Many children with reading difficulties like dyslexia also display signs of having trouble with executive function. Executive function, simply put, is a set of skills that relate to working memory, task completion, flexible thinking, and emotional regulation. Executive function skills allow us to plan, organize, and execute a task. Every task from something as simple as putting a sock into a dirty hamper to those that are more complex like cooking a Thanksgiving dinner requires the use of executive function skills. Trouble with executive function skills can make it hard to focus, follow directions (even those that are step by step), and can cause difficulty with emotional regulation. Children who struggle with executive functioning may:

  • Have trouble completing tasks, even simple ones
  • Often forget information they just heard or read
  • Have difficulty following a sequence of steps or multi-step directions
  • Have issues transitioning from one task to another
  • Get excessively emotional
  • Have trouble with time management
  • Be unable to keep track of their belongings

One of the main consequences of executive functioning issues, particularly for students with dyslexia, is that it can take longer for them to learn new information, retain, and process or manipulate this information.

While executive functioning issues can be frustrating for many parents, there are ways to help encourage their development. Here are five ways you can help your child learn, develop, and improve their executive functioning skills:

  • Teach the skills they are lacking, do not expect them to simply observe and internalize them. For example, if your child struggles with time management, explicitly teach them how to use a planner or set up a color coded schedule to help them block their time throughout the day.  
  • Make their tasks shorter. Many children with executive functioning issue struggle with task initiation. If they struggle to get started, a lengthy task will seem daunting and will not provide an incentive to start. If you want your child to clean their room, start with something simple like put their dirty laundry in the hamper. 
  • Make the steps in multi-step tasks explicit. Rather than telling your child something vague like “go clean up your room,” give them clear, short, manageable steps with an end in sight for each one and a measurable goal. For example, you may ask them to:
    • Put their dirty laundry in the hamper
    • Pick up their stuffed animals
    • Make their bed
    • Put their books on the bookshelf
    • Put their toys in the toy box

Each of these steps is explicit and short. By breaking it down for your child you make it more likely that they will succeed. 

  • Make their tasks appealing. You can attempt to turn their tasks into games by challenging them to pick up a certain number of toys during a set amount of time, having them draw a chore from the chore jar, or playing music while they work. With homework, giving them a choice can also be very powerful. For example allowing them to choose whether they want to work on reading or math first gives them more ownership and makes them more likely to be able to complete their task. 
  • Play games to help build executive function skills. Jenga is a great game to help with executive functioning skills because it requires self-monitoring, flexible thinking, and impulse control. It also requires them to control their emotions if they lose (although in some cases this is easier said than done). Games like Distraction and MindTrap can also help with strategic and flexible thinking. For a longer list of games that can help build executive functioning skills, check out the list here.

If your child’s executive functioning deficits are impacting their reading skills, it is important to also get them Structured Literacy tutoring. Children who receive explicit and systematic instruction will have a strong advantage in committing challenging phonetic patterns to long term memory for automatic recall while reading, spelling and writing. 

Our reading clinicians at RW&C use explicit strategies to help students with reading difficulties and executive functioning issues. Our program meets the standards set by the International Dyslexia Association and we know that it works. Contact us today for more information and find out how we can help your child succeed. 

Becky Welsch

Becky Welsch’s certifications include the CEERI Tier I Qualification Exam (aligned with the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading). She has completed the Associate Level Training through the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Professionals and Educators for one-on-one instruction with students using the Orton-Gillingham methodology. 

Becky has a Master’s Degree in K-8 Education She is certified to teach in the state of Arizona and has specialist endorsements in the areas of Reading and Structured English Immersion. 

Becky began teaching in the Arizona public school system in 2007. She worked in both primary and secondary grade levels as a reading intervention teacher and teacher mentor. Becky has training in Spaulding Phonics, DIBELS Next, The 95% Group, and other whole group, small group, and one-on-one intervention programs. 

In 2014, she took the leap into using teletherapy to deliver one-on-one Structured Literacy tutoring. She has accumulated hundreds of hours working 1:1 with students via teletherapy. 


Smart but Scattered by Ped Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD

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As a teacher, you may have heard the terms multisensory instruction being used more and more frequently. This is a buzz word that tends to get thrown around a lot without full understanding of what it entails. It is a key component of Structured Literacy™ reading, writing, and spelling instruction. An extensive and growing body of research demonstrates that the Structured Literacy™ approach is effective in reading intervention for students with  reading difficulties (Birsh, 2005). In addition, newer research shows that Structured Literacy™ is a more effective approach than whole language for all students, including those with typical reading abilities (Lorimor-Easley & Reed, 2019).

In the Structured Literacy™ approach, multisensory means that instruction engages the visual, auditory, and tactile centers of the brain, often simultaneously. Students are encouraged to use manipulatives and movement to help reinforce sounds and spelling patterns. Here are a few ways that you can incorporate multisensory instruction into your reading block:

  • Use manipulatives. When you have students doing phonemic awareness activities like segmenting and blending sounds, you can incorporate a tactile experience by using blank tiles. They pull down a tile for each sound in a word and then run their fingers under the tiles to blend the sounds back together. If you don’t have tiles you can have them tap on their arms and blend or use rubber bands to stretch out phonemes as they simultaneously say the sounds out loud.  
  • Use a bumpy surface. An embroidery board is a great option and can be found at most craft stores. Have students use their index and middle finger to trace letters as they say the sound and letter name. Display the letter using index cards or a projector to incorporate the visual system as well. 
  • Use sand trays. Like an embroidery board, a sand tray provides a rough tactile surface. Have students trace letters or words as they say the sounds and letter names. 
  • Use shaving cream. Once or twice a week when your desks need to be cleaned, students can trace words and letters in shaving cream on their desk. This is a fun, messy activity that provides sensory feedback as they trace spelling patterns. 
  • Explicitly teach handwriting and letter formation. There is a growing body of research that suggests handwriting in and of itself can be a multisensory activity. Often students with reading issues as well as writing issues struggle to form letters. This extra load on their processing centers makes writing nearly impossible. By teaching explicit handwriting skills the load on a student’s working memory is decreased and they can focus on the content they need to write, rather than the writing process. 
  • Use paper with raised lines. Some research suggests that having paper with raised lines can help increase sensory feedback and make writing easier for students who struggle. 
  • Take it outside and use chalk. Using sidewalk chalk can be a fun twist on rainbow writing words and can be a great activity for a nice day. With the larger surface of the sidewalk, students can write the words larger which activates different muscle memory than writing them small on paper. Also, the texture of the sidewalk can help give tactile feedback as well. 

When incorporating multisensory literacy activities, it is important to keep in mind that they should be done regularly, not just once in a while as reward or when behavior permits. Once you start incorporating them into your instructional routine, you will find that they are not only fun for students, but also help solidify spelling patterns and improve reading and spelling skills. 

Students who continue to struggle even though they are involved in an excellent academic program may need extra help and expertise when it comes to literacy instruction. Our online program can help them with their reading skills so they can be more successful in your classroom environment. If you have a student who you think is a good candidate for our program, contact us today to learn more. 

Becky Welsch

Becky Welsch has a Master’s degree in K-8 Education. She is certified to teach in the state of Arizona and has special endorsements in the areas of English Language Learners and Reading.
Becky has worked with struggling readers in the primary as well as secondary grades. Her experience also includes intensive reading intervention both in person as well as with online teletherapy. 


Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, Judith Birsch 2005

“Structured Literacy: A New Term to Unify Us,” International Dyslexia Association 

“An Explanation of Structured Literacy, and a Comparison to Balanced Literacy,” Nina Lorimor-Easley and Deborah Reed 2019

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