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The Relationship between Executive Function Skills and Language

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By Jennifer Sax & Mallory Rotondo

Language is not limited to what we speak and hear. In fact, it plays an integral role in our ability to complete many executive functioning tasks. The relationship between executive functioning and language is reciprocal, meaning each skill set is dependent on the other for success.

While it may not be an obvious connection, language is essential to success in executive function (EF) tasks such as turning in homework on time, morning routines, or following complex directions. In these examples, language serves as our “internal script”, guiding us as we monitor, plan, and execute tasks. This internal script is called metacognition. As adults, our internal thought process is natural and automatic. However, for those with EF weaknesses, mental language skills may be underdeveloped.

To illustrate the reciprocal relationship between language and EF skills, let’s consider Johnny, a 13 year old student, and how these skills work together in different areas of communication.

Oral Language
When Johnny wants to tell a story about his weekend, he has to mentally plan and sequence events (metacognition) before speaking. This mental organization allows his story to make sense to a listener. Without the EF skills of planning and organization, his story may lack structure and/or important details. As Johnny speaks, he must determine whether his listener understands his story and adjust accordingly. This requires intact self-regulation skills.

Written Language
Johnny’s teacher has assigned a 5-paragraph essay on the First Amendment. Before Johnny starts writing, he must use the EF skills of prioritization and long-term planning to research the topic and select the most important information to include. Then, Johnny needs to integrate this information into an organized outline, creating a plan for his paper. From there, he must sequence and organize this information into well-structured sentences, and incorporate transitions to write paragraphs that flow from one to the other. Throughout the process, he must utilize self-monitoring and problem solving skills to edit and evaluate his work.

Auditory Comprehension
In science class, Johnny is listening to a lecture on the respiratory system. As his teacher speaks, Johnny must sustain attention to her voice while inhibiting background distractions, a foundational EF skill. Johnny’s working memory is active as he processes language and determines what information is important to include in his notes. Throughout the lecture, Johnny utilizes metacognition and self-awareness to monitor his understanding of material and ask questions when necessary.

Reading Comprehension
Johnny is reading The Outsiders for his English class. While he is reading, he needs to sustain attention to the text and utilize working memory to decode, or sound out, new words. His working memory is also actively integrating world knowledge (what he already knows) with new information to make sense of the text. Johnny’s cognitive flexibility and problem solving skills allow him to make inferences and predictions about the novel, as well as use context to define unknown vocabulary. Finally, Johnny uses metacognition to check for understanding as he reads.

It is essential to understand the reciprocal relationship between language and EF skills to help students succeed both academically and in life. A certified Speech Language Pathologist is often the best resource to help parents and students understand that connection, and provide treatment when there are difficulties.

Erica MechlinskiThe Relationship between Executive Function Skills and Language

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