Selective Attention Influences Literacy in Children

Selective Attention Influences Literacy in Children

Joshua Verughese

Portland State University

Note: This research paper was written for Comm 436: Communication & Cognition by Professor Ritchie during Winter 2017 Term.


Multiple research shows that selective attention creates empowered children and nurture their idea into adulthood. Research has looked at the importance of selective attention but, how it affects the cognitive skills remains a big question. Children tend to improve when selective attention is used in academic endeavors and active management ensures the brain system interprets and understands all information received. For the purpose of this paper, we will be looking much deeper into the effects of selective attention towards literacy. Also, we look at brain imaging and to what point selective attention is utilized for the attention system to work. We want to understand how selective attention creates the meaning of information that is out there because we are not convinced that selective attention can compromise our social cognition, social skills, and academic skills. Finally, this article examines emotion as an important aspect of our lives and we hope to look at the role of emotion in engagement and disengagement of information and how they are perceived.

Keywords: selective attention, cognitive skills, active management, attention system, emotions.

Selective Attention Influences Literacy in Children

Education for children is an important aspect of their lives because education molds their mind from adolescence to an adult. To succeed in school, children require various skills to understand and dedicate their attention from class, teacher, peer and things that happen around them (Stipek & Valentino, 2015). In other words, children use cognitive skills to let and declare attention to information. But as we all know, not all information that we receive can be accepted for processing in our brain so we select the information that we receive. Selective attention is a process that permits an individual to choose or select information for “further processing” and to prevent information that is irrelevant or uninteresting (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012, p. 30). This selective attention can happen externally, contradiction on our actions or practice, and internally, contradictions of perception and belief (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012). Adding on, selective attention may occur because of emotional events that occur in life which our brains tend to match the information with our emotions which could lead to the accepting or rejecting of information (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). Therefore, emotional stimuli is a process that happens to be automatic and cognitive skills rely on the emotions of an individual to give selective attention towards information (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). Cognitive skills such as learning, understanding, and perceiving depend on emotions of past experience that causes us to integrate selective attention. Children from a young age who does not have much experience or knowledge integrates selective attention using their own “senses to receive overlapping, redundant information for objects and events in the environment” (Bahrick, Lickliter & Flom, 2004, p. 99). Based on this, we understand that selective attention connects information to objects and events that are in the environment which allows us to simulate our cognitive skills in our day-to-day life.

Akshoomoff (2002) explains that: “Attention becomes related to more planned, self-generated activity with objects, and attention is maintained to carry the activity to completion.” (p. 626). In other words, selective attention helps individuals carry out activities. In this case, cognitive skills like learning and understanding, to be fully understood and learned.

From all of this, the research paper discusses on how selective attention can improve cognitive skills and the factors that affect an individual to select information. As we select attention towards a particular information, our brain processes much faster and affects our memory to store the selected information. We understand that children who have difficulty in selective attention can face serious problems in their cognitive skills, like learning, processing, understanding, which could give in to distractions while trying to concentrate and focus their attention (Gomes, Duff, Ramos, Molholm, Foxe & Halperin, 2012).

Theoretical Approach

Two types of theoretical approaches were considered regarding the effects of selective attention on various cognitive skills and how they acted as a catalyst to examine the various cognitive skills. The two types are selective theory and event-related brain potential (ERP) that examines various research. The theories also discuss how selectivity can create a better mind processing which will improve cognitive skills.

Selective Theory

            This theory believes that there is two mechanism that drives selective attention and they include, vigilance and avoidance (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). Vigilance is an action of the brain when “attention is brought towards the stimulus” (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013, p. 4). On the other hand, avoidance is simply when the “stimulus repels the attention” (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013, p. 4). These two mechanisms drive the brain to choose specific information for further processing and disengage attention to incoming information that is not accepted. Moreover, senses only choose to accept overlapping and redundant information that is around because this makes our brain feel less pressured to a heated information (Bahrick, Lickliter & Flom, 2004, p. 99)

Event-Related Brain Potential (ERP)

            This technique is used to examine the various pattern of selective auditory attention and had found that selective attention influences early neural processing (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Bahrick, et al., 2004; Akshoomoff, 2002). Moreover, the influences are gaining control of the “input-driven neural activity” which resulted in the arousing level of attention, responding and learning (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012, p. 31). Soon the paradigm was named the Hillyard paradigm and is used to study the influence of selective attention on information processing in various experience also, it leads to multiple stimulus attributes (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012). The principle found that selective attention does influence information processing and there was feedback modulation from the brain processing (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012). Finally, increased activity is detected in cortical areas when selective “attention is directed to particular stimuli, for example, motion, color, and shape” (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012, p. 31).

To ensure ERP is a verified technique, they had adult participants to look at two “simultaneous streams of auditory tones delivered via headphones separately to each ear” (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012, p. 31). These participants were given high-frequency tones and only to one ear with standard tones (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012). To examine the function of the brain, positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are used and results showed that attentional modulation is found in multiple cortical and processing areas (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012).

Memory and Attention Skills

            Memory and attention skills have become really important in a child’s life and it helps children grow to an adult.  Stipek and Valentino (2015) found that short-term and working memory were two important aspects used by children for learning “complex cognitive operations” that can be found in subjects that require more thinking, practicing and memorizing (Stipek & Valentino, 2015, p. 771). In other words, when we use our working memory and short-term memory, we learn to tackle the difficult and challenging subjects. This explains why most mathematic instructors encourage students to keep practicing mathematic problem and in that way, our memory improves and leads to a better understanding towards the problem. Studies show that when children with ADHD have difficulty with selective attention thus, they show weaker results in detecting targets (Gomes, et al., 2012). From this, we understand that memory and attention skills are important for understanding and learning. Selective attention helps us make meaning of everything that we ought to see and hear. This makes attention system the crucial part of selective attention because we need to understand how the brain receives the information.

Schwartzstein (2014) explains that confirmatory bias does not remove incorrect beliefs. The author gives an example of how individuals begin with a belief that new group of friends is always unfriendly at first when we meet them (Schwartzstein, 2014). Then, with confirmatory bias, individuals “selectively scrutinize and discount evidence to the contrary” and slowly changes their perception towards against their initial belief (Schwartzstein, 2014, p. 1447). Thus, our belief changes over time through the attention that we give towards information. Nevertheless, the model of selective attention states that an incorrect belief will not be persisted because as humans, we use evidence to filter incorrect information which means that we are to believe only one belief from the beginning and there is not much affects to change our perception (Schwartzstein, 2014). The model also believes that incorrect beliefs and perceptions are systematic because they vary from different information and evidence that we receive from around us (Schwartzstein, 2014). The filter of information influences the outcome and affects what is going to happen (Schwartzstein, 2014). From this, selective attention works as an agent to give information to the human brain that will convince the consistent hypotheses and predict the outcome even though their initial beliefs were different.

Attention System

Attention system is important to memory and attention skills. There are three points that make attention systems important. Firstly, attention system is not the same as data processing but they work hand-in-hand (Posner & Petersen, 1990, p. 26). Attention system connects with other parts of the brain while the data processing area creates meaning to each information. Secondly, attention occurs in different anatomical areas because it involves different parts of the brain working as a whole but, it has its own identity in functioning (Posner & Petersen, 1990, p. 26). Thirdly, attention systems create meaning and work as a cognitive skill to information and achievements (Posner & Petersen, 1990, p. 26). From this, we understand that brain imaging is crucial because it helps the other parts of the human brain to work and that leads to better understanding and memory.

Information Processing

            Baumeister and Masicampo (2010) cited that “when people make an arbitrary decision to initiate a motor response, brain activity has already been on the rise for part of a second before the conscious decision” (Baumeister & Masicampo, 2010p. 1447). In other words, that when we decide to think of a response, our brain is already working and then the conscious thought joins in to make the decision (Baumeister & Masicampo, 2010, p. 946). Moreover, beliefs that do not accept information will be filtered using selective attention and the factors are predicting outcomes that are not possibly becoming reality (Schwartzstein, 2014, p. 1447). From this, we understand that selective attention creates predictions on how stereotypes and beliefs are affected. Remington, Swettenham, Campbell and Coleman (2009) believes that information is processed before selective attention takes over. This suggests that our brain processes information received and filters information that is incorrect. The selected information goes on to further processing that contributes to individual beliefs. Koch and Exner (2015) finds that individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tend to have difficulty in processing information because of “perseverating and self-directed modus of attention.” (Koch & Exner, 2015, p. 554). Thus, we believe that children who suffer from the same disorder face severe hardship to distinguish positive or negative information (Koch & Exner, 2015, p. 554). Selective attention will be a great help to children in learning and understanding information given.


Emotion plays an important role during selective attention because it contributes to the regulatory controls that specify the amount of voluntary attention towards a topic (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). But, this greatly depends on effective information.

Dennis and Halberstadt (2013) goes on by stating “under normal conditions, a person may reflexively orient attention toward an effective cue but later disengage attention once information is gleaned from that item” (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013 p. 6).  This means that our brain is processing any information that comes our way but gives selective attention with the effects of emotion towards the affective information (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). When irrelevant or incorrect information is disengaged, high levels of anxiety results which mean that children with a higher state of anxiety will have “difficulty to disengage from the stimuli that are threatening” (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013, p. 6).

Anxiety is stirred when our emotions play with our feeling that causes a negative impact towards academic achievement because when we feel afraid or fearful, we tend to function less in accepting education. For example, when we feel the stress and anxiety before examination, the tendency of forgetting what we have learnt are high and that creates a huge problem in children’s lives. Dennis and Halberstadt (2013) states that “negative emotions are dangerous that represent the counterpart to anxiety and like anxiety, the belief that negative emotions are dangerous may be depicted as a conflict between vigilance and avoidance” (p. 16). Thus, selective attention is an important aspect of reducing anxiety because we get to choose the positive emotions rather than negative emotions for further processing in our brains. However, individuals who choose to accept and believe negative emotions, they are more likely to avoid that particular topic or information to reduce the anxiety faced (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013). Children do better in education when they feel interested in that particular information received and the brains ensure further processing that affects an individual’s belief (Dennis & Halberstadt, 2013; Remington, et al., 2009).

Visual and Auditory Attention

            Desimone and Duncan (1995) discusses that the nervous system is affected by visual and auditory attention. The nervous system has the ability to process information that is received to form a belief and factors like experiences and culture affects our belief. The visual and auditory attention allows the nervous system to neural process all the information are received and would allow individuals to condone or reject their beliefs (Desimone & Duncan, 1995). King (2009) discusses on how “sound sources can depend closely on localization accuracy” (p. 333). The central nervous system plays a vital role because they combine multiple inputs from all the senses in allowing the enhancement of the “detection, localization and discrimination of stimuli” that allows the neural processing react faster (p. 333). Based on the results, cross-modal interactions take place among the senses when there is an incorrect or challenging information provided (King, 2009). For example, when we watch someone’s lip while they are talking in a noisy surrounding can improve our understanding or reading the text when someone is reading the text loudly can and will help improve our understanding skills (King, 2009). However, when the visual and auditory signals no longer match, our neural processing stops paying attention and that leads distraction or loss of focus (King, 2009).

Visual and auditory attention focuses a single information region thoroughly before moving to the next one which becomes an assurance or evidence to our belief that allows multiple regions to combine different information which making them to one belief (Desimone & Duncan, 1995). In other words, our visual and auditory attention examines each information thoroughly and tries to connect different beliefs into one that allows predicting the outcome. Visual and auditory attention can be perceived as a “system of spatially mapped structures that enhance processing in the visual cortex at attended locations and reduce it at unattended ones.” (Desimone & Duncan, 1995, p. 216). Thus, we know that visual and auditory attention plays as a catalyst in selective attention because individuals get to choose and accept information that is pleasing to them. Moreover, Akshoomoff (2002) results found that children were actively engaged by “quick and accurate responses to infrequent targets” which made the author summarize that when the images were found pleasing or interesting to them, they remembered and responded faster (p. 636). Children that were younger of age showed higher active management but slower reaction time to images that did not have any relation to them (Akshoomoff, 2002). Children that suffer from ADHD tend to do better when they are exposed to visual and auditory selective attention because they are unable to distinguish negative and positive information on their own (Gomes, et al., 2012). Both visual and auditory attention helps children to understand the information received which resulted in a good response and reaction time (Gomes, et al., 2012). Based on this, selective attention affects individual’s visual and auditory attention because children only accepted information or in this case, images that were interesting and accepting to their own beliefs. This result raises the question if selective attention creates an implicit learning and specifies children into a certain skill than to be exposed in different areas.

Academic Achievement

            A meta-analysis by Stevens & Bavelier (2012) found that behavior change during an activity that involved literacy skills and language was in line with the effects of selective attention (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012). For example, when a child learns how to speak, the selective attention will be learning alphabets instead of numbers. The important point here is that the cognitive skills and capacities tend to grow when knowledge is exerted till middle school but fades away during elementary school because our mind uses selective attention to accept information that is congruent to our own beliefs (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). Nevertheless, findings show that “the importance of attending to the particular qualities of the cognitive task being used as well as the specific aspects of academic achievement being predicted” (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012).

For academic achievement, education attainment plays a huge part because when children are prepared at an early age to ensure memory and attention skills come to play in our brains (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). In other words, when children are prepared with cognitive skills, children’s selective attention tend to show better response and they process information much faster. Results showed that children with better academic achievements are ready for college (Stipek & Valentino, 2015).  The attainment for academic achievement will make children to better but it depends on adolescence (Stipek & Valentino, 2015).


            Selective attention plays an important role in children’s life especially when the child is suffering from a disorder. Memory and attention skills create a child’s brain to progressively reach to new ideas and learn to accept or reject information (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Schwartzstein, 2014). Thus, memory and attention skills are an influence towards literacy in children (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Schwartzstein, 2014). We also see the connection of emotions towards how the information that we receive is processed (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). We can clearly say that the embodied simulation hypothesis of Bergen (2012) is supported because children need to learn various skills and to reject negative information. Bergen (2012) hypothesis states that when information is received, our brain has automatically started to create mental imagery and will become a simulation. Moreover, consciousness is a great influence towards literacy and greatly impacted by the idea that information received will be evaluated by our own neural processing (Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Akshoomoff, 2002). If the information is positive, the simulation begins to predict the outcomes. Children that use selective attention tend to show faster reaction time and faster eye-movements (Desimone & Duncan, 1995; Akshoomoff, 2002; Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). Selective attention can be a great benefit, especially to children because they have to begin somewhere in this wide and vast world. Selective attention teaches them positive and negative information and being a catalyst for their future. Finally, encourages children to choose their own dreams that will be a support for their life in the future.

Selective attention can help students specify and specialize into a certain topic or field but cause an implicit learning (Jiang & Chun, 2001). Studies found that “selective attention and implicit learning are interactive processes”, therefore, to what extent selective attention must be used by children to achieve academically (Jiang & Chun, 2001, p. 1122).  This can be a great topic because to what extent must children be exposed to selective attention. We need to look at the advantages and disadvantages of children having to choose a single field or specification.

Synthesis Review

            As Bergen begins his first chapter about “language as a vehicle of meaning”, I believe the most fundamental aspect of our brains processing information depends on language (Bergen, 2012, p. 10). Language helps children to share or accept various ideas for their future. Bergen explains Mentalese as the idea of understanding and creating meaning from symbols and I believe selective attention plays the similar role of understanding the information around us (Bergen, 2012). They work hand-in-hand because selective attention creates meaning to information that allows us to predict the outcome by accepting or rejecting (Bergen, 2012). Moreover, Bergen explains how language helps our brain undergo mental imagery because of simulations (Bergen, 2012). This embodied simulation hypothesis aligns with Akshoomoff’s explanation that individual’s attention is rigid and planned which enables us to carry activities until completed (Akshoomoff, 2002). Thus, children use selective attention to grow and understand information that helps them achieve academically. Children that suffer from ADHD tend to have difficulty in practicing selective attention and that is why these kids have difficulty in simulating information received which results in lower academic achievements. Children need to be prepared for the real world and therefore, they need cognitive skills that can enhance their learning and literacy skills. However, the Perky Effect goes against this hypothesis because the mental imagery can make a brain simulate a belief that is not aligned with the world (Bergen, 2012). In other words, when a human brain perceives something is right, our life is based upon that belief and it might not be accepted into the world. Having said that, I believe this is how anxiety is stirred in a human brain because when a child feels unaccepted in this world, emotions work the information at the neural processing and makes you feel different. Dennis and Halberstadt (2013), explains the same notion that negative emotions create the idea of anxiety because it is against our belief and therefore, becomes a conflict in choosing information to be accepted or avoided. Bergen also explains how our brain mentally simulates information given and prepares a response based on the keywords given (Bergen, 2012). Research results are in line with the results that when our brain begins to mentally simulate with given information and with our consciousness, we tend to predict the outcome (Baumeister & Masicampo, 2010). Our brain has the ability to mentally simulate any given information that affects our beliefs and perception.

Response time is the basic calculation of time taken on how an individual response to a given task (Bergen, 2012). Almost all research shows that when selective attention is involved, results showed faster reaction towards the selected information (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). This explains how our brain only accepts information that is relevant and acceptable which causes us to react faster. Eye-tracking has the similar results because when our mental imagery has been simulated, our eyes search for the information or images that are easily accepted and familiar.

f-MRI is also an important tool to understand how the brain is reacting when selective attention is exerted. f-MRI is a brain scanning machine that allows us to understand how the different parts of the brain react to activities and information (Bergen, 2012). Results show that children with ADHD show weaker neural processing than normal children but when children with ADHD use selective attention towards information, f-MRI screening showed a much active brain function (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). This leads me to understand that selective attention helps children with ADHD much more than normal children because children with different disorders tend to do better when they are told to focus on a certain in-depth information rather than a general open-ended information (Stipek & Valentino, 2015; Stevens & Bavelier, 2012; Gomes, et al., 2012). Most importantly, the machine shows how people perform the various activities at the same time while the neurons in the brain are fired (Bergen, 2012).  In other words, the neurons are fired because we are undergoing a task that makes the brain active (Bergen, 2012). This machine surely helps researchers to understand participant’s parts of the brain while they are listening to the specific language or a given task (Bergen, 2012).  The book had explained about the experiment that made participants remember an animal and the sound (Bergen, 2012). After that, they had to click on the button for either the word or the sound that matches (Bergen, 2012). This experiment was carried out simply because the researcher wanted to examine which part of the brain is functioning when we are given a certain task (Bergen, 2012). This is how our brains work and relating to the Perky effect, multiple results showed the brains creating their own belief with consciousness and experience (Bergen, 2012).

Finally, Bergen’s embodied simulation hypothesis believes that information that is useful will be sent for further processing and information that are not accepted will be filtered before it is accepted towards our belief and perception. Bergen (2012) also discusses how our experience constructs our own embodied simulations and brain imagery. Thus, I can say that selective attention also depends on various cultures, a background that influences how a child is to perceive the information received.


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