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The Multiple Subfunctions of Attention: Differential Developmental Gateways to Literacy and Numeracy


  • The authors are indebted to children, parents, and staff at nurseries and schools in Oxfordshire and East Sussex, without whom the data presented herewith could not have been collected. We thank Kate Nation, Margaret Snowling, and their research teams for advice on domain-specific predictors of literacy, and Ann Dowker for her input on numeracy. We are also grateful to Chris Jarrold and three anonymous reviewers for feedback on early work on this data set. Ann Steele was supported by a Collaborative Studentship awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the William Syndrome Foundation and the Down Syndrome Educational Trust, U.K. Gaia Scerif, Kim Cornish, and Annette Karmiloff-Smith were supported by the Wellcome Trust.

concerning this article should be addressed to Gaia Scerif, Attention, Brain and Cognitive Development Group, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3UD, United Kingdom. Electronic mail may be sent to


Attention is construed as multicomponential, but the roles of its distinct subfunctions in shaping the broader developing cognitive landscape are poorly understood. The current study assessed 3- to 6-year-olds (= 83) to: (a) trace developmental trajectories of attentional processes and their structure in early childhood and (b) measure the impact of distinct attention subfunctions on concurrent and longitudinal abilities related to literacy and numeracy. Distinct trajectories across attention measures revealed the emergence of 2 attentional factors, encompassing “executive” and “sustained–selective” processes. Executive attention predicted concurrent abilities across domains at Time 1, whereas sustained–selective attention predicted basic numeracy 1 year later. These concurrent and longitudinal constraints cast a broader light on the unfolding relations between domain-general and domain-specific processes over early childhood.