Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches and Lectures


Examining Executive Functioning and Early Literacy Skills for Young Children At-Risk for Reading Failure

Event Title

2019 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Biennial Meeting

Event Location

Baltimore, MD

Document Type


Presentation Date


Date Range

2019-03-21 to 2019-03-23


Young children with a successful transition from preschool to elementary have better attention, working memory, and behavioral inhibition (Blair & Razza, 2007; Ponitz, McClelland, Matthews, & Morrison, 2009). Children with mastery of these skills have better academic outcomes, particularly in literacy (McClelland et al., 2007). Emergent literacy skills, (i.e. phonological awareness and alphabet knowledge) have also been identified as early predictors of academic success (Smith, Borkowski, & Whitman, 2008). Specifically, letter name and letter sound fluency at kindergarten entry has a strong association with children’s reading (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 2001). However, most studies focused on elementary-aged children, who have already had the opportunity to develop these regulatory and early literacy skills in a formal classroom setting (Shaul & Schwartz, 2014), and not within the context of a reading intervention program. Therefore, this study examined change in executive function and early literacy skills pre-to post-intervention, as well as the relationship between executive function and early literacy skills in young children at-risk for reading failure.
Study sample consisted of 331 children (Mage=6.03, SD=.63, 52% male; 54.8% Hispanic) entering grades K-1st across community summer programs that participated in a reading intervention, Summer Reading Explorers (Hart et al., under review). The intervention aimed to increase emergent literacy skills for children at-risk or below reading proficiency. Students received 30-minute tutoring sessions by a certified teacher in small groups of same grade level and similar ability for six weeks. Curriculum-Based Measurement one-minute probes (CBM; Fuchs et al., 2001) were used to assess children’s letter name fluency (LNF) and letter sound fluency (LSF) pre- and post-intervention. The Head, Toes, Knees, and Shoulders task (HTKS; Ponitz et al., 2008), a brief well-established assessment of children’s executive function (EF) was administered pre- and post-intervention. The task is administered as a game with up to four paired behavioral rules: “touch your head” and “touch your toes;” “touch your shoulders” and “touch your knees.” Children first respond naturally, then are instructed to switch rules by responding the “opposite” way. There are 20 test items, where responses are scored on a three-point scale (0-incorrect, 1-self-correct, and 2-correct), with scores ranging from 0-40.
Paired samples t-tests revealed, kindergarteners and 1st graders significantly improved their LNF and LSF (ps< .001), pre- to post-intervention. However, only kindergarteners significantly improved their EF (p<.001). Regression analyses revealed that pre-intervention, EF was significantly related to LSF for kindergartners, (B=.08, t(104)=3.35, p< .001), and 1st graders, (B=.02, t(225)=2.34, p=.02), after controlling for child age. No significant relation was found between EF and LNF (ps>.05), nor between pre-intervention EF and post-intervention LNF and LSF, across grades (ps>.05), after controlling for child age and baseline LNF/LSF. Please see Table 1 for results.
These findings demonstrate that better EF is related to better LSF in young children, prior to intervention. Additively, findings suggest that young children at-risk or below reading proficiency can make significant gains in their literacy skills and EF for entering kindergarteners, through a summer intervention program. The implications of these findings for early intervention in literacy will be discussed.