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Interplay of strategic processes, executive functions, and autonomy support in students with individual differences

Consider Gabriela, a fifth grade student, who is reading a passage about polar bears as part of a science unit on the effects of climate change on animals and their habitats. To comprehend this, or any text, Gabriela must maintain an ever-developing representation of the text meaning in working memory while continuing to decode the words in the text, updating her mental model of text meaning as she proceeds. She must also monitor her understanding of individual words and larger idea units, connecting these to her prior knowledge of the topic, and inferring ideas that the author omits from the text. Gabriela reads:

Climate change has caused melting of sea ice at the poles, giving rise to smaller areas of frozen land mass and rising sea levels. Polar bears are increasingly endangered because they often have to travel many miles, swimming for long periods, in order to find food.

Gabriela has no difficulty decoding these words. However, to understand the connection between these sentences (i.e., to preserve local text coherence and understand the effects of climate change on an animal species), Gabriela should infer that melting ice reduces the polar bears’ habitat, causing them to have to travel longer distances to find food. But, for English Learners (ELs) like Gabriela, who often struggle with reading comprehension despite adequate word decoding abilities, such inferences are often difficult. Similarly, English monolingual children with the same profile of reading skills - adequate word decoding with comparably poor reading comprehension, called specific reading comprehension deficits (RCD) - have difficulty monitoring their understanding (or lack of understanding) of texts and typically fail to make coherence-building inferences to preserve comprehension (Cain & Oakhill, 1999; Cain, Oakhill, Barnes, & Bryant, 2001; Oakhill, Hartt, & Samols, 2005).

In the current chapter, we follow early trends in research on strategic processing and take reading comprehension as our test case for examining relations of executive function (EF) skills, reading comprehension strategies, and autonomy support as a specific practice that fosters motivated and self-regulated behavior. Further, we have identified two groups of students, described in the opening vignette (i.e., ELs, and students with RCD), whose individual differences generate variability in reading comprehension performance, which may enlighten understanding of the relations among the three main variables of interest in the chapter. This chapter converges with that of Afflerbach, Hurt, and Cho (this volume) in focusing on reading strategies, yet diverges from it in centering on the linkages of strategic processing to EF skills and autonomy support, two constructs that are susceptible to improve the learning and reading comprehension of ELs and students with RCD.

Executive functions and strategic processes: historical overview

Strategic Processes in Reading Comprehension

As the opening vignette illustrates, skilled reading comprehension is an incredibly complex task that requires management of multiple, simultaneous, cognitive processes, all directed toward the goal of understanding text. We agree with Wagner, Schatsch-neider, and Phythian-Sence (2009) that one of the primary purposes for reading is to understand texts. Since the 1970s, the literacy field has seen increased interest in - and research into - the components of reading comprehension processes, particularly the strategic processes used by skilled readers to understand text (see Table 13.1 for numbers of citations by decade). This work has revealed that metacognitive strategies, such as inference making and comprehension monitoring, are at the heart of skilled reading comprehension for children and adults (see Afflerbach, Hurt, & Cho (this volume) for a review). However, monitoring and inference making are difficult for children and develop slowly over the elementary school years (Markman, 1977, 1979; Zabrucky & Ratner, 1986). Fortunately, these strategies can be taught in the context of reading real texts, resulting in improvements in reading comprehension (Brown, Pressley, Van Meter, & Schuder, 1996; Pearson & Dole, 1987), a point we take up later in this chapter.

Interest in children’s cognition, including strategy use, expanded in the United States in the 1970s, due in large part to John Flavell’s work. Flavell was instrumental in making Piagets pioneering work in childrens cognitive development available in the United States in the 1960s (Flavell, 1963, 1985), making childrens cognitive development a valid field of study after a long period of behaviorist perspectives on children’s learning. Flavell quickly turned his attention to his now landmark work in metacognition, particularly his emphasis on the deliberate, planful nature of metacognitive strategy use (Flavell, 1979). These developments in understanding children’s

Table 13.1 Numbers of Citations in Google Scholar by Decade


Google Scholar Search Terms

“Strategy Use” and “Reading Comprehension”

“Development of Executive Function”
















thinking were paralleled by work on adults’ thinking that highlighted distinctions - and relations - between automatic and effortful, controlled cognitive processes (Shiffrin & Schneider, 1977).

Early research on childrens cognitive strategies, inspired by Flavell’s work, often focused on reading comprehension because its complexity offered a useful test case for strategy use. For example, Ellen Markman used an inconsistency-detection paradigm in which children read passages that contained deliberate inconsistencies and then were asked whether the passages “made sense.” This work revealed first to third grade children (Markman, 1977), and even third to sixth grade children (Markman, 1979), did not actively monitor their own reading comprehension. These data were corroborated by interview findings that indicated 8- to 12-year-old children were often unaware of strategies to repair comprehension failure (Myers & Paris, 1978). Ensuing experimental work indicated that not only did elementary school children have difficulty monitoring comprehension of texts for inconsistencies, they also had difficulty making corrective inferences to repair comprehension after it had broken down (Zabrucky & Ratner, 1986). Noting the need for a comprehensive model of strategy use to guide the growing work in this area, Michael Pressley worked with colleagues Wolfgang Schneider and John Borkowski to develop the Good Strategy User (GSU) model, which described well the nature of strategic processes employed when readers actively comprehend texts. Pressley studied under Flavell in his early years of graduate school, and his ideas about metacognitive strategy use were clearly influenced by Flavell’s work, a point he has acknowledged (Pressley, 2005; Pressley, Borkowski, & Schneider, 1987). In the GSU, strategies are defined as:

[c]omposed of cognitive operations over and above the processes that are a natural consequence of carrying out [a] task, ranging from one such operation to a sequence of interdependent operations. Strategies achieve cognitive purposes (e.g., comprehending, memorizing) and are potentially conscious and controllable activities.

(Pressley, Forrest-Pressley, Elliott-Faust, & Miller, 1985, p. 4)

These can become automatized with practice but are still available for conscious reflection when necessary, such as when comprehension breaks down.

Reading Comprehension Strategies and Executive Functions: Areas of Convergence

The GSU definition of strategies, which focuses on active, goal-directed management of tasks, is similar to definitions of EF that have emerged in the literature. For example, Goldstein and Naglieri (2014, p. 4) indicate “executive functions represent the capacity to plan, to do things, and to perform adaptive actions.” EFs are goal-directed cognitive operations that enable the management of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to reach particular goals (Diamond, 2013; Goldstein & Naglieri, 2014). And, although research interest in childrens strategy use, particularly with respect to reading comprehension, blossomed beginning in the 1970s, interest in the development of EF is comparatively new to the field (see Table 13.1). The term “executive control” originally emerged in the neuropsychological literature, when Pribram (1973) hypothesized the relation of executive control to frontal lobe functioning; however, research in this area focused primarily on EF deficits in individuals with brain injuries or other neuropsychological problems (Goldstein & Naglieri, 2014). One exception is Myers and Paris (1978, p. 680), in the introduction to their study of childrens metacognitive awareness about reading, who noted, “Metacognitive knowledge serves an executive function of coordinating and directing the learners thinking and behavior.” Only recently (i.e., around the year 2000, see Table 13.1) have researchers begun to focus on the development of EF and its relations to other developmental outcomes, such as academic success (e.g., Best, Miller, & Naglieri, 2011), rather than on EF deficits associated with neuropsychological problems or brain injuries (Goldstein & Naglieri, 2014).

Although parallels between metacognitive strategy use and EF are clear (i.e., they both involve goal-directed operations that enable management of behavioral or cognitive processes), little research has investigated the relations between the two. In 2000, Borkowski and colleagues (Borkowski, Chan, & Muthukrishna, 2000) expanded the GSU and suggested links between executive control, motivation, and strategy use. Specifically, Borkowski et al. (2000) hypothesized that EF processes develop because of successful applications of individual strategies. Those successes could lead to motivation for learning which will likely promote application of strategies in new contexts. That is, Borkowski and colleagues suggested that EF emerges only after children have learned and implemented specific strategies. Similarly, Chevalier and Blaye (2016) suggested the development of independent strategy use contributes to the development of children’s EF. Finally, Roebers and Feurer (2016) recently argued that both EF and procedural metacognition (i.e., strategy use) contribute to childrens developing control over their own cognitive systems, based on reviewing theoretical and empirical work from cognitive, self-regulation, and neuropsychological literatures. More empirical research is needed, however, to disentangle the nature of relations between EF, metacognition, motivation, and engagement in cognitive control processes, such as strategies.

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