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Cognitive Flexibility

By Carolee Dean, M.S., CCC-SLP, CALT

Brain made of many connected parts looks like seriez of hollow dots connected by colors

What is Cognitive Flexibility?

Cognitive flexibility impacts reading, writing, spelling, and more. It is an important executive function skill that centers on the ability to switch between different types of information. It can involve switching between different tasks or thinking about more than one concept at a time. Working memory is an important element of cognitive flexibility that helps a person manage more than one task, concept, or piece of information at the same time.

How Cognitive Flexibility Impacts Reading

Specific to reading, cognitive flexibility is essential for both decoding and comprehension. Students need cognitive flexibility to be able to hold different possible pronunciations for a letter or combination of letters in mind while decoding unfamiliar words. At the same time, they must be considering the word’s meaning. Working memory enables a reader to compare the possible pronunciations of a word with words in their lexicon (internal dictionary). While they are figuring out how to pronounce the word and determining what the word means, a reader must also hold the rest of the sentence in mind. The content and structure of the sentence will also affect the meaning of the word. If a word has multiple meanings, cognitive flexibility is required to hold the possible options in short-term memory while making judgments about the best fit within the context of the sentence and paragraph.

In her book, Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension: A Guide for Educators, 2nd Edition, Cartwright (2023) describes a study where she explored semantic-syntactic cognitive flexibility in college students who struggled with reading comprehension. The students sorted cards according to sentence structure (whether a target word was a subject or object) and word meaning (whether the target word related to transportation or musical instruments). Students in the study made significant gains in reading comprehension.


In another study by Cartwright, students sorted words according to the initial sound and meaning. Overall, she found that executive skill interventions that were task-specific were much more effective at producing the desired outcome than more general executive function tasks. We know that executive function skills impact reading, but it is not always clear what can be done for students with weak cognitive flexibility skills who have challenges with decoding. They often have difficulty flexing between various word pronunciation options.

Inspired by her work, I asked Cartwright questions about what type of cognitive flexibility activities might impact decoding skills directly since her focus had previously been on comprehension.

Cognitive Flexibility and Decoding

What arose from our conversation was the creation of various word lists specifically to target decoding and meaning. The lists are based on concepts that were challenging for the students I see for dyslexia therapy. One challenge was the various pronunciations of Y as a vowel (i.e., funny, sly, gym, type). As students progress through dyslexia remediation programs, they encounter more options for how a letter can be pronounced. Another problematic concept was distinguishing between R-controlled syllables versus Vowel-R contexts where the vowel retains its closed/short sound (i.e., car versus carriage, Hercules versus Heracles or herring).


I also created word lists for open/long versus closed/short vowel sounds. Although this concept is taught earlier in the program, I have found that when students are exposed to more and more sound pronunciations, they often need review of earlier concepts. Students who are emerging readers or are just starting out with a dyslexia program are most likely focusing on closed/short vowel sounds. Many students need practice just differentiating between closed vowel sounds that are different but similar enough to cause difficulty such as short /e/ and /i/, /o/ and /u/. Therefore, I also created lists for those situations. The words on this latter list also correspond to the first book in my HOT ROD decodable series entitled, No Gift for Man available at That is the list I will be sharing below. Since the story is based the Greek creation myth, it included a lot of information about animals that could easily be put into categories as can be seen in the word sets in the next section.

No Gift For Man Cover Picture

By sorting words that belong to two different categories of closed syllables (/a/ vs. /o/, /u/ vs. /o/, etc.) students can work on cognitive flexibility within the context of their current reading intervention program or in the classroom using task-specific target words. Then the category sort expands to include four categories simultaneously (as described in the 2×2 Multiple Classification Task that Cartwright outlines in her book). At that point students experience further challenges in working memory as they grow in their ability to juggle several pieces of information at the same time.

The purpose of sorting tasks such as the one described here is to help students develop a “set for variability.” Another way of thinking of this is as a mindset to use variability (flexibility) while decoding words and making meaning out of them. The more practice students have with using flexible thinking, the more this becomes an automatic skill for both decoding and comprehension.

Word Sets for Cognitive Flexibility

The cognitive flexibility activities described in the following section are based on closed/short vowel sounds and the following categories:

Set 1: /ă/and /ŏ/; animals and actions

cat, bass, rat, hog, fox, dog, grab, clap, flap, trot, hop, drop

Set 2: /ĭ/and /ŭ/; actions and body parts

flip, lift, swim, jump, run, hunt, gill, lip, rib, tusk, hump, gut

Set 3: /ă/and /ĭ/; animals and habitats

asp, crab, bat, pig, *drill,* krill, dam, sand, grass, hill, cliff, rim

•A drill is a type of baboon.

•A krill is a small crustacean that looks a bit like a shrimp.

Set 4: /ĕ/and /ĭ/; actions and body parts

Leg, *crest, *neck, skin, gill, fin, rest, help, smell, sniff, spit, grin

•A crest is a crown of feathers on a bird’s head.

• "neck" contains digraph ck which is introduced later, but most students can manage this word.

Set 5: /ŏ/ and /ŭ/; animals and actions

ox, frog, cod, pug, cub, pup, stomp, rob, got, grunt, bump, rub

See the FREE PDF for additional categories

How it Works
examples of completed word categories
2x2 multiple Classification Task Example one
Cover page for Cognitive flexibility, states the title, author and displays a image of a stylized brain

The  Cognitive Flexibility Category Sort is a 38 page PDF filled with word lists containing closed syllable words that can be cut out and sorted according to a variety of categories. It based upon previous activities designed by Cartwright (2023) that showed improvement in student reading comprehension. Modifications have been made with permission in order to adapt word lists to the Scope and Sequence found on this website. The purpose of using the current Scope and Sequence is to align the activities more closely with the focus of dyslexia remediation programs.

Additional Resources

A similar Category Sorts and Multiple Classification Task is part of a research project currently in progress with Kelly Cartwright that focuses on open and closed syllables (long and short vowels) in two-syllable words. It includes a detailed pre/post test and directions for collecting data. The pre/post test may be given in person or online. It contains 8 word sets and may be administered in person or online using Boom Cards. To request an online version of the sorting activities and/or the pre/post test, write to


A Preview PDF of the text for No Gift for Man is available as a Free download when signing up for my author newsletter. Additional free downloads of activities based on that book may be found on the page for COR Instruction. These activities address phonology, morphology, vocabulary, sentence structure, and plot structure.


Cartwright, K.B. (2023). Executive skills and reading comprehension: A guide for educators 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Guildford Press. 

Savage, R., Georgiou, G., Parrila, Rauno, & Maiorino, K. (2018). Preventative reading interventions teaching direct mapping of graphemes in texts and set-for-variability aid at-risk readers. Scientific Studies of Reading, 22:3, 225-247, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2018.1427753.

Tunmer, W.E., & Chapman, J.W. (2012). Does set for variability mediate the influence of vocabulary knowledge on the development of word recognition skills? Scientific Studies of Reading, 16(2), 122-140.

Vadasy, P.F., Sanders, E.A., Cartwright, K.B. (2022). Cognitive flexibility in beginning decoding and encoding. The Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, in press.

Zipke, M. (2016). The importance of flexibility of pronunciation in learning to decode: A training study in set for variability. First Language. 36 (1), 71-86. DOI: 10.1177/0142723716639495

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