Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Cognitive flexibility and reading

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 classification tasks.
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 sorting pictures.
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: 10.1017/S0954579408000394
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//0022-0663.94.1.56
Cartwright K. B. (2012). Insights from cognitive neuroscience: the importance of executive function for early reading development and education. Early Educ. Dev. 23 24–36 10.1080/10409289.2011.615025
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 64, 135–168. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
Yeniad, N., 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: 10.1016/j.lindif.2012.10.004
Academic Bio
Dr Lynne Duncan is a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Dundee.
Her research 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



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