Research Time, Part 1: Cognitive and Experiential Deficits and Reading Performance

Today I am attempting to gather additional information about the relationship between cognitive factors and early literacy attainment. I have at other times written about one of my overarching questions for this semester, which is how cognitive factors (a child’s inherent factors) and experiential factors (a child’s early exposure to literacy fundamentals, a child’s primary school experiences with literacy instruction) interact.

Popular literature on the topic has been fairly consistent: it’s reading that makes readers, and a primary factor in low early literacy attainment is environmental. But as we work with children, we can easily observe that there are some children who absorb early literacy concepts like little sponges and other children who struggle with their literacy attainment even with significant intervention. What’s the difference? What’s going on here?

So in my next series of posts, I have some pieces of more formal literature I’d like to discuss, and I want to see if I can approach this question from various angles.


Cognitive factors and reading remediation

I’m going to start with Vellutino and Scanlon’s piece entitled “Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers”. It’s a clinical article with a clinical title, but I spent some time digging into it to see what factors might make one child more likely to respond to remediation than another. In particular, I want to pull from this piece some understanding of the cognitive functions involved in literacy learning.

Notable in this piece is the fact that over and over again, they point out that it is difficult to control for many, many factors in this research. It is difficult to control for school experiences; it is difficult to control for limited early exposure to reading; it is difficult to control for deficits in experience. These repeated caveats bring to the fore how difficult it is to generalize over a population with factors as complex as these.

However, the authors explain that both the inherent cognitive factors and the experiential factors can be seen along a continuum. While we have to be careful about labeling children as more or less intelligent in our practice, if we consider that children do have an inherent range of capabilities with regard to literacy and that children do in turn have an experiential range of exposure to early literacy practices and instruction, we can see that there are almost an infinite number of combinations of ability and experience that come to bear on children’s literacy attainment.

A useful granularity in Vellutino and Scanlon’s piece is a delineation of the specific cognitive factors involved in literacy attainment: selective attention, associative learning, cross-modal transfer, serial-order processing, and rule learning. These specific brain-level cognitive functions may be stronger or weaker in different children, and may explain variations in a group of children exposed to similar levels and styles of instruction. Syntactic processes that are also part of this learning include sentence comprehension, grammatical evaluation, and contextual deduction.  And even the relationship between vision and the brain’s processing of what is seen impact literacy attainment on a functional level; visual memory, form perception, spatial orientation, tracking, and directional sequencing are such factors.

In summary: we cannot discount the impact of cognitive factors in learning, as there are brain-level processing functions and reading-specific processing functions that affect children’s literacy attainment. Deficits in these specific processing functions constitute, in some children, what we more familiarly call learning disabilities.

The authors are arguing here that these characteristics are likely to be heritable – that some of these factors are present in the brain from its formation in utero, certainly existing long before any early literacy learning strategies are employed. These are likely to be inherent characteristics that are hard to change, but strategies can be employed to teach the individual child through and around these differences. And in fact, the longitudinal study undertaken here indicates that over time, these seemingly inherent characteristics, in the presence of reading intervention and remediation, no longer predict nor identify children’s literacy attainment. In other words: children who received intentional reading tutoring achieved and maintained a high rate of skills increase and advantage in reading achievement.

This is actually very good news for literacy practitioners. We have the capability to understand the detail processes that go into a child’s learning to read, write, and comprehend, but even if we don’t have that knowledge ourselves, we can learn the techniques and approaches that help children learn through and around these functions to achieve literacy skills, and we can employ them in our programs and storytimes.

It is those approaches to achievement that I would like to pursue in my next couple of posts, with gratitude for the foundation provided by this study.


Vellutino, F. R., & Scanlon, D. M. (1996). Cognitive profiles of difficult-to-remediate and readily remediated poor readers. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 601.


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