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How We Improve Reading Comprehension Using Executive Skills

September was National Literacy Month, and we celebrated (in part) by repeatedly sharing an article called “Executive-Level Thinking,” by Kelly B. Cartwright. Cartwright is a bright woman with a lot of insights as to how executive skills – the ability to adapt and manage multiple ideas at once – improve reading comprehension.


In this post, we reflect on some of Kelly B. Cartwright’s ideas and share some of our own. We even used the same subheadings she used so you can make side-by-side comparisons.

Good comprehenders have a plan for understanding text. 

Cartwright says, “They have a goal, which they keep in mind while reading, and they employ specific strategies to ensure their goal is met.”


One part of a comprehension plan includes harnessing focus. In prose fiction, we teach our students to focus on the characters; who they are, their relationships, and the emotions surrounding their connections. This provides readers with a focus. They have something to look for and identify with.


Good fiction intrinsically harnesses focus, keeping the reader engaged and moving forward. Unfortunately, on a standardized test, the reader must maintain focus regardless of their interest or connection to the passage. Our method gives the reader tasks – things to find – to intentionally provide focus and remove the opportunity for boredom. It also helps to direct the reader’s attention to one specific aspect of the text that we know will aid in answering the questions. Instead of following the vague instruction to “look for key information,” students are directed to identify a passage-type-specific short list of information that they can carry into any exam.  

Good comprehenders are organized thinkers. 

Cartwright says, “Good comprehenders are aware of ways language, texts, and knowledge are organized, and they use that information to help them understand what they read.”


Interpreting the impact of organization is difficult to do on the fly, so we teach our students to identify structure in the margins of passages.


By outlining the passage in the margins, students produce a visual representation of the structure and organization of the passage. They can find information more easily. They can also recognize how information is compared and analyzed. And, once again, it provides a task that keeps the reader active while they read, removing opportunities for boredom and forming opinions on whether or not they like a passage.

Good comprehenders manage and remember information while reading. 

While this may be true, we recognize that in a high-stress situation like a timed standardized test, memory inevitably fails – no matter how good it is in a non-stress environment.


To prevent dependence on an unreliable memory, we implement simple systems. Our favorite system uses breadcrumb notes. While reading, we advise students to leave breadcrumbs – little notes in the margins that reveal the location of details, events, and information. That way, when they are asked to recall information, they can quickly and easily find and reference it in the passage instead of relying on their memory, which will be flooded with new inputs.

Good comprehenders are flexible thinkers. 

Cartwright says, “Reading requires a special kind of mental multitasking that involves juggling multiple kinds of information…”


We absolutely agree! That’s why students need to learn from building blocks and not by memorizing examples. There are many basic elements to strong comprehension. One is processing, the act of interpreting words. Another is meaning construction, or evaluating the concepts presented by phrases and sentences.


These skills need to be nurtured independently and jointly if readers are to become capable of executing multiple thought processes while navigating a text. It’s vital that we show them how to process passages and information, not just how to answer questions.

Good comprehenders can resist distractions. 

Let’s face it, we all get distracted. And it can be very hard to pull yourself back – we can talk about those techniques later. But there are tactics that fight off distraction in the moment. Using your fingers in the passages, focusing on how to engage and disengage, and keeping yourself busy with note-taking and outlining are all ways to keep a reader so busy with processing that there isn’t room or time for distractions.

Good comprehenders are good “mind readers.” 

We don’t deny that intuitive students have good reading comprehension, but this isn’t an idea we like to drop on students.


Telling students that they need to be good mind readers puts so much pressure on them to “just know” what the author is thinking. That’s so stressful! Instead of thinking about it this way, I think it’s important to approach reading with more tangible, manageable goals.


Visualize a fiction passage like it’s a movie. What do the characters think of each other? What subtle clues indicate those impressions? In a nonfiction piece, ask specific questions like “is the author trying to convince us of something or just give us information?” When we ask our student readers to accomplish something vague like “predict,” “infer,” or “find the important info,” it can feel very confusing – and overwhelming!


But, if we can target those goals with specific tasks (“create a list of all the characters and map out their relationships and emotions”), it gets them thinking about those same ideas in a directed way.


We want to hear from you!

September might be over, but we still care about literacy! Send Suzy an email at to discuss this post or share your answers to the following questions on our Twitter or Facebook page.


Parents and teachers: what skills do you believe have the greatest impact on comprehension for young readers?


Students: what techniques have you found make it easier to process and recall information during high-stress situations?