Executive Function Strategies: The Building Blocks for Reading to Learn

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Volume 7, Issue 4
October 2018

By Lynn Meltzer and Michael Greschler

“Mike’s performance has been unpredictable all year! He is so bright and creative but his classwork and test performance are like a seesaw. He is often late with homework and projects and he does not seem motivated to improve” (7th grade teacher).

The crucial role of executive function processes in literacy begins in the preschool years. It becomes more important as students progress through middle and high school when they are expected to master complex skills in reading comprehension, summarizing, note-taking, and multi-stage writing projects. Academic performance is increasingly dependent on a variety of skills and abilities:

  • Plan, organize and prioritize information.
  • Read for meaning.
  • Separate main ideas from details in text.
  • Think flexibly.
  • Memorize important information.
  • Monitor their progress.

Executive function difficulties become more prevalent in middle and high school when the curriculum is more open-ended and requires students to synthesize increasingly complex information and to shift flexibly between major themes and supporting information.

Executive function difficulties become more prevalent in middle and high school when the curriculum is more open-ended and requires students to synthesize increasingly complex information and to shift flexibly between major themes and supporting information.

This overview provides a snapshot of the most important executive function processes, their effects on reading and writing, and practical strategies that can be easily implemented by clinicians and teachers.

What Is Executive Function?
Executive function is an umbrella term for the complex cognitive processes that underlie flexible, goal-directed learning (Goldstein & Naglieri, 2015). There are several key executive function processes that influence literacy and all academic performance:

  • Goal-setting
  • Cognitive flexibility/flexible thinking
  • Organizing and prioritizing
  • Working memory
  • Self-monitoring (Meltzer, 2010, 2014, 2018).

Executive function is an umbrella term for the complex cognitive processes that underlie flexible, goal-directed learning.

Students who struggle with these executive function processes often experience frustration and failure. They begin to feel that their brains are “clogged” with information (see Figure 1). Executive function strategies help students to “unclog the funnel” and prevent increasing difficulties as the complexity and pace of the curriculum intensify (Meltzer, 2010, 2015, 2018).


How do Executive Function Weaknesses Impact Reading Comprehension and Writing?

“When I have to summarize what I’ve read, I can’t figure out what the main idea is. I get so frustrated when I know all the details but I can’t write a one paragraph summary. After an hour, I give up” (John, 7th grade).

The ability to shift approaches and to synthesize information in novel ways is essential for effective reading, writing, note-taking, studying, and test-taking (Meltzer, 2010, 2018). Reading comprehension requires students to process the meaning of text; flexibly access their background knowledge; recognize the purpose or goal of reading; and monitor their own comprehension (Cartwright, 2008). Reading for meaning requires students to organize many different types of linguistic information at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels. When reading material that incorporates complex or figurative language, students also need to shift back and forth between the major themes and relevant details, between concrete and abstract information, and between possible literal and symbolic meanings. Writing tasks also require students to shift flexibly between their personal perspectives and the viewpoints of readers—and between important concepts and supporting information.

When students like John need to coordinate the skills involved in reading, writing a summary, or studying for a test, they often become “stuck.” The information is “clogged,”(see Figure 1 above) and they cannot produce the required outcome (Meltzer, Greschler, Kurkul, & Stacey, 2015). These students often struggle with reading and writing demands because their weaknesses in the core executive function processes affect their accuracy, efficiency, and overall productivity. These students may have difficulty with the following executive function processes that are discussed below and summarized in Table 1:

  • Goal-Setting: Setting short-term and long-term goals for completing open-ended tasks such as writing papers, projects, studying for tests.
  • Prioritizing and Organizing: Prioritizing and organizing the different components of multi-stage projects after researching sources.
  • Shifting Flexibly: Shifting between the different processes and subskills involved in reading and writing (e.g., shifting between the main ideas and supporting details and back, switching between outlining to summarizing and back, or shifting between multiple-choice test questions to answering open-ended questions on tests).
  • Accessing Information in Working Memory: Taking notes or outlining when completing independent reading or studying by focusing on the big picture and the relevant supporting details.
  • Self-Monitoring: Checking work so that the final product reflects an understanding of the content.

As a result of these executive function weaknesses, many students have difficulty reading for meaning in content areas such as English literature, history, science, and biology. In addition, they struggle to show what they know after they read. The recent shift toward reading internet sources for content has exacerbated these executive function difficulties when students need to prioritize and organize information and to determine which details are relevant for specific assignments. This contrasts with reading textbooks that have been carefully structured by experts who focus on organizing and prioritizing key information.

Executive function difficulties become particularly challenging as students enter middle and high school where there is an increased emphasis on efficient and fluent reading, rapid comprehension of major themes, and synthesis of information. Students’ grades often do not reflect their knowledge or ability. In spite of their effort, they may be labeled as “lazy.” As the demands escalate, students often lose self-confidence, become frustrated, and make less effort in school, resulting in increased rates of school absences, dropout, truancy, and delinquency.

How to Teach Executive Function Strategies in Reading and Writing Tasks?

“My success is due to the strategies I learned and the confidence and self-understanding I gained after I used the strategies and got higher grades” (Sarah, 11th grader).

Executive function strategies provide an important foundation for improving students’ academic performance, confidence, and effort. Students like Sarah, who develop an understanding of their unique strengths and weaknesses (metacognitive awareness) and use strategies, typically show increased effort and persistence, positive self-concept, and improved grades in school (Meltzer, 2018; Meltzer, Greschler, Kurkul, & Stacey, 2015).

Students need to develop metacognitive awareness so that they understand their learning profiles—when to use which strategies and in what contexts as all strategies do not work for all students at all times. Completing and sharing strategy reflection sheets (Meltzer, 2010, 2015, 2018) requires students to reflect and describe the processes and strategies they use for their classwork, homework, and test preparation (see Figure 2).

Metacognitive awareness and effective strategy use are promoted when teachers provide incentives to make strategy use count. When grades for homework and tests include points for completing strategy reflection sheets, teachers promote strategic learning in all students. Furthermore, daily or weekly strategy shares allow students to discuss their use of strategies with one another.

Students need to personalize the strategies that work best for them so these techniques become more individualized and more meaningful (www.smarts-ef.org). A few selected strategies are summarized below (see Meltzer, 2010; and www.smarts-ef.org for more details).

Goal Setting:

  • Help students to set attainable goals that are well-defined and “doable,” a foundation for “CANDO goals” (Meltzer, Greschler, Stacey, Ross, et al., 2015; www.smarts-ef.org).
  • Teach students to break goals down into smaller steps to identify obstacles to meeting these goals, and to identify ways of overcoming these obstacles.

Shifting/Thinking Flexibly:

  • Implement 5-minute warm-ups for classes that include enjoyable ways of teaching students to shift flexibly (e.g., jokes, riddles, and puns).
  • When reading for meaning, writing summaries, or taking notes, teach students to shift flexibly between “big ideas” and key details. (See Table 2.)
  • Teach students to use graphic organizers and three-column note-taking systems (e.g., SMARTS Triple Note Tote strategy) to help them make explicit connections between main ideas and supporting details and to shift fluidly between the two. The third column is used to document a strategy for memorizing the information. Students can jot down a crazy phrase or a mnemonic, or they can draw a cartoon, or simple picture to visualize the correct answer (Meltzer, 2010, 2018; Meltzer, Greschler, Kurkul, & Stacey, 2015; www.smarts-ef.org).

Prioritizing and Organizing Information and Ideas:

  • To avoid last-minute panic, teach students to “divide and conquer” upcoming assignments and projects by planning to complete larger assignments in steps.
  • Teach students to use outlines, graphic organizers, or webs to prioritize information they have read and to organize this information before they begin writing, summarizing, or mapping out multi-step projects.
  • Teach students to use three-column notes (e.g. SMARTS Triple Note Tote strategy) when reading or studying (www.smarts-ef.org).

Accessing Working Memory:

  • Teach students to create silly sentences, acronyms, or cartoons to remember information so they do not need to hold and juggle information in their minds constantly.
  • Encourage students to create songs, stories, and acronyms to remember the steps involved in completing and checking written papers.


  • Teach students to develop personalized strategies and checklists for correcting their most common mistakes before handing in their tests.
  • Require students to check and edit their homework and tests before submitting them.
  • Require students to develop personalized self-checking cards and mnemonics to help them remember the core ideas in texts they read (Meltzer, 2010).


When teachers and parents build an executive function culture in their classrooms and their homes, they empower children to learn how to learn and problem-solve flexibly. When schools and families foster effort, persistence, and executive function strategies, students develop self-confidence, resilience, and a strong work ethic, the gateways to academic and life success in our 21st century world.

Additional Reading

Cartwright, K. B. (Ed.). (2008). Literacy processes: Cognitive flexibility in learning and teaching. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Goldstein, S., & Naglieri, J. (Eds.). (2015). Executive functioning handbook. New York, NY: Springer.

Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom (What works
for special needs learners series). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Meltzer, L. J. (2014). Teaching executive function processes: Promoting metacognition, strategy use, and effort. In S. Goldstein & J. Naglieri (Eds.), Executive functioning handbook (pp. 445–474). New York, NY: Springer.

Meltzer, L. (Speaker). (2017, September 26). Project runaway [Audio blog post].
Retrieved from http://cerebralmatters.com/podcast/podcast/episode-12/

Meltzer, L. (Speaker). (2017, October 3). From pimples to projects: Taking charge of how to learn [Audio blog post]. Retrieved from http://cerebralmatters.com/podcast/?s=from+pimples+to+projects

Meltzer, L. J. (Ed). (2018). Executive function in education: From theory to practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Meltzer, L. J. (2018). Creating strategic classrooms and schools: Embedding executive function trategies in the curriculum. In L. J. Meltzer (Ed.), Executive function in education: From theory to practice (2nd ed., pp. 263–299). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Meltzer, L. J., Greschler, M., Kurkul, K., & Stacey, W. (2015). Executive function and peer mentoring: Fostering metacognitive awareness, effort, and academic success. In K. Harris & L. Meltzer (Eds.), The power of peers in the classroom: Enhancing learning and social skills (pp. 1–32). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Meltzer, L. J. Greschler, M., Kurkul, K., Stacey, W., Ross, E., & Snow, E. (n.d.). SMARTS. Retrieved October 5, 2018, from www.smarts-ef.org.

Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D. is the Director of the Institutes for Learning and Development (ResearchILD & ILD) in Lexington, MA. She is also an Associate in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a fellow and Past-President of the
International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. For 29 years, she was an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Child Development at Tufts University. Dr. Meltzer is the founder and chair of the international Learning Differences Conference, now in its 33rd year at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her 39 years of neuropsychological evaluations and clinical consultations with children, adolescents, and adults have emphasized the theory-to-practice cycle of knowledge. Her recent work, together with her ResearchILD colleagues, has centered on the development of SMARTS Online, an evidence-based executive function and peer mentoring/coaching curriculum for middle and high school students (www.smarts-ef.org). In 2015, the Council for Learning Disabilities honored her with the prestigious J. L. Wiederholt Outstanding Research award.

Her extensive publications and presentations include articles, chapters, and books, most recently, Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, 2007; Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom, 2010; and The Power of Peers in the Classroom: Enhancing Learning and Social Skills, 2015, co-edited with Karen Harris, and Executive Function in Education: From Theory to Practice, 2018 (2nd ed.).

Michael Greschler is the Director of the SMARTS Online Executive Function program. Over the past 5 years, he has worked to develop and grow the SMARTS program, collaborating with teachers and administrators in schools and leading a nationwide pilot of SMARTS online in its first year. Since the launch of SMARTS in the fall of 2015, Michael has supported the more than 700 SMARTS educators around the world, helping them bring the power of executive function into the classroom. In addition, Michael is a conference coordinator for ResearchILD’s Learning Differences Conference. As an educational specialist at the Institute for Learning and Development, Michael uses executive function strategy instruction to support teenagers and young adults.

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