by Olivia Duan 

What are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are usually defined as the set of cognitive processes that help us achieve our goals by controlling and monitoring our behaviors.

Some common executive functions include working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, attention, and problem-solving.

Executive functions help us organize and regulate ourselves. People with ADHD tend to have difficulty with most executive functions.

How can they affect writing skills?

Research suggests that impairments in executive function may be tied to challenges grasping core writing skills. Executive functions help us organize our thoughts and control our behaviors to achieve our goals.

Since writing depends on planning, organizing, explaining, and refining our thoughts and ideas, executive dysfunction can severely harm one’s ability to write.

Research on EF & Writing

Scientific studies on the correlation between executive functions and writing skills have taught us that working memory and planning are the most important.

A study that tested core writing skills in children (both with and without ADHD symptoms) found that underdeveloped working memory affected written expression, spelling, and writing fluency.

Working memory, defined as the part of memory that holds on to the temporary information that we are presently using, manipulating, and working with, plays a big part in spelling words, constructing sentences, and organizing essays.

Another experiment, which tested children both at the beginning and the end of the school year, also showed that working memory and planning were the most important predictors of writing quality.

Organizing & Prioritizing

Organizing and prioritizing ideas are important aspects of academic work, especially during middle school, high school, and college. Students are constantly expected to critically think about open-ended questions, organize and articulate their ideas, and quickly sort between main ideas and supporting details.

Cognitive flexibility and set-shifting are another important executive function that help people sort through information, organize their ideas, and fix mistakes. Set shifting, or the ability to switch between different mental tasks fluidly and flexibly, can be difficult in people who struggle with executive functions.

When planning out, writing, and revising a big essay or written project, impairments in cognitive flexibility can impact one’s ability to organize and prioritize.

Ways to Improve

Research on the link between executive functioning and writing skills is still relatively new. However, that doesn’t mean people aren’t brainstorming ways to improve kids’ executive functioning skills to help them become better writers!

One Writing Center Project Coordinator, Amanda Marshall from Nova Scotia Community College, is already theorizing ways to help strengthen her students’ executive functions in order to develop their writing skills.

Writing Centers, common cornerstones of high schools and colleges, help students jot down key points of their readings and texts, brainstorm ideas, organize their thoughts, plan out essays, and revise sentences.

Remembering, brainstorming, organizing, planning, and revising are key parts of the writing process– and they all have to do with executive functions. Marshall is encouraging her Writing Center to train tutors in developing executive functions.

Likewise, research on the core writing skills of younger children are supporting technological assistance, self-regulation strategies, and changes to school instruction and curricula to further include executive function development.

Sources & Further Readings

Research on EF & Writing Skills in Children

Overview of EF & Writing

Blog Post by Amanda Marshall on Writing Centers & EF

International Dyslexia Association on EF & Writing

Crista A. Hopp, M.A.
Crista A. Hopp, M.A.

Crista is trained to coach as an Academic coach, Executive Function (EF) coach, and individuals with ADHD. Crista can be reached through her website at