. (2007). Sex differences in the effects of interest on boys’ and girls’
reading comprehension. British
Journal of Educational Psychology 98, 223–235.
Wang, J.H., & Guthrie, J.
T. (2004.) Modelling the effects of intrinsic motivation, extrinsic
motivation, amount of reading,
and past reading achievement on text comprehension between U.S and Chinese
students. Reading Research Quarterly 39, 162–186.
Williams, M., Burden, R.,
& Lanvers, U. (2002). ‘French is the language of love and stuff’:
Student perceptions of issues
related to motivation in learning a foreign language. British Educational Research Journal 28, 503–528.
If you teach in the
early years, the odds are your classroom is full of physical learning
materials. From plastic letters to wooden blocks, these materials provide
children with the hands-on experience that is so important for their learning.
But why is hands-on experience important for learning? It seems obvious, but this
is a question that researchers have spent many decades trying to understand. This
question becomes even more troublesome when considering subjects such as Maths.
Why should learning something as abstract as fractions or tens and units, be
supported by manipulating objects like blocks or tiles?
Froebel’s gifts c1820s. That
different from what we use 200 years later?
Dienes. There are just a few of the many educational pioneers who have advocated
the importance of physical materials in early learning. In the 1960s, Jean
Piaget provided a theoretical rationale by describing how children progressed
from concrete to abstract forms of thinking. This ‘concrete to abstract’ development
is echoed in practice today – with children progressing from physical materials
in the early years to more symbolic forms of representations (e.g. numerals on
a page) as they advance through the years. It’s not surprising that many children
start to associate physical materials with their younger, or less able, peers.
Piaget’s work inspired
many others to better understand how children’s thinking develops. It also
provided a starting point for researchers to examine how using physical
materials influences children’s thinking and learning. Unfortunately, this wealth
of research[e.g. 1] has failed to provide us with any clear
understanding of if and how physical materials benefit children, and importantly,
how and when teachers should use them in the classroom.
In the last couple of
decades there has been a renewed interest in physical materials and hands-on
learning for two main reasons. Firstly, new digital learning materials raise
pertinent questions. Does moving blocks on a screen using a mouse or
touchscreen still constitute hands-on learning? Are there any unique benefits
of manipulating materials physically as opposed to through a device? Is there
anything to be gained from new technologies that can capture and respond a wide
range of physical actions (e.g. Nintendo wii/ Kinect)? The second reason for
renewed interest in physical materials reflects some major new thinking about
the relationship between our bodies and minds.
The mind-body split
articulated by Descartes dominates how we think about the relationship between
our everyday physical actions and the ideas we learn. Hands-on experience may
be important, but ultimately distinct from the concepts children develop in
their brains. This position is being challenged. The last couple of decades a
new theoretical paradigm, entitled Embodied
Cognition, has emerged that argues that several cognitive processes are
best understood when they are seen as grounded in (inseparably linked to) our
body’s interaction with the world. There are several claims made under the
umbrella term Embodied Cognition. Many of these talk about the way we all use
the environment to support our everyday thinking: children’s using their
fingers to reduce the demands of adding, or their parents using phones to reduce
the task of remembering friends’ phone numbers, for example. However, a more
radical claim of Embodied Cognition refers to the nature of our thinking even
when not using such ‘task-relevant’ tools – our ‘offline cognition’, for
example, solving a maths problem ‘in our heads’, or working out the way across
town when you haven’t a map.
We are finding
increasing evidence that our ‘offline’ thinking is still body-based – we still
activate systems that are concerned with sensing and moving in the world. This
can sound confusing, and perhaps more confusing is how we can possibly know
what is going on in people’s heads when they are thinking. Here we have several
exciting new research methods that are building our understanding. One method
is brain scans – looking at what parts of the brain light up when asked to
think about different ideas. Another method is gesture research. This is my
When we explain our
ideas to people we often gesture. People have studied gestures since the time
of the Greeks. Gestures are a communication tool – just look at the way our
politicians use them. So why then do we gesture on the phone when the listener
can’t hear us? Why does a baby born blind still gesture to another child also
born blind? In the last twenty years there has been
increasing evidence that the main function of gesture is not to support the
listener (although they do) so much as the speaker. Our gestures help us think. This is because
gestures help us express the nature of how we are thinking. And for this
reason, gestures provide a rich window into the nature of thought itself.
Examining children’s gestures is a way to examine what images and actions are
inseparably linked in the concepts they hold.
Gesturing when solving a maths
Look at the video
linked to image above. This child is solving a maths problem.
Without reading the text, could you guess what they are doing with their
fingers? The child trained to solve complex numerical sums using an abacus.
Their gestures show how they are simulating this abacus to solve the problem
‘in their head’. By examining children’s (and adults’) gestures we are starting
to build a picture of what type of sensory and movement experiences provide the
foundations for thinking in different areas. My research has sought to examine
what type of hands-on experience ground children’s concepts of number.
Why does 1+8 make the same as
This question was
designed to tap into how children conceptualise numbers. There are many ways to
explain this numerical relationship, with one way (often used by adults) is to talk
in terms of how 7 is one less than 8 and 2 is one more than 1. Often children’s
language reveals much about how they are thinking about numbers, often it does
not. Another window is how they gesture when they explain this relationship.
In one study with 104 children, 62% of children gestured
when explaining this relationship. By watching video clips over (and over…)
again, it has been possible to code the types of gestures children use. Gestures
generally fell into two types – those that looked like children were
manipulating imaginary objects, and those where children seemed to be
indicating points along an imaginary line running left to right.This is significant, because these gestures
relate to interaction with two different types of maths materials – physical
materials, and number lines. Traditional theory might suggest that the less
able children’s gestures simulated actions with objects and more able
children’s gestures simulated actions with a ‘less-concrete’ number line. This
was not the case. Indeed, our research is examining how the opposite may be
true for this particular problem.
Gesturing when explaining maths
As a researcher, I
love to take a small study and generate a major theory that goes well beyond
the evidence. In journals, I get caught out, so here I have a chance. I believe
my research supports theoretical work in cognitive science saying that all
numerical concepts are grounded upon two major ‘metaphors’ – that we conceptualise
numbers as ‘collections of objects’ or as ‘points along a path’. But I also
believe that we draw differently upon these metaphors depending on the problem
at hand. Want to add numbers? It’s maybe better to think of them as being along
a line, which you can ‘count up’ or ‘count down’. Want to solve a fraction
problem? Then you may find it easier to think of numbers as collections you can
‘break’ into smaller collections.
If, as I believe, we
draw upon these two metaphors in different ways for all number concepts – from
counting to calculus – that would suggest we need to think carefully about the materials
we provide throughout children’s development. It would contend the traditional
move away from ‘concrete’ objects.
So where was I? Oh, what
is the importance of hands-on learning? It is possible that our hands-on
experiences of moving objects into collections or walking in steps along a path
(then linked to tracing arcs along a number line) are internalised into our
very concepts of number. Consequently, when explaining our thinking about
numbers we often simulate these experiences – observable in our gestures.
I hope I haven’t
confused in this blog. Take away points?
critically about what materials children are using and how that relates to the
way you can talk about different number ideas.
to increasingly imagine these materials in their heads
children (or adults) stigmatise physical materials as being for the less able
how children gesture. Teachers don’t have video cameras and hours to analyse
gestures but even in real time, they can provide an interesting window into
how you gesture to children. Research tells us that teachers very often gesture
and naturally change their gestures according to children’s understanding. Yet
when’s the last time you had gesture training?
critically about technology. How do they change children’s physical actions? Do
you think that matters?
The main message
however is we now have a way to examine and understand questions that have been
in education for decades. There are implications for classrooms, but no
definitive solutions yet. What we do know is that once we are able to see how
children gesture to express their thinking in a classroom each day, we are in a
strong position to contribute to our understanding of the importance of
hands-on learning; and the relationship between our minds and bodies.
Dr Andrew Manches is a Chancellor’s Fellow in the
School of Education, University of Edinburgh.He has 20
years experience working with children, first as a teacher, then as an
academic. His research focuses on the role of interaction in thinking, and the
implications this has for early learning and new forms of technology. He was awarded a Future Research Leader grant
by the Economic Social Research Council to conduct his research.
1McNeil, N. M., &
Jarvin, L. (2007). When theories don't add up: disentangling the manipulatives
debate. Theory into Practice, 46(4),
M. (2002). Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic
Bulletin & Review, 9(4), 625-636.
J. M., & GoldinMeadow, S. (1997). What's communication got to do with it?
Gesture in children blind from birth. Developmental
Psychology, 33(3), 453-467.
S. (2000). Beyond words: The importance of gesture to researchers and learners.
Child Development, 71(1), 231-239.
A., & Dragomir, M. (2015). Gesture as
a means to examine the role of physical interaction in early numerical
development. Paper presented at the Paper presented at the 2015 annual
meeting of the AERA, Chicago, US.
Cognitive flexibility is an
important executive function skill that prevents us from becoming stuck in a
rigid approach to solving a problem. Having cognitive flexibility allows us to
switch strategies to find the correct solution or to consider alternative
perspectives on a complicated situation (Diamond, 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly
flexibility has been linked to school performance (Yeniad et al., 2013), but
little is known about the exact nature of this relationship.
Our research focuses on reading
development and so we have examined whether cognitive flexibility has any role
to play in early reading. As reading is a complex cognitive task that demands
the use of visual symbols relating to both sound and meaning, it seems possible
that cognitive flexibility may be required to coordinate all of this
information efficiently (Berninger & Nagy, 2008).
Children begin to develop cognitive
flexibility prior to learning to read around the ages of 3-5 years. Researchers
measure this using card sorting games where the sorting rules change and
children’s ability to adapt to the new rule reflects their flexibility. By 7-9
years of age, children show an increasing capacity to deal with complex sorting
rules including sorting according to several dimensions at one time in matrix
Children with good cognitive flexibility
seem to be better at pre-reading skills like letter recognition and
letter-sound knowledge (Blair & Razza, 2007; Bierman et al., 2008),
however, the evidence in relation to reading itself is more mixed. Nevertheless,
an interesting line of research has been established by Cartwright (2002), who
argues that cognitive flexibility is particularly important for reading
comprehension because of the need to simultaneously decode the words and
understand the meaning of text.
Cartwright presented evidence for
this view by measuring the cognitive flexibility of English-speaking children between 2nd and 4th grade using a matrix classification
task and relating this to reading comprehension. In the first task, children
had to sort pictures of objects into a 2x2 matrix on the basis of visual features
(i.e. colour) or meaning (i.e. object
category). In the second task, written words rather than pictures had to be sorted
and the sorting criteria were more reading specific as they involved sound
(i.e. initial sound) and meaning (i.e. object category). Results showed that
both matrix classification tasks predicted reading comprehension over and above
the usual predictors like age and decoding skills. However, the
reading-specific matrix classification task involving written words was the
stronger predictor of reading comprehension.
Although these results seemed
very promising, we felt that there was a need to explore the findings further,
given that several other studies had failed to find a relation between
cognitive flexibility and reading. We also wanted to modify the matrix classification
task to keep the sorting criteria constant (i.e. sound and meaning) and to
compare general flexibility in sorting pictures versus reading-specific
flexibility in sorting written words (Fig. 1). We also wanted to investigate
how these two types of flexibility relate not only to reading comprehension but
also to single word reading.
Fig 1. Correct classification for the general and reading-specific matrix classification tasks (adapted from Cartwright (2012))
French children in second grade who were 7½
years old took part. This was a strong test of the relationship between
cognitive flexibility and reading. The initial phase of learning to read in
French is slightly easier than in English since French has a more consistent
relation between word spellings and sound; in other words, the regular
spellings of French may mean that less cognitive flexibility is needed for learning
to read in French than in English.
As it turned out, cognitive flexibility was
related to reading in French. Cognitive flexibility as measured by having to
sort simultaneously by sound and meaning predicted reading comprehension over
and above traditional predictors (e.g. decoding, word reading). Moreover,
cognitive flexibility also predicted single word reading over and above other
predictors such as decoding skill. In both cases, reading-specific flexibility in
sorting written words was more strongly related to reading than flexibility in
Finally, while more research is still needed,
the implications of our findings are that games and activities aimed at
improving cognitive flexibility may show benefits for early reading progress. Practice
at switching between key components of written words like sound and meaning may
improve children’s flexibility in relation to this information and enhance reading
comprehension. The benefits of these activities may not be restricted to
reading just as cognitive flexibility developed in other areas of the
curriculum may also feedback to reading.
Berninger, V. W., and Nagy, W. E.
(2008). “Flexibility in word reading: Multiple levels of representations,
complex mappings, partial similarities and cross-modal connections,” in
Literacy Processes: Cognitive Flexibility in Learning and Teaching, ed. K. B.
Cartwright (New York: The Guilford Press).
Bierman, K. L., Nix, R. L.,
Greenberg, M. T., Blair, C., and Domitrovich, C. E. (2008). Executive functions
and school readiness intervention: impact, moderation, and mediation in the
Head Start REDI program. Dev. Psychopathol. 20, 821–843. doi:
Blair, C., and Razza, R. P.
(2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief
understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Dev.
78, 647–663. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01019.x
Cartwright, K. B. (2002).
Cognitive development and reading: the relation of reading-specific multiple
classification skill to reading comprehension in elementary school children. J.
Educ. Psychol. 94, 56–63. doi: 10.1037//0022-0622.214.171.124
Cartwright K. B. (2012).Insights from cognitive neuroscience: the importance of
executive function for early reading development and education.Early Educ.
Diamond, A. (2013).
Rev. Psychol.64, 135–168.
Malda, M., Mesman, J., van IJzendoorn, M. H., and Pieper, S. (2013). Shifting
ability predicts math and reading performance in children: a meta-analytical
study.Learn. Individ. Differ.23, 1–9. doi:
Duncan is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Dundee.
focuses on language and reading development. Bilingual language and literacy is
a particular interest, as are developmental language disorders. This work has
entailed cross-linguistic and cross-cultural studies of children and adults in
collaboration with colleagues in other European countries.
The research presented here was carried out jointly with:
Professor Pascale Colé and Professor Agnès Blaye
Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive, UMR-7290, Aix-Marseille
University, Marseille, France