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Executive Functions and Their Relationship to the Reading Process and Academic Performance

Neuropsychology occupies a prominent place among the sciences related to education. According to Portellano (2014) it not only helps in the diagnosis but also in the rehabilitation and enhancement of cognitive and emotional functions. Therefore, it is very important to take into account the neuropsychological development and maturity of executive functions in our students to influence the way to design the most effective methodologies and activities that contribute to their comprehensive development, especially in students with special educational needs.

Definition and characteristics of executive functions

Numerous authors have investigated executive functions. Luria (1974) was the first neurologist who spoke of the system, however, the first definition is attributed to Lezak (1982) who states that executive functions are the essential mental capacities to carry out an effective, creative and socially accepted behavior.

Later, it was Stuss (2010) who defined them as the abilities controlled by the prefrontal cortex. These functions allow making plans and maintaining goals in working memory. Also, to select appropriate actions or behaviors to guide them towards the achievement of these goals.

Currently, executive functions are considered as the set of activities developed in the prefrontal area. In this way, the essence of our behavior and of all mental activity is constructed, constituting the central computer of the human being. They are also responsible for solving problems that require reasoning, abstraction or the use of symbolic codes (Portellano et al. 2009).

Levels of intelligence in the study of executive functions

Certainly, authors such as Marina (2013) distinguish two levels of intelligence in the study of executive functions. First, a productive or computational intelligence that is considered the origin of our conscious activity. Finally, an executive intelligence in that it is the one that monitors, evaluates and directs attention.

With all this, according to Goleman (2013) and Marina (2013), the concept of executive intelligence emerges as the one that directs mental and physical action taking advantage of knowledge and emotions, being considered as another possible indicator to assess academic and professional performance.

Components of executive functions

Of course, there is a great variety of definitions. We also find different classifications of its components.

Self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.

According to Knapp and Bruce (2013) executive functions can be classified into three categories of skills. First self-control which is the skill that helps learners to pay attention and control impulsivity by avoiding interference. Finally, working memory and cognitive flexibility, which comprise creative thinking and the ability to adapt to changes, helping learners to channel their imagination and creativity for problem solving. However, for Moraine (2014), its components are memory, organizational skills and attention

Reasoning, problem solving and planning.

Also, Bagetta and Alexander (2016) propose three basic components for success in the student’s academic performance and personal well-being. These components are directly related to each other and allow the development of other complex functions such as reasoning, problem solving or planning.

Mental flexibility, verbal fluency, attentional regulation, working memory and inhibitory control.

Finally, and according to Portellano et al. 2009, a review of the executive functions that are directly related to learning and therefore to academic performance, includes the following components:

Development of executive functions

Executive functions have several sensitive periods of maturation, being the most related to the stages of infant and primary education, i.e., those between 2 and 5 years and between 11 and 12 years of age, progressing slowly in their evolution (Tirapu and Luna, 2008).

Neuropsychological bases of the executive functions

Executive functions are located in the frontal lobe, which is divided into two functional areas. It is in charge of supervising the activity of the brain areas programming and regulating all cognitive processes. These functional areas are the motor cortex and the prefrontal area.

Motor cortex

It is in charge of designing and planning voluntary motor activities. It is also in charge of sequencing and executing intentional movements including those necessary for expressive language and writing (Figure 2). It is also divided into three different areas: the primary motor area, the premotor cortex and Broca’s area.

Prefrontal area

According to Portellano et al. (2009), its main function is the executive Prefrontal area
functioning
that allows programming, developing, sequencing, executing and supervising any planning or behavior aimed at achieving goals, decision making and attention control. For this reason, it is the most important area in the study of executive functions. Moreover, it is located in the frontal lobe of the brain. Therefore, this extensive network of executive functions is found primarily in the prefrontal cortex.

Certainly, it is the best connected brain area of the brain as can be seen in Figure 3. Also, according to Diamond and Ling (2016) it is the most modern region of the brain, but also the most vulnerable, since, stress, sadness, loneliness or poor physical condition can impair its proper functioning.

Similarly, according to Portellano et al. (2011), the prefrontal area is the maximum expression of human intelligence. Because it coordinates cognitive processes and programs behavior to achieve effective decision making. Three functional areas can be distinguished in this area

  1. Dorsolateral area: it is located in the external area of the frontal lobe under the frontal bone. It is also the area of the prefrontal cortex that is most activated when performing more complex mental activities (Portellano et al., 2009).
  2. Cingulate area: it is located on the inner sides of the prefrontal areas, on the anterior half of the cingulate fasciculus. It is also an area of special relevance in intentional processes that require the human being’s will, especially in language.
  3. Orbital area: it is located at the base of both frontal lobes above the orbits of the eyes. It is also closely related to emotional processes due to its close connections with the limbic system.

Definition and characteristics of the reading process

Reading is fundamental in the teaching-learning process and essential for linguistic and intellectual development. Of course, reading is a complex process for human beings and it is not a homogeneous and unique capacity, but comprises a set of skills that depend on the development of executive functions.

In our educational system, Royal Decree 126/2014 establishing the basic curriculum for primary education, reading and reading comprehension are tools that enable the acquisition of knowledge of the various areas and the development of all competencies. Similarly, reading can be done through two independent routes: the indirect or phonological route and the direct or lexical route.

Neuropsychological bases of the reading process

The human brain is not endowed with pre-established neural networks for reading. Consequently, it is a skill that requires learning to associate graphic symbols (vision), sounds (hearing) and meanings (semantic memory).

The mental representations of these three contents are made in specific networks, so that reading would imply the creation of new connections between circuits of these networks, which are directly influenced by executive functions. Table 2, according to De la Peña (2016), shows the brain areas involved in reading and their functions.

Functional circuits of the reading process

According to De la Peña (2012) neuroimaging techniques have revealed the existence of three functional circuits involved in the reading process. These circuits are: the dorsal, the ventral and the anterior frontal.

First, the ventral circuit would begin with the input of information through the primary and secondary visual areas in the occipital lobe. Thus, global word processing is facilitated. Then, it would pass to the angular and Wernicke’s gyrus, which would allow decoding, that is, grapheme-phoneme correspondence and comprehension. Later, it would pass to the arcuate fasciculus to reach Broca, which is in charge of the formulation of the phonetic sequence. Finally, it would end in the motor areas that would make the movement of the buccophonatory praxias.

We can also observe the brain areas in which functional abnormalities have been detected in subjects with difficulties in the reading process. Therefore, a personalized intervention for the maturation of executive functions is recommended (Benitez-Burraco, 2007).

Academic performance

According to Navarro (2003), academic performance is the system that measures students’ achievements and knowledge construction. These are created by the intervention of educational didactics that are evaluated through quantitative and qualitative methods in a subject.

Likewise, Figueroa (2004), expresses its measurement in grades within a conventional scale of 0 to 10. Although its objectivity lies in the fact of evaluating knowledge expressed in grades, academic performance is the result of multiple factors, both environmental and personal. As a result of the different stages of the educational process and the transformations operated in the student, these factors affect each one in a variable way.

Relationship between executive functions, reading process and academic performance

According to Bernal (2005), what is learned is registered in the brain and forms the memory, since memory is an executive function that allows registering, encoding and consolidating. It also allows retaining, storing, retrieving and evoking previously stored information, according to Portellano (2005). That is why it is the protagonist of all higher cognitive processes.

Moreover, a limited capacity in memory processes leads to limited academic performance in arithmetic calculation (Alsina, 2001) and in reading (Baqués and Sáiz, 1999). Likewise, reading processes and especially reading comprehension are the result of encoding and manipulating information. Even so, all this involves cognitive tasks based on executive functions, especially working memory capacity (García-Madruga and Fernández-Corte, 2008). Authors such as Melzter and Krishnan (2007) argue that executive functions are essential for the achievement of school goals because they are the coordinators of basic and higher cognitive processes.

Conclusion

The effectiveness of a neuropsychological intervention in the classroom implies for students the discovery of techniques and strategies such as those offered by NeuronUP. Likewise, these techniques help them to perform their learning more adequately and to overcome the difficulties of neurodevelopmental disorders (ADHD, Dyslexia Dyscalculia, SLI, among others).

As a result, the fundamental basis is to work on executive functions, since it can be done in the classroom without altering the normal course of classes. It also contributes in a playful and motivating way to the classroom environment and to the integral development of the students.

It is also important for professionals to develop a spirit of openness and lifelong learning. Therefore, this contributes to their professional development in an effective way and to the right of students to receive an education adjusted to their needs.

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