Cognitive Skills and Reading

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In the first article in this series, we characterized cognitive skills as the mental processes our brains use to take in, comprehend, organize, store, retrieve and use information. We looked at stages of processing from receiving information through our senses, to perceiving it (giving it meaning), to organizing and manipulating it (the directive capacities of our mind), to storing and retrieving it (a range of memory processes).

As the foundation for learning, cognitive skills are essential in reading, math, writing, science, technology, engineering, arts, and any other academic discipline we could name. The essential role of a variety of cognitive processes and their direct impact on academic performance is supported by a growing body of evidence. In this article, we will consider the role of cognitive skills in reading.

What are the true basics of reading?

When I ask educators what the basics of reading are, I usually hear something like decoding and fluency and comprehension. And indeed, these are vital skills; we can’t be good readers without them. But they are not the true basics.  

There is, in fact, no decoding part of the brain. In fact, in order to decode words – to associate a phoneme (language sound) with a symbol (visual representation, letters) – our brains need to create a pathway and communication between parts of our brains that are not otherwise connected in this way. Our brains evolved for spoken language, but not for reading, so we co-opt existing systems (an area towards the back of the brain called the Visual Word Form Area and the brain region responsible for spoken language, called Broca’s Area) to be able to read.

In addition to developing and activating this connection, reading necessitates that our brains also simultaneously engage a variety of other cognitive processes in order to decode words, including

• Sustained Attention. If our minds go wandering off partway through the word or between words, so that we have to start it again, decoding is going to be impeded.

• Sequential Processing. If we can’t keep the letters in the right order or the words in the right order as they enter our brains, this will also impact decoding.

• Visual Discrimination. The ability to distinguish a “b” from a “p” or an “m” from an “n” is something our brains must do in fractions of a second for decoding to be successful.  

• Auditory Discrimination. The ability to distinguish the sounds of the language is also vital to reading, since otherwise they cannot be correlated to their written representations, and we can’t hear the word we’re trying to decode to determine if what we are saying corresponds.  

Not only are all these cognitive processes essential for decoding, they all have to be working together at the same time in a coordinated, well-integrated fashion. Of course, other cognitive skills may be active for decoding; the purpose here is simply to explain the involvement of some of the most important skills required for decoding.

When it comes to building fluency, we rely on practice. Practice is needed to build the automaticity of pairing symbols and sounds and the expansion of one’s repertoire of sight words. A variety of other cognitive processes will play a role here as well.

Visual Span. This refers to how much information one can take in at a glance.  Technically, it involves the coordination of peripheral and central vision, but from a practical point of view, it can mean the difference between reading word by word and being able to take in groups or lines of words.

• Flexible Attention. In the context of reading, this affects the reader’s ability to shift smoothly between words or lines or paragraphs. It is also, importantly, utilized in shifting mindsets back and forth between decoding and recognizing sight words.

• Processing Speed. Even when an individual is able to decode words accurately, processing speed affects reading efficiency and, therefore, the ability to build fluency.

The last “basic” of reading is no more “basic” than the other two. Comprehension is why we learn to read in the first place, but it often eludes students even when they have conquered the decoding process and built up reasonable fluency. Teachers and students struggle with this, school year after school year. Here, it will be helpful to highlight three cognitive skills that can help or hinder the process of trying to understand something we read.

• Working Memory. Working memory refers to our ability to hold information in our minds while we manipulate it. Working memory capacity is highly correlated with reading comprehension (and many other academic and non-academic outcomes).

When we read a text, we accumulate pieces of information which we hold in our minds; this process happens in working memory. When we consciously think about how the information relates to our prior knowledge, which is how we create meaning, this also happens in working memory.

When we encounter a word or a concept with which we aren’t familiar, we may have to stop and figure it out from context, look it up or ask someone. Our ability to add that to what we’re already holding in our minds about our text happens, again, in working memory.  If working memory is weak, comprehension will be a significant struggle.

Visualization. Visualization refers to our ability to create a mental picture of something we are reading about. It may not be a picture of a physical object; it could be relationships among things or characters. It could be a sort of mind-map, but it takes advantage of the capacity of our visual processing system to create a stronger memory that we can later retrieve.  

Planning.  As students become more proficient readers, they will learn that there are many ways to read and understand a text. For example, we may read for a specific piece of information (what time to meet the bus for the field trip). We may read another text for the gist or to gauge the emotional tone. Or we may read slowly and deeply, trying to commit a mass of information to memory or grasp a complex concept. The ability to plan our approach to reading will help us be effective and efficient readers.

The importance of cognitive skills in reading has been underscored by a recent report from Digital Promise, a nonprofit organization working at the intersection of researchers, entrepreneurs, and educators, recently published a report entitled Supporting the Research-Based Personalization of Reading Success.  The report cites cognitive skills, social-emotional learning, and student background information, in addition to traditional language and literacy skills, as essential for reading.  

Of course, similar principles apply in math, and we’ll address those in a subsequent article. There we will find that, since we don’t have two brains – one for reading and another for math – many of the same skills discussed above will prove to be essential for math as well. We’ll also begin to examine how cognitive skills develop and how they can be strengthened in ways that contribute to

  1. Voyage Chicago – Meet Roger Stark and Betsy Hill of BrainWare Learning Company
  2. edCircuit – Cognitive Skills: The Foundation for Learning


  • Betsy Hill

    Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.

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