The Relative Importance of Fine Motor Skills, Intelligence, and Executive Functions for First Graders' Reading and Spelling Skills

By Roebers, Claudia M.; Jäger, Katja | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Relative Importance of Fine Motor Skills, Intelligence, and Executive Functions for First Graders' Reading and Spelling Skills


Roebers, Claudia M., Jäger, Katja, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


Children's transition into formal schooling constitutes a milestone in their development. Some specific developmental difficulties may only become apparent once children start to read and write. Therefore, it is crucial for professionals working in the educational field to continuously improve their knowledge about individual differences in young children contributing to, or indicative of, children's school readiness. This article presents results from a longitudinal study in which the role of preschoolers' fine motor skills and executive functions (EFs) for later reading and spelling skills were investigated.

Interestingly, when preschool and kindergarten teachers are asked which aspects of young children's early development are markers of their school readiness, they typically list motor skills among the top five factors. Being able to balance on a narrow tree trunk, throw and catch balls, tie one's shoes, thread beads, and draw an accurate line are considered aspects of motor skills that teachers perceive as positively related to children's school readiness. In fact, several studies have confirmed the long-supposed predictive power of motor skills for children's school readiness (e.g., Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010). Why motor skills are indicators of school readiness, however, has remained a largely unanswered question.

For a long time, developmental psychologists agreed with the general idea of Jean Piaget that the underlying mechanism for why individual differences in motor skills might explain substantial amounts of individual differences in early school achievement was that children's general maturational timetable (driven largely by biological factors, i.e., heredity) was critical for the development of both motor and academic skills (Piaget & Inhelder, 1966). From that perspective, motor skills are considered an indicator of maturation and thus mirror children's general, including cognitive, development. Support for that notion came from studies a) showing that motor skills and intellectual skills were substantially linked to each other (at a given time point in development; see, e.g., Davis, Pitchford, & Umback, 2011) and b) revealing one global "growth" factor in development. That is, individual improvements in spoken language, mathematical and reading skills, but also in fine and gross motor skills were relatively well explained by one global developmental factor (Rhemtulla & Tucker-Drob, 2011).

However, more recent research suggests that brain development in general or general intellectual skills provide inadequate accounts of the link between motor skills and school readiness. Different groups of researchers around the world have shown that a more specific view is better suited to explain the research findings. For example, in a large-scale study conducted in the Netherlands by Wassenberg and colleagues (2005) with over 1,300 fiveto six-year-olds, general cognitive performance was not found to be related to either quantitative or qualitative measures of motor performance, arguing against a global relation between cognitive and motor skills. However, they found positive relationships between participants' working memory (storing and processing information), verbal fluency (for example, naming as many animals as possible in one minute), focused and sustained attention, and visual-motor integrative skills (copying geometric forms without using an eraser), and motor performance (gross and fine motor skills). All these cognitive processes (working memory and focused and sustained attention) belong to what are called executive functions (EFs; i.e., higher-order, top-down cognitive processes allowing an individual to suppress automatic and dominant but inadequate responses, to maintain a task goal in mind, to manipulate information held in mind, to flexibly shift attention from one aspect of a given task to another, and to quickly adapt to change). The documented links between motor skills and EF thus point to a specific relation between motor and cognitive performance in children. …

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