Cognitive Development in Young Children


Presenter, Gloria Maccow, Ph.D. describes cognitive development in young children using sample data to demonstrate the relationship between a child’s cognitive abilities and learning.

She talks about the cognitive factors that account for differences in learning, the process of learning and what does data tell us about learning.

The variability in what children know and do is huge and our skills as a teaching assistant need to reflect this. The factors which effect the skills of the learner are a threefold; curriculum and materials, teachers’ instructions and individual differences in the process of the learner’s brain, which is what Gloria Maccow conducts a deep dive in to.

She talks about Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and thinking at different ages. This webinar identifies various knowledge which will help you to identify these different areas with the children who you are working with.


Gloria Maccow (00:00):

Welcome everybody. Let me begin by saying I’d like to provide a framework for the webinar today, Cognitive Development and Learning in Young Children. So whether you are a teacher, maybe an administrator, maybe you work at a university, a psychologist, maybe a school psychologist or other psychology professionals, diagnosticians and therapists, curriculum specialists, home visitors, parents, whether you’ve joined us from near or distant shores, we’d like to welcome you to this webinar. I believe we’ve come together today because of a common goal. So, I’d like to start us off by thinking about that common goal. And just to tell you a little story about my own experience.

Gloria Maccow (00:59):

About 20 years ago, and sometimes I can’t believe it is that long, about 20 years ago, one of my graduate students gave me a framed picture and the picture was, and is, lovely. I still have it and I look at it all the time. But what really struck me and what continues to guide my work to this day really is the caption under the picture. And this is it. “Children are always the only future the human race has; teach them well.” So, with that in mind, it is my hope that you will take away from this webinar a few ideas for your work with the next generation of leaders. Here is what I’ve planned for today, and I hope that most of you have received the handout which we send out with the reminder emails.

Gloria Maccow (02:01):

I want to start us off by talking about cognitive factors that account for differences in learning. And then I want to talk more specifically about the process of learning. What are the cognitive factors, for example, that are involved when children are learning to read or when they’re learning to write. And then finally, in part three, I want to talk about data and I want to spend some time thinking about what data tell us about children’s learning. To structure our discussion, I think one of the things that we all know in working with children, whether young children or older children, what we know is that there is tremendous variability when we think about what children know and what they can do when we think about skills, knowledge, and behavior.

Gloria Maccow (02:52):

What we find is that some children learn the skills that we teach in the regular classroom, and some children require additional specialized instruction. When we’re asking questions in the classroom, some children wait until you call on them. They raise their hand and wait patiently until you call before responding. Some children respond while you are providing the instructions. So sometimes we might think, well, what exactly are the factors that account for these differences in performance? When we think about the factors that affect the skills of a learner, I want to mention some work by Dr. Virginia Berninger who talks about the fact that a learner’s skills really are the result of curriculum and instructional materials, the interaction of curriculum and instruction, with a teacher’s instruction or pedagogy, as well as individual student characteristics.

So if a child is experiencing difficulty, the child may experience difficulty because of a mismatch between the curriculum and pedagogy. It may result from individual differences in the processes in the learner’s brain. Now, we certainly recognize the importance and the need to evaluate curriculum and instructional materials as well as pedagogy when children are struggling to master the curriculum objectives. However, this webinar is going to focus on individual differences in the learner’s mind or brain. We want to talk about the impact of those individual differences on children’s learning.

With that in mind, let’s turn to a discussion of cognitive factors and learning. When I think about maybe cognitive factors and learning, you think about traditional principles of learning, and maybe traditional principles of learning really don’t help us to understand what goes on in a child’s mind or what is going on in a child’s mind. But Piaget’s theory really does have quite a lot to say about the child’s mind. So for example, Dr. Piaget described the ways in which a child structures his or her thinking at different ages. These are the stage descriptions that I have here: sensory-motor, pre-operational, concrete and formal operational.

When you think about the sensory-motor stage, you’re thinking about infants and toddlers who understand their world through senses and actions, right? When you think about the pre-operational phase, you’re thinking about the importance of language and mental images. When you think about concrete operational, you’re thinking about logic or logical reasoning really being applied, especially to objects that are concrete, objects that they can see. And when you think about adolescents in the formal operational stage, you’re thinking about more abstract thinking, more hypothetical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Now Piaget’s description, I believe, really helps us to understand generally how the mind works, but it really doesn’t tell us how a child reads, maybe how a child solves mathematical problems, how the child learns science, for example, how the child composes an essay. It really leaves out a lot about how the mind works on specific kinds of tasks like reading, writing, arithmetic, and so on. But we can get a lot of clarity about how the mind works with respect to reading, writing, and arithmetic, by looking at information processing models.

I’d like to turn to that next. When we think about information processing, you’re really thinking about how children process information about their world. First, how information comes into their mind, how they store the information, how they transform it, and then how they retrieve it to show us that they learned what we intended to teach or what we intended them to learn. So when you think about cognition then, you’re thinking about cognition as beginning when children detect information from their environment and the information comes in through their senses through sensory and perceptual processes. So the senses really have to do with the acuity, right? So visual acuity, hearing acuity. Perceptual processes really help children to make meaning of the information that is coming in through their senses. So visual perception or auditory perception, making meaning of the information that they see or hear or touch or taste.

Once children have collected the information from their environment through their senses and have made meaning of that information, they store and transform and retrieve the information through the processes of memory. Now, information can flow back and forth between memory and perceptual processes as I have indicated here or as Dr. Santrock and Yussen have indicated in their textbook. I have the reference at the end for you. But what Dr. Santrock and Yussen say is that this information processing model here is really over simplified because they designed it to illustrate the main cognitive processes and their interrelationships. It’s important for us to recognize the relationship, for example, between memory and language, between thinking and sensory and perceptual processes, for example.

The reality is that all of these cognitive processes that are identified here work in tandem and have to operate simultaneously in order for children to demonstrate their ability to think, to reason and solve problems, which in effect means that if there is a breakdown in one or more of these processes, it will impact the complete cognitive process and that’ll impact the extent to which the child will learn. The other thing I want to think about is when we think about thinking, you want to think about children as thinking about information. And they might think about language, they might think about visual spatial information, thinking in images, or they might think about the strategies that they’re going to use next in order to solve a problem. So thinking really is related to specific content, whether language, images, or strategies, and I think doctors Nancy Mather and Sam Goldstein in their textbook referred to the importance of thinking with respect to the content.

Just to introduce two other concepts related to information processing, I want to say a few words about input and output. When we think about information entering the brain, it’s going to enter the brain through the senses, going to make meaning of the information. And then the brain is going to sort, is going to store, is going to transform the information and in order for the child to demonstrate that he or she can retrieve information from memory in order to think, reason and solve problems. So whenever you’re thinking about tasks, you want to think about the input demands of the task and you also want to think about the output demands of the task. Because for example, if a task would require a child to provide a written response and find motor and visual motor integration abilities are relative weakness, that might impact performance on the task, not because of a weakness in the content of the task but because of a weakness in the output demand of the task.

I want to say a few words now about the process of learning. When we looked at information processing, we talked about information coming in through the senses. Neuropsychological assessments would refer to that as the collection of information. So, when you think about collecting information through sensory and perceptual processes, that’s essentially what children are doing. When we’re talking them through something, they’re receiving the information through the ear, they’re making sense of it. Since they’re going to sort that information, they’re going to transform, they’re going to store the information, maybe hold it in short-term memory for a short while. And then that information is consolidated into long-term storage. So that later on, on demand, they can retrieve that information in order to show us what they know and what they can do. So if we think about learning as actually asking children to understand, to think and reason, again, you want to think about the thinking, the reasoning, the understanding as focused on language, as focused on images, as focused on strategies.

Gloria Maccow (12:43):

I want to take a closer look now at some of the cognitive processes that are invoked during the learning process. First of all, those of us who work with learning directly, we know that learning is a complex process even though when everything works effectively, it looks really simple. But when we think about learning, think about all of the cognitive processes that are actively engaged when we’re engaged in learning. Now, I want to say a few words about attention. I want to say a few words about sensory input, about language and visual-spatial processes, about memory. I want to say a few words about motor actions, the output demand, and I want to relate executive functions when I talk about memory.

Let me take each of these in turn and say a few words about each of these cognitive processes and their relationship to learning. Let me start with sensory-motor functions and learning. Sensory-motor functions, and when I talk about attention I’ll refer to attention the same way, sensory-motor functions and attention serve as the essential building blocks for what we want children to be able to do, think and reason for those higher order cognitive processes. Now, what that means, and when I worked in schools what we knew was, if a child struggled with visual acuity, for example, maybe near vision for vision 20/70, for example, that was a child who was probably struggling in the classroom because of the visual demands of reading, the visual demands of arithmetic. So visual acuity, hearing acuity are important, visual discrimination is important.

A weakness in sensory functions will impact performance across content areas. When you think about sensory functions, think about the input, how the child receives or collects the information through the ear, through the eye, maybe through the hands, tactile, kinesthetic. Think about collecting information through the senses. And when you think about the motor functions, think about the output demands. How do we know what children know and what they can do? Well, more often than not, they tell us or they show us. They write it down. So those motor demands are important; our motor structure for the production of language and certainly visual motor integration for writing tasks. When you think about sensory functions, think about a weakness in sensory functions as having a pervasive impact, if you will.

And when you think about attention; attention, like sensory motor functions, also is one of the essential building blocks for all higher order cognitive processes. If you think about it, if I’m not paying attention when you are talking to me, I am not going to receive the information that you’re presenting or I may not receive it accurately, or I may actually lose some of the important words that I need in order to determine how to proceed. So when you think about attention in learning, a weakness in attention, again, will impact the child’s learning across content areas. When you think about attention in children, depending on the task, we expect them to be able to sustain their attentional focus for a prolonged period of time.

If you think about maybe been able to sustain attentional focus to really engage cognitive effort in order to focus their attention, depending on their grade level, certainly they might be required to sustain attention for a relatively long period. Also in the classroom there are times when we expect children to tend to specific stimulus while ignoring other stimuli. For example, when I worked in schools and I would walk into a classroom, it was always amazing to me that very few children would even raise their head to see who came into the room because they were so used to somebody coming into their classroom. So they continue to concentrate on their work even in the face of competing irrelevant stimuli.

There are also times when maybe I’m doing something and the teacher redirects my attention so I have to shift my attentional resources from one activity to another. And sometimes I must be able to multitask to demonstrate that divided attention. So when we say to children and we do so very frequently, pay attention, it is really because we understand the importance of attention for the collection of information. Now, one of the things that we know, especially about young children, is that young children tend to focus on visual characteristics or information that they hear, they tend to focus on the features that are the most salient. So for example, if you have this really colorful clown but you really want the child to count these objects, young children, especially children in preschool classrooms, might focus more on the clown than on the actual task. Of course as children age after about the age of six or seven, we notice that they tend to be more efficient in attending to the dimensions that are relevant.

Also, when you think about attention, you want to think about the type of task, right? Do some children maybe attend more effectively to visual tasks? For example, can they engage, in addition to the attention, the visual discrimination to identify these ships that are the same? And also there might be attention to auditory tasks. So are you able to sustain your attention? What I want you to do here is when you hear the word red, I want you to point to the red circle. When you hear any other word, I want you to do nothing. Again, when you think about being able to sustain attention, to shift attention, in a major executive function demand in a task like this as well, which I’ll talk about in just a few minutes.

Gloria Maccow (19:28):

In addition to sensory-motor and attention, which underlie pretty much everything that children are learning, you also want to think about the type of information that will be the focus of their learning. Most of what is presented in school has either a visual-spatial or a language basis. So we’re asking children to sort, to store, to transform either visual-spatial information, or maybe information that they hear. When you think about visual perceptual skills, certainly you think about maybe handwriting, fluency in math and reading.

When you think about visual perception, maybe thinking about visual analysis, maybe visual synthesis, a child is able to segment but may struggle to blend that visual synthesis. As psychologist, we might see that in a task like this one which is a block design task where you’re asking the child to actually analyze and synthesize abstract visual stimuli. Children who might struggle with the synthesis component may be able to do well when you present the picture with lines that actually isolates each of the blocks. But when you remove those lines, the child may struggle.

In addition to the visual-spatial, children are receiving oral language, which means that we expect them to be able to understand words and sentences. We expect them to be able to make sense and process the information that they’re hearing. And we expect them, depending on the output demand of the task, to be able to tell us the answer. So one of the components that is really important and that is a good predictor of later comprehension, as we all know, is vocabulary, right? So I may ask a child, I may try to assess vocabulary using a receptive task where I expect the child to demonstrate word knowledge by pointing. So the output demand is going to be pointing in this case; versus an expressive vocabulary task where we are asking the child to tell us the answer, where we’re really focused on that verbal expression.

Why is language important? Certainly language is important because children are expected to be able to process language to sort, store and transform, and then act based upon the language. But oral language is also important because it is foundational to literacy. So, again, Dr. Virginia Berninger talks about the importance of receptive and expressive language when we think about reading. When the receptive phonological component of the oral system, that receptive language, along with the expressive phonological component of the oral system, when those are developing in an age appropriate manner, children are ready to use their foundation in language and to build on that their literacy. So language by ear really proceeds language by eye in terms of developmental sequence. And certainly when we’re thinking about early reading, we’re thinking a lot about understanding of language, especially when we think about phonological awareness.

Now, when you think about phonological awareness, the important component and the predictor of early reading, certainly as we know, is phonemic awareness. But certainly if you’re working with a child and you notice that the child is able to recognize that, to hear the two parts of a compound word like cowboy, but really is struggling to hear the individual phonemes within syllables or individuals phonemes maybe within the rhyme part of a syllable, certainly we know that that is what would predict performance in phonics or the alphabetic principle. So certainly you want to think about phonological awareness and how a weakness in phonological awareness might impact early reading.

I’ve talked about sensory, I’ve talked about motor, I’ve talked about attention, I’ve talked about the type of information that we’re likely to receive and that we’d be required to process, certainly visual-spatial and language, and now I want to talk about the memory piece, because memory really is what will allow children certainly to receive the information, to store it in a certain place, maybe in a folder that they can retrieve because they associated a meaningful label with that folder. But really when you think about memory, memory is important because memory is the natural outcome of learning. Memory is what will tell you that I have learned the concepts that you wanted me to learn.

When you think about early childhood classrooms, what we’re looking for is for children to learn information, and we want them to remember information. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this, I’m sure we all have, a child leaves school on Friday. She was able to name certain words, comes back on Monday and we present the same words and she’s not able to name them. So, the child was able to remember in the short-term, but that information was not consolidated from short-term memory into long-term memory, or if it was, she isn’t able to retrieve it from long-term memory. So ultimately what we want is for children to learn and remember information.

Gloria Maccow (25:41):

And I talk about the fact that some of the information we expect them to learn is presented visually. Some is presented verbally. Some of the information is novel, like some of those abstract concepts I showed you. When you look at a task like blog design, some of it is previously acquired knowledge. If you ask me to tell you what words mean, some of that knowledge maybe I acquired in school, maybe some of that knowledge I acquired at home. So when you think about how this might relate to learning letters and words, for example, memory when you’re learning letters and words, these are all of the mental dictionaries that you must be able to access in order to demonstrate that you can name letters and words, and think about the fact that these all have to work together. When you think about this, you see how complex events happen in the brain relatively seamlessly.

So, first of all, to be able to remember letters and words, children first need visual knowledge of the letters and words, right? I should be able to recognize some of the visual symbols that you present. And then I should be able to associate with this symbol maybe the phonological rule. What is the sound that is associated with that symbol or what are the sounds associated with this word? Well, here’s the thing about word analysis knowledge. Word analysis knowledge is really helpful when you don’t recognize a word by sight, but it really is helpful for words that have highly predictable patterns. And because in the English knowledge, in the English language sounds and symbols don’t always agree as you know, right? So that poem, when the English tongue we speak, why is break not rhymed with freak, and so on, sounds and symbols don’t always agree in the English language.

So it’s really important for children also to have a sight vocabulary to know what the word should sound like. And then on top of those, which these all really contribute to your basic reading, on top of those what I really want you to do ultimately is to be able to comprehend, to think, to reason, to maybe use reading to acquire knowledge. To do that, we also need you to have knowledge of the meaning of the words, right? So the semantic lexicon. All of these four lexicons are accessed in the brain in order for children to demonstrate that they have learned and that they remember letters and words.

So how does this memory thing work? Well, when we think about memory, we can go back years to researchers like Atkinson and Shiffrin back in the 1970s. When we think about information, let’s say maybe this is the information that I am receiving or collecting, the visual image of Sue’s phone number. I’m going to store that in my sensory memory, that visual image, but then I’m going to pay attention to it. I’m going to make meaning of it. Once I attend to it, it’s going to get into my short-term memory. And if I want to keep it there, I’m going to have to do something actively, right? Because short-term memory, information is retained in short-term memory for a relatively short period of time unless we do something to actively maintain it for a longer time. So I can rehearse, I can say that number over and over until I get a chance maybe to write it down, and then I could stop repeating that number or rehearsing that number.

Gloria Maccow (29:59):

And then ultimately if I need to call Sue, maybe I can try to retrieve the information from short-term memory and just dial up Sue. Or if I want to dial up Sue later, I want to transfer that information from short-term memory into long-term memory. And in my long-term storage, I want to be able to store it in a meaningful way. So maybe what I’ll do is I will maybe order it alphabetically so that now whenever I want to find Sue’s number, I will go to that folder in my contacts that holds all of my contacts whose names begin with the S. Now, here’s the thing. Whenever we are using information to solve a problem, we’re accessing that information in short-term memory. The information can come into short-term memory either from the environment through the senses, or I can pull it into my short-term memory from long-term memory.

So I’ll talk about short-term memory a little bit because short-term memory includes two important pieces. It includes capacity, how many pieces of information can you hold in your short-term memory? And it also includes working memory. Working memory is where your mind actually works on all of the information that you’re holding in short-term memory. So short-term memory really is the ability to hold information in your mind and then use it within a few seconds. I want to talk about working memory because learning, everything we learn, everything children learn, they learn in a working memory environment. So, how does the working memory piece work and how is it related to executive function?

Well, for that we go to the work of Baddeley and Baddeley and Hitch starting in 1974. Working memory really is a workspace. It’s a workspace that will store and process… it will store information temporarily and it will process information. The storage happens here in the visual-spatial sketchpad and in the phonological loop. So if you hear information, that information is going to be held in the phonological loop. If you see something, it’s going to be held in the visual-spatial sketchpad. I’m going to qualify that here in a minute. And that information then will be processed by the central executive.

Now, theoretically, information that you hear is stored in the phonological loop, right? It’s not processed. It’s processed up here in the central executive. It’s stored in the phonological loop. But here’s the thing. If I show you a picture of a cat, for example, even though you are seeing that cat, that information is going to be stored in your phonological loop because what you actually will collect is the phonological code for that visual image. So sometimes we need to qualify when we say information you see goes into the visual-spatial sketchpad because sometimes when you see something, what you really collect is the phonological code for that visual image. And Dr. Baddeley in 2000 added to this system the episodic buffer, because what he knew was that information is registered differently in the phonological loop and in the visual-spatial sketchpad, and the episodic buffer is able to combine information from both of those storage systems. So when you think about working memory, think about working memory alongside the central executive or executive functions.

Gloria Maccow (34:10):

So, just to give you a definition of working memory, and when you think about this definition of working memory, you’ll see all the things that we tend to focus on when we are assessing a child. First of all, working memory is information. It is information that we hold in our mind. Where do we get it? We get it maybe either from the environment, from its language. It comes in orally or it maybe comes in in written form. But it’s the information that we hold in our mind. I may pull it down for my long-term memory. And it’s the information that you need to simultaneously perform and correctly complete some type of cognitive task.

So when you ask a child, for example, when we’re presenting word problems in math, think about all of the information that the child must hold in his or her mind. Some of the information really being irrelevant to the ultimate question that you want them to solve, right? They have to hold all of that information in mind and they need that information. They’re adding, subtracting. They have to decide, do I need to add, subtract, multiply, divide. Then they actually need to perform those operations in order to give you the response.

So here are the components when you think about cognition that are involved. First, we have to encode. I have to register the information either that I see or that I hear. Well, in order to register, I have to attend. I have to pay attention. Maybe auditory discrimination is important. If it’s oral, visual discrimination is important. Then I have to maintain it. How am I going to maintain it? I have to do something. I have to maybe rehearse, right? How am I going to keep it there? And then I have to manipulate. Maybe I need to mentally re-sequence. So when you think about working memory, you’re thinking about these complex tasks that really require the integration of multiple cognitive factors.

And then when you think about processing capacity, how many pieces of information can you hold in your mind as an adult? Well, maybe seven plus or minus two. Young children hold fewer pieces of information. So capacity is really important. Also, when you think about working memory, think about its relationship to that central executive. That working memory really is important and the processing happens in that central executive. You also think about attention and executive functioning and how those two are related so that if a child is struggling with attention, for example, the child is going to struggle with the registration, is going to struggle with all of the other components related to the processing of the information.

And then finally, the last cognitive function that I want to talk about, and certainly there are many more to talk about, crystallized and fluid intelligence. I tried to refer to that when I talked about learned and novel stimuli. But I want to talk about speed because we don’t just want children to collect information, to sort it, to store it, transform it, and then to retrieve it, we want them to engage in those processes quickly, because what we know is that automaticity, the more automatic you are in performing a task, the less cognitive resources are engaged or are necessary.

For example, when reading, is the child able, when presented with a visual stimulus, is the child able to quickly, efficiently retrieve it’s phonological code? Maybe red is what I’m going for here. Blue, I want the child to associate the color with a stimulus that I believe is familiar to the child. And I want to use, maybe as my assessment component, colors because young children tend to learn colors early on. But I may also have letters or I may have words. And what I want is when you see, when you receive this information through your eye, can you quickly retrieve the associated phonological code? That is what reading is.

So I want to bring this now to reading. I want to relate everything we’ve talked about so far: sensory-motor functions, attention, visual-spatial, and language processing speed, certainly the memory component, how do those work together when we’re thinking about reading? And I could do the same thing for math. I could do the same thing for writing. Except just in the interest of time, I’m just going to focus on reading today. So here is how this works for reading. When children start the reading process, and all of this when they’re in third grade, by third grade, we hope that this is all automatic. Kindergarten, first and second grade, we start with the orthographic, right? The visual representation of the word. And what we want children to be able to do in basic reading is to immediately associate the phonological code.

Gloria Maccow (39:56):

So Dr. Virginia Berninger talks about the fact that reading requires us to code three different word forms, and those are coded into separate systems in our brain. But if we can interrelate these systems and ultimately that’s what we want, if as soon as a child sees this word, the child can say the word and the child also knows the meaning, then that child can save all of his or most of his or her cognitive energy for the complex task, which is getting meaning from what he or she is reading. So when children are reading effortlessly, when children are reading with prosody, what they’re doing is they are accessing words that’s Virginia Berninger says have become part of their autonomous orthographic lexicon. They’re integrating these three codes: the orthographic, the phonological, she calls it the morphological. Some researchers refer to that as the semantic code. But really what you want is for children to immediately know what a word means when they see it.

Now, basic reading requires the integration of these two codes. So if a word is not part of my sight vocabulary, what I’ll do is I’ll see it, and maybe I will associate a sound with each of these symbols. I say the word slowly, and then I say it quickly. And then it triggers, that word, of the thing I sleep in at home because that word is part of my speaking vocabulary. And then I know what the word is. So ultimately that’s what you want. So coding three word forms. What if you have a child who struggles here with phonics, with the alphabetic principle?

Often we see children in kindergarten, first and second grade, really struggling with reading. And then when they get to third and fourth grade, we see their performance in reading gradually improve because as the demands of the curriculum tend to shift away from basic reading to now reading to learn, their focus is more on the semantic code, so they’re focusing more on the context. So they should integrate these three codes, but I don’t just want them to integrate the three codes, I want them to do so quickly. I want them to be rapid automatic naming tasks. As soon as you see it, you say it, right? That’s what you want. So, the actual coding of the information is time sensitive and it goes through this phonological loop that I talked about with Dr. Baddeley, the phonological storage and working memory, sometimes referred to as verbal working memory.

And then the executive or the central executive, there are a number of components of executive function that come into play when you think about reading. When children are reading, they are constantly switching mental set, right? I may scan across each word within the context of a sentence. I may need to kind of forget about what I just read in order to be able to focus on the next incoming word. Remember my storage space and my verbal working memory is limited. So I have to be able to be making sense of things as I’m reading, so I’m constantly switching mental set.

Another way that we’re constantly switching set is because we’re constantly switching between word recognition and word decoding or word analysis. Like you may have a number of words that you recognize by sight, and then you encounter one that, “I haven’t seen this word before,” and then quickly you engage maybe segmentation or blending, or maybe you break the word into syllables, and then the context kind of clues you into what that word should be. So you’re constantly switching mental set when you are reading.

Another executive function that’s important is inhibition. You want to be able to focus on the information that is relevant and you want to ignore the information that is not relevant. So an inhibition task, for example, that you might administer to determine whether or not inhibition is a relative weakness might be a task that would ask the child to name the color of the ink instead of actually naming the word.

And then another component of executive function is monitoring. We’re constantly reviewing our own learning. This is really the thinking with strategies piece that I referred to at the beginning. So we think with language, we think with images, we think with strategies. Thinking with strategies is really that metacognition piece. So we’re constantly updating and revising and trying to make sense of what we’ve learned and what we need to do in order to continue along that pathway.

So, if you think about cognitive processing in relation to specific tasks, and I just pulled out one here from the KTEA-3. If you think about nonsense word decoding, for example, a child may struggle with nonsense word decoding because of a weakness in orthographic processing, because of a weakness in phonological processing, because of a weakness in the integration of the two, because of a weakness in processing visual information, because of a weakness in language, executive functioning, processing speed, the rapid automatic naming, retrieving information from long-term memory, the working memory.

So, think about all of the different cognitive processes that are engaged when we are asking children to name non-words, words with highly predictable patterns; which means that if there’s a breakdown in any of these, it’ll impact performance on this particular task. And what we will do in terms of structuring learning really is facilitated if we can understand why the child is struggling with that particular task.

Gloria Maccow (46:34):

Okay. So, what do the data tell us about learning? I’ve pulled out some data, and I’d like to take a minute to look at some different sets of data and see if we can understand maybe how this child is learning and what we might be able to do to facilitate the child’s learning. Let’s say you’re working with a second grade child and you administered a brief measure of achievement. And here you have, on this particular measure you have a reading composite, a math composite, and a written language composite. And you’ll notice the composite scores are over here.

What you notice, first of all, I hope is when you look at math, the score for math is within the average range. And when we look at computation and application, the standard scores are relatively consistent. When we look at reading and writing, we notice that those scores are relatively consistent and appear to be somewhat lower than the score for math. When we try to dissect performance in reading, we notice that the score for reading comprehension is within the average range. The score for letter and word recognition is below the average range. When we look at written language, notice written expression within the average range. 85 is the low end of the average range; 80, below average.

The question that I would ask based on these data, what would be my hypothesis about why this child might be struggling in the classroom if we believe that she is struggling? And it would seem to me certainly that this is a child who might be struggling in reading and writing. And when we look at some of the behavioral observations that the clinician recorded, we notice that she was easily distracted during reading and writing tasks, not during math. She had difficulty understanding instructions for reading and writing. She frequently guessed at or skipped items during reading. She gave up fatigue easily during reading. She asked that instructions be repeated during reading. So certainly you notice that some of these behaviors that would be disruptive to the learning process were demonstrated when she was engaged in the reading tasks.

But here is my hypothesis, and you tell me what you think. My hypothesis is that she is struggling with basic skills in reading and writing, letter and word recognition, and spelling. What do we know about letter and word recognition? Well, first of all, word recognition requires that she name these words. Some of the words have a highly predictable pattern. But they’re real words, so you could conceivably engage the meaning code. But if you don’t recognize the word by sight, what you’ll do is you’ll try to analyze or segment and blend or break it into syllables.

What I know is that when I think about word decoding, word decoding and spelling have the same base demands in terms of cognitive processes. Both require the individual to link the orthographic and the phonological codes. When I am reading, I’m going to start with the orthographic. And then if I don’t know the word, I haven’t seen that word before, I can’t name it. I’m going to try to sound it out. So I’ll associate a phonological code with each of the letters, and then maybe I’ll put all of my sounds together to blend.

When I ask you to spell a word, you’ll do the opposite. You’ll start with a phonological code, and if you can’t retrieve the visual representation of that word from your longterm memory, what you’ll do is when you hear the word, you will say the sound, ba, and you’ll write down the visual representation. You will say, ae, and you will say, d. So you’re starting with the orthography and you’re linking to the phonological. So both letter and word recognition, as well as spelling, require the integration of the orthographic and the phonological, which in our classrooms we often refer to as the alphabetic principle or maybe phonics. So maybe we need to take a look at providing some direct explicit instruction in phonics-based reading.

And then just in the interest of time, I’m going to skip through this one, but I want to get to this one. I think this one is relatively straightforward. The child’s scores are all significantly below average. This is a child who will require probably some additional, supplemental, specialized instruction in order to succeed. But I wanted to take a look at this particular profile because it’s a profile that we see very often. Here’s a profile. We administered the WPPSI-IV, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence. We generated an overall full scale IQ, which is 117. But for this child, when I look at all of the index scores, seven of these scores actually contribute to that full scale IQ. I notice tremendous variability at the index level.

Gloria Maccow (52:50):

So what I’d like to do is to think about learning in terms of a pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and think about what a pattern like this might help us in terms of predicting learning for this sample student. So when we look at this, notice her verbal comprehension abilities, 132. Over here, at the beginning of the very superior in terms of the descriptive classifications. Top 2%, right? So verbal comprehension, her vocabulary knowledge, her ability to think and reason with words, really well developed. When we look at visual-spatial and fluid reasoning, scores within the high average range. When we look at working memory and processing speed, her scores are within the average range.:

And you would say, well, we shouldn’t be concerned about this child because her scores in all of these areas are at least average. But here’s what I’d like you to think about. When you are working with a child whose vocabulary is well-developed, but who seems to process or to collect information and maybe to struggle to hold that information in short-term memory while maybe using the information to complete cognitive tasks, this is a child who will likely become frustrated when you think about cognitive efficiency represented by working memory and processing speed. So again, when you’re thinking about cognitive processes and what the information would tell you about learning, think about that pattern. And even though some of the scores are within the average range, think about the variability and think about how that would impact that child that intra-individual variation, if you will.

Gloria Maccow (54:55):

I think just to summarize everything we’ve said today. We know that children will function, will acquire information at a different pace, at different rates. So when you have differential performance, it’s important for us to think about why. Is it the curriculum? Is it the instruction? Is it the instructional materials? Ruling out those components, we want to look at the individual differences in the learner’s mind. We want to think about the cognitive factors that are necessary for and related to performance of the scale with which the child is struggling, and we want to assess those cognitive factors in order to understand and answer the question why. Why is the child struggling? A child might be struggling with early reading skills or basic reading skills because of the orthographic demand, or maybe because of the phonological demand, or maybe because of the integration between the two. What we do is going to differ for each of those three children. So the why is really important.

Gloria Maccow (56:09):

When you think ultimately about learning, children translate sensory information and perceptions into internal mental representations. They attend to, they discriminate, they perceive the sensory information and they use mental representations to produce thoughts and actions. As psychologists we’d say to think, to reason, to problem solve, and when children can process the sensory information effortlessly, right? So when I know I can add, subtract. When you ask me word problems, I don’t need to be adding in my mind because I already know 25 and 47 is 72. So the speed and efficiency of cognitive processing really impacts learning and impacts problem solving.

Gloria Maccow (57:04):

I think the last thing I included here for you are some of the resources that I referenced. Most of these are included in the handout. I think the one that I didn’t include in the handout was this Mather and Goldstein reference, Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors. Really wonderful book that talks about the learning process, especially as it relates to specific content areas.

Gloria Maccow (57:35):

So if you have any questions about the webinar, if you would please email me,, and we hope that you were able to take away maybe at least one concept that’ll help you as you move forward in your work with children. Thank you so much for joining us today and thank you Emily for monitoring the chat box for us. And we look forward to seeing you in the future on another of our webinars. Have a nice day everybody.




Websites – Department for Education. – The Training and Development Agency for Schools – Child Development Institute – NHS – Teachernet – Department for Education. – The Training and Development Agency for Schools


Books and Policy Papers


  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • Understanding Schools as Organisations (Handy & Aitken) ISBN 9780140224900 (Penguin Books Ltd 1986)
  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • A Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Child Development (Bentham) ISBN 9780415311083 (Routledge, 2003)
  • Successful School Transition (Dawrent) ISBN 9781855034358 (LDA, 2008)
  • Understanding Children and Young People: Development from 5-18 Years (Lindon) ISBN 9780340939109 (Hodder, 2010)