Exploring the Connection Between Language and Literacy and Executive Functions (EFs) in Children

Language and literacy skills are fundamental building blocks of a child’s cognitive development, laying the groundwork for academic success and lifelong learning. Simultaneously, executive functions—cognitive processes that regulate and control thought and action—are crucial for goal-directed behavior and problem-solving. Research has increasingly revealed a complex interplay between language and literacy abilities and executive function deficits in children, shedding light on the intricate relationship between these cognitive domains.

Language acquisition begins in early infancy, and as children progress through development, their language skills become more sophisticated. Literacy abilities such as reading, spelling, and, writing are intricately connected to language proficiency. Fluent language skills form the basis for successful literacy development, as the language provides the cognitive scaffolding necessary for understanding and producing written and spoken words (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Conversely, deficits in the areas of language will adversely affect the development of literacy abilities and create “gaps” and “cracks” in the above-mentioned cognitive scaffolding.

Executive functions comprise a set of higher-order cognitive processes that enable individuals to manage their thoughts, actions, and emotions effectively. These functions include working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. The prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that matures throughout childhood and adolescence, plays a crucial role in the development and regulation of executive functions (Diamond, 2013).

Recent research has highlighted the bidirectional relationship between language and literacy skills and executive functions in children. Children with language and literacy difficulties exhibit deficits in executive functions, impeding their ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks (Gooch, Snowling, & Hulme, 2011). Deficits in executive functions hinder language and literacy development, as these functions are vital for maintaining attention during reading, comprehending complex sentences, and organizing thoughts for effective communication (Petersen, Hoyniak, McQuillan, Bates, & Staples, 2017).

Neuroimaging studies have provided insights into the neural correlates of the relationship between language, literacy, and executive functions. Structural and functional connectivity between brain regions involved in language processing and those associated with executive functions underscore the intertwined nature of these cognitive processes (Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner, 2002).

Understanding the connection between language and literacy skills and executive function deficits has significant implications for language and literacy interventions. Integrated interventions that target both language/literacy and executive functions are more effective in addressing the needs of children with difficulties in these domains (Torgesen, Wagner & Rashotte, 1994).  

The intricate interplay between language and literacy skills and executive function deficits in children highlights the importance of addressing these domains holistically. Recognizing this bidirectional relationship will result in targeted interventions to support children’s cognitive, as well as language and literacy development.  


  1. Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168.
  2. Fan, J., McCandliss, B. D., Sommer, T., Raz, A., & Posner, M. I. (2002). Testing the efficiency and independence of attentional networks. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(3), 340–347.
  3. Gooch, D., Snowling, M., & Hulme, C. (2011). Time perception, phonological skills and executive function in children with dyslexia and/or ADHD symptoms. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(2), 195–203.
  4. Petersen, I. T., Hoyniak, C. P., McQuillan, M. E., Bates, J. E., & Staples, A. D. (2016). Measuring the development of inhibitory control: The challenge of heterotypic continuity. Psychological Assessment, 29(2), 249–263.
  5. Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. National Academies Press.
  6. Torgesen, J. K., Wagner, R. K., & Rashotte, C. A. (1994). Longitudinal Studies of Phonological Processing and Reading. Journal of Learning Disabilities27(5), 276-286.
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