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Future directions: the role of autonomy support for efs and reading comprehension development

Autonomy Support, EFs, Reading Comprehension Strategies and Reading Engagement

Ultimately, beyond their cognitive benefits, strategies are higher order processing tools that should serve a greater good. In this case, the greater good is enhancing students’ reading comprehension as well as their EF skills, given that these are malleable factors that have been associated with academic achievement and, broadly, several aspects of well-being (e.g., Best et al., 2011; Diamond, 2013). In addition, cognitive strategy instruction has consistently appeared to promote not just strategy application but also motivated, engaged reading (e.g., Guthrie, McRae, 8< Klauda, 2007; Souvignier & Mokhlesgerami, 2006). While learning and independently using higher order strategies may directly support students’ developing EFs, it is plausible that higher order strategies also indirectly bolster EFs through their linkage with reading engagement (also see Borkowski et al., 2000).

Importantly, research exploring the reading engagement of middle school ELs has shown that engagement is a malleable factor susceptible to teacher influence (e.g., Taboada Barber et al., 2015, 2018), which is in accord with work focused on English monolingual students of varied ages and background characteristics (Guthrie, Klauda, & Ho, 2013; Guthrie et al., 2007). Academic engagement, including reading engagement in particular, is a multidimensional construct - representing students’ affective, behavioral, and cognitive involvement in learning (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Reeve, 2012) - and as such can be affected through several kinds of instructional practices, which influence specific and sometimes multiple aspects of engagement. Such practices include assuring success, arranging opportunities for collaboration, focusing on learning and knowledge goals, incorporating real-world interactions, and providing autonomy support (Guthrie & Klauda, 2016; Guthrie, Wigfield, & You, 2012). Herein we focus especially on autonomy support, as there is burgeoning evidence for its role in the development of EFs outside the school context, which we believe likely extends to academic settings as well. But before considering that research, we briefly examine what autonomy support means, and, especially, how it may be integrated with literacy instruction.

Autonomy Support in Academic Contexts

Autonomy support refers to an interpersonal style for motivating others to learn characterized by behaviors and language that encourage learners’ interests and help foster the internalization of the value of learning (Jang, 2008; Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999; Ryan & Deci, 2000), which may be critical for putting forth the effort to use strategic processes. Autonomy support is often contrasted with a controlling style, which entails the teacher, in the school context, or the parent, at home, offering extrinsic rewards for making progress toward goals they’ve set and, potentially, enforcing consequences for failing to make such progress (Jang, Reeve, & Deci, 2010; Reeve et al., 1999; Reeve & Jang, 2006). Most research on autonomy support has been conducted within the framework of self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000, 2009), which posits that this form of support, along with support that fosters feelings of competence and relatedness to others, is critical to helping students develop and maintain more internal forms of motivation for learning.

Jang et al. (2010) set forth three general dimensions of autonomy supportive teacher behaviors: nurturing inner motivational resources, relying on noncontrolling informational language, and acknowledging students’ perspectives and feelings. Autonomy supportive teachers nurture students’ inner motivational resources when they allow students to explore their interests and preferences, work toward personal goals, challenge themselves, and make meaningful choices related to their learning, rather than implement incentives, directives, or deadlines (Jang et al., 2010; Reeve et al., 1999; Reeve, Jang, Carrell, Jeon, & Barch, 2004). In the reading classroom, teachers might nurture inner motivational resources by incorporating students’ topic and genre interests when planning assignments and by offering students frequent opportunities to make meaningful choices, such as whether they would like to share knowledge gained through their reading in a presentation, poster, or other mode.

The second way that teachers provide autonomy support - acknowledging the students’ perspectives and feelings - means verbally conveying appreciation for students’ views about their learning. That is, they seek students’ perspectives as well as acknowledge and accept those perspectives as a “potentially valid reaction to classroom demands, imposed structures, and the presentation of uninteresting or devalued activities” (Jang et al., 2010, p. 588). For example, when the teacher notices that students are having difficulty reading an assigned chapter in a novel, they might say “I know this is a long chapter and it contains many unfamiliar words. That can make it hard to stay focused.”

The last way that teachers provide autonomy support - relying on noncontrolling informational language - is often used in conjunction with the second dimension. Employing noncontrolling language means that teachers offer explanatory rationales for assigned tasks and generally communicate in ways that are rich in information, including feedback on developing competence, and flexible, rather than evaluative without including feedback, rigid, and pressuring (Jang et al., 2010; Reeve et al., 2004). For instance, to introduce a recreational reading period in a noncontrolling manner, a teacher might say, “There’s 20 minutes for free time reading after lunch,” rather than “You must read for 20 minutes after lunch.” In addition, they would give students a rationale for why this activity is a worthwhile use of their time, as such rationales are particularly important for supporting internalization of the value of an academic task or subject (Reeve et al., 1999; Reeve, Jang, Hardre, & Omura, 2002).

Research on the provision of autonomy support in laboratory and field settings has demonstrated its contributions to engagement and motivation (e.g., Jang et al., 2010) as well as academic performance, including that on reading comprehension tasks that benefit from strategic processing (e.g., Jang, 2008; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Soenens, & Matos, 2005). In particular, research has demonstrated that learners who received autonomy supportive messages as opposed to those that were controlling, reported greater effort and persistence (Reeve et al., 2002; Vansteenkiste, Simons, Lens, Sheldon, & Deci, 2004), which are key aspects of behavioral engagement and, as such, may energize or reflect high levels of strategic processing. Learners experiencing greater autonomy support have also shown better conceptual learning (Jang, 2008; Vansteenkiste et al., 2005), deeper processing, and higher test performance (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). Despite the self-regulation promoting characteristics of autonomy supportive practices, they have not been linked explicitly to self-regulatory cognitive processes such as EFs within academic contexts. Such research, however, has emerged within the early childhood developmental literature, pointing toward intriguing future research directions.

Parents’ Autonomy Support and EFs

Interestingly, as noted earlier, autonomy support outside the school context has been studied as a possible antecedent or enhancer of EF skills; here we consider this research and, then, in the final section, connect it to our consideration of strategic processes.

Within the developmental literature, maternal autonomy support has been found to be the strongest predictor (compared to maternal sensitivity, or how appropriately and consistently the mother responds to their child’s signals, and mind-mindedness, or how much the parent uses mental terms in conversation with their child) of later EFs in 2-year-old children - beyond general cognitive ability and maternal education (e.g., Bernier, Carlson, & Whipple, 2010). Maternal autonomy support in the first three years has also predicted academic achievement in elementary and high school, partially by way of its association with EFs (Bindman, Pomerantz, & Roisman, 2015). Similar findings apply to paternal autonomy support, with paternal support when children were approximately three years old predicting school readiness, a measure including EF, at five years, with child language mediating the relationship (Meuwissen & Carlson, 2018). These findings are significant because they speak of the important role that parent-child relationships may play in children’s development of EFs as self-regulatory skills. Given that bodies of research in the child development, neurocognitive, and, lately, education literatures provide compelling support for the idea that individual differences in EFs are meaningful for child cognitive and socioemotional development, it is reasonable to hypothesize that, given the findings within the study of parent-child relations and EFs in early childhood, the study of teacher autonomy support in older children may be associated with individual differences in EFs. That is, the self-regulatory, noncontrolling, and motivation-inducing teacher actions that foster student autonomous learning - including that which transpires through engaged reading -may in turn contribute to the cognitive and self-regulatory nature of EFs.

As Bindman et al. (2015) contended with respect to the parental caregiving context, children with autonomy supportive parents are likely to engage in challenging activities that demand EFs, like solving puzzles more frequently on their own compared to children with more controlling parents. Because of the autonomy support they have consistently received, such children have the motivational resources to persist at those activities, despite the draw of competing activities. As they regularly persevere in such activities, they practice and enhance their EFs. Applied to instructional contexts, it is likely that students who experience autonomy-supportive teachers may not just be more motivated to persist in challenging tasks, but to apply or develop cognitive strategies that assist in those tasks.

Further, as Bindman et al. (2015) suggested, considering how the experience of autonomy may engender more enjoyment of challenging tasks, children with autonomy supportive parents may find using their EFs less enervating - or the enjoyment they experience may energize their continued efforts to use cognitive strategies effectively. Lastly, another avenue through which autonomy support may bolster childrens EFs is by promoting language skills, particularly through the provision of explanatory rationales, which are a key aspect of autonomy support (Jang et al., 2010). Children may internalize the language parents and teachers use when guiding them in autonomy supportive ways (Carlson, 2017), increasing their ability to engage in self-talk, which may, in turn, guide their use of such EFs as inhibiting and switching (Bindman et al., 2015; Matte-Gagne & Bernier, 2011; Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011). They may also use such self-talk to encourage their own persistence.

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