Why does working memory capacity predict variation in reading comprehension? On the influence of mind wandering and executive attention

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2012 May;141(2):302-320. doi: 10.1037/a0025250. Epub 2011 Aug 29.


Some people are better readers than others, and this variation in comprehension ability is predicted by measures of working memory capacity (WMC). The primary goal of this study was to investigate the mediating role of mind-wandering experiences in the association between WMC and normal individual differences in reading comprehension, as predicted by the executive-attention theory of WMC (e.g., Engle & Kane, 2004). We used a latent-variable, structural-equation-model approach, testing skilled adult readers on 3 WMC span tasks, 7 varied reading-comprehension tasks, and 3 attention-control tasks. Mind wandering was assessed using experimenter-scheduled thought probes during 4 different tasks (2 reading, 2 attention-control). The results support the executive-attention theory of WMC. Mind wandering across the 4 tasks loaded onto a single latent factor, reflecting a stable individual difference. Most important, mind wandering was a significant mediator in the relationship between WMC and reading comprehension, suggesting that the WMC-comprehension correlation is driven, in part, by attention control over intruding thoughts. We discuss implications for theories of WMC, attention control, and reading comprehension.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Comprehension*
  • Executive Function*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reaction Time
  • Reading*