12 days 18-19 · Special Education

EF, reading and writing

On the tenth day of Christmas…

It may be obvious, but, for best results, start at the beginning! Even children whose executive function (EF) develops typically do not begin to visualise and verbalise until they are at least pre-school age.

Whether at home, in whole class, small group or 1:1 situations, the earliest activities and tools to support EF and language development might be reading a book or telling a story together and discussing it to clarify the language and expand on the detail. This can be built on by asking children to close their eyes and give a single word to describe a character/object from the story. Develop this further e.g.

  • Taking a single page in a picture book and finding words to describe an image
  • Discussing characters’ feelings
  • Finding different ways to describe the same thing
  • Taking the story’s theme and making
    • Imaginative play in a corner with child-size props and dress-up
    • Small world table-top or mat activities
    • Creative activities, including cutting and sticking, malleable, construction
    • Playground, garden or park adaptations of all of the above
  • When supporting children in any of the creative tasks individually or in small groups, revisiting the language building activities (gently and appropriately – if it’s forced and slavish, they’ll know and you will all be bored)

Later, when children are becoming independent writers, talk about language, find alternative words and more descriptive choices, discuss words and their origins and meaning (can also help with spelling, but more on that another time). This needs to become second nature to your teaching as well as to their learning, part of the fabric of any lesson, with visual and physical props and prompts to stimulate and extend talk and written work.

If this important groundwork happens in the whole class (or family) setting, then children with well-developed skills have a chance to shine and their expertise can even boost peers’ understanding and progress. More importantly, if some children are left behind despite these efforts, we can see who needs help. In some cases, this may be the time to call on a qualified and experienced speech and language therapist or other professional, if one is not already involved. Other children may benefit substantially from smaller school-based group, paired or individual intervention, taking a step back to consolidate earlier skills in a quieter environment. (Talk Boost is great for this!)


Bear in mind that the brain’s executive functions, which facilitate processing of instructions, are still very much in the developmental stages throughout primary/elementary school. At home, in nursery and pre-school, children learn to follow simple commands, consisting of words and gestures. Gradually they begin to interpret more complex instructions, with perhaps two or three steps, sometimes reading cues such as facial expressions to be sure they have complied correctly.

EF weaknesses can mean that these skills are underdeveloped. If following verbal instructions poses challenges although it’s been a requirement for most children since toddlerhood, then it is likely that the demands of a written comprehension task or multiple step maths problem will be exhausting, frustrating and demoralising.

This kind of interaction with books and language, as already discussed, is a real boost for early aural and reading comprehension skills. If students have learnt the conventions of written language through listening to texts read, they will have an easier time when they come to read them independently.


If a learner’s difficulties here are due to difficulties with reading and writing such as co-occurring dyslexia, then that must be addressed separately, but EF-supporting strategies can still be useful for such students as an additional tool, not least because delayed EF development frequently co-occurs with specific learning difficulties. I’ve written separately about the stages of reading and writing development in more detail.

First posted as Executive Function, Language and Literacy in February 2017.

More information related to executive function can be found here.

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