Objectives. This systematic review synthesized current peer-reviewed research on the developmental relationship between inattention and reading to both:
- describe how inattention negatively relates to the development of literacy from preschool through middle childhood, and
- explore what is known about potential differential relationship between attention and literacy among students over-represented in ratings of inattention, including boys and students of color.
Design and Methods. PsycInfo, Education Full Text, ERIC, and ProQuest Education, and Dissertations and Theses were searched using a broad search string. The initial search resulted in 1,262 potentially relevant studies published since 2015 for review. Out of 1,262 citations found, 70 empirical studies were screened and assessed for eligibility, and 16 met the specific inclusion criteria. A coding sheet was then used to synthesize data from the included studies.
Results. Among preschool and elementary school children, inattention, has a consistent, negative impact on reading skills based on data collected via teacher report, standardized instruments, and performance outcomes. Results point to multiple pathways through which inattention may have a negative impact on reading: (1) a negative direct effect on the development of and performance in reading concurrently and over time; (2) a negative indirect effect on reading performance through its negative impact on early literacy and cognitive skills, including phonological awareness and processing, vocabulary, and working memory.
Unfortunately, there was no meaningful study whether the relation between attention problems and reading differs among subgroups of children who are at elevated risk for attention problems or poor literacy outcomes. In fact, just half of the studies reviewed accounted for any variation in student reading performance by race, gender, or family poverty status. This gap in the literature is especially discouraging in light of longstanding evidence indicating that students of color, boys, and students whose family are poor are overrepresented in ratings of inattention and poor reading outcomes.
Conclusions and Implications. Assessing for and intervening in early attention problems in preschool and kindergarten is essential to promote optimal reading outcomes for all students. Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to make any recommendations for a nuanced intervention strategy to target children at elevated risk for academic failure. As such, there is an urgent need for future social work research to investigate potential differential processes in the relation between attention and reading performance.
School social workers can examine whether the impact of attention problems on reading varies by child race, gender, and family poverty status to confront one mechanism through which performance gaps are perpetuated. In addition, they can contextualize ratings of student attention and advocate for thorough, nuanced and culturally-responsive assessment for attention problems and other correlates and antecedents of poor reading outcomes.