Relationships of Attention and Executive Functions to Oral Language, Reading, and Writing Skills and Systems in Middle Childhood and Early Adolescence

Virginia Berninger, Robert Abbott, Clayton R. Cook, William Nagy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


Relationships between attention/executive functions and language learning were investigated in students in Grades 4 to 9 (N = 88) with and without specific learning disabilities (SLDs) in multiword syntax in oral and written language (OWL LD), word reading and spelling (dyslexia), and subword letter writing (dysgraphia). Prior attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis was correlated only with impaired handwriting. Parental ratings of inattention, but not hyperactivity, correlated with measures of written language but not oral language. Sustaining switching attention correlated with writing the alphabet from memory in manuscript or by keyboard and fast copying of a sentence with all the letters of the alphabet. Multiple regressions based on a principal component for composites of multiple levels of language (subword, word, and syntax/text) showed that measures of attention and executive function involving language processing rather than ratings of attention and executive function not specifically related to language accounted for more variance and identified more unique predictors in the composite outcomes for oral language, reading, and writing systems. Inhibition related to focused attention uniquely predicted outcomes for the oral language system. Findings are discussed in reference to implications for assessing and teaching students who are still learning to pay attention to heard and written language and self-regulate their language learning during middle childhood and adolescence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)434-449
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Learning Disabilities
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank the parents and children who participated in this research and the graduate students who administered and scored the various measures used in this study or assisted with data management, including Roxana Del Campo, Whitney Griffin, Jasmin Niedo Jones, and Terry Mickail. The authors also acknowledge the pioneering contributions of the late Barbara Wilson, the Long Island neuropsychologist who drew attention to the attention problems in individuals with language processing problems and the language processing problems in individuals with ADHD, and she reminded professionals to ask whether the attention problems are causes or effects of language problems and vice versa. Also, the pioneering contributions of the late Edith Kaplan and her colleague Dean Delis, who carries on the work, have given professionals tools for assessing those attention–language relationships. The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was sponsored by Grant P50HD071764 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health to the University of Washington Learning Disabilities Research Center.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016, © Hammill Institute on Disabilities 2016.


  • cognitive processing
  • language


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