Finding out about cognitive load theory (guest post)

Following my post about staging activities in which I mentioned cognitive load, Rose Lewis got in touch with me. We worked together at International House Bydgoszcz for three years, and she is now doing a PGCE in primary school education in the UK. She kindly agreed that it was OK for me to turn her email into a blogpost – it’s a great collection of links which you might want to explore.

I read your recent blog post and it made me think, so I thought I might as well share my thoughts with you! I’m fascinated by cognitive load theory and am slowly getting my head around it all.

I don’t think the amount of cognitive load should be considered only, or especially, for low level pupils. It applies to anyone who is learning anything! Just the amount of prior knowledge which they have changes. I think it would actually be really interesting to touch on during the CELTA – things like Rosenshine’s principles provide a useful, accessible guide. 

Retrieval practice is one of the interesting things in Rosenshine’s principles and I know I definitely didn’t include this in my EFL lessons much beyond warmers. Something I’ve seen in my teaching placements during my PGCE is “morning work” – as the pupils all arrive at different times, they have tasks to do while they wait to practice stuff learnt weeks/months ago. If I were to teach again at IH Bydgoszcz, I’d definitely include this! I’m sure you could even make something universal that could be used for every lesson – 4 tasks to chose from like writing sentences with vocabulary or grammar structures, or writing about your day. OK, it might make some students hang out in Focus Mall [next door to school!] until the lesson starts (when you have live lessons again) but it might give others something more useful to do than just sit on their phone! 

Back to cognitive load theory…

I don’t know if it’s still a popular thing, but back when I did my CELTA, the stage aim of our warmer was always supposed to be “activating schemata”. I understood this as just getting the students familiar with the topic before learning how to talk about it. Now, I realise that it’s about reducing part of our cognitive load – it’s the idea of balancing the demands of ‘what to say’ and ‘how to say it’. The theory is that schemas work as one item in the working memory, so there are fewer elements being stored in the working memory. Although critics say that schema theory can be used to explain anything!

There’s a huge focus on “I/We/You” scaffolding for tasks in primary school. It’s basically the “I do, we do, you do” that I learnt about at IH Bydgoszcz. Whiteboards are very popular – every pupil in every class I’ve been in has one, and it’s used in nearly all lessons. Pupils have to show that they’re confident with it before they go off and work independently. It’s both a confidence boost for the pupils, and it allows you to assess their understanding of the task. From a differentiation perspective, there’s also a strong emphasis in primary schools of moving the pupils on with their learning as soon as they’re ready. So, if you use the whiteboards and see that some pupils have got it, they can go on with the independent task. Then, you form a smaller group to work with those who still need support. 

Dual coding is also a really interesting theory, but I think I’ve written enough for now. I’ve also learnt a lot about modelling writing which I think could be really interesting in the EFL classroom, especially when we want pupils to use certain grammatical structures and get frustrated when they don’t. Oliver Caviglioli has written a useful book called Dual Coding With Teachers [Amazon affiliate link] if you’re interested in finding out more.

I found Steve Garnett’s CLT: A handbook for teachers really interesting [Amazon affiliate link]. Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand was also super helpful. Teacherhead by Tom Sherrington is a blog I’ve enjoyed (and I’ve just bought his book) and here is a blog all about cognitive load. Both their twitter feeds are really interesting too: @teacherhead and @olicav.

Graphic organisers might also be interesting to explore, especially with upper-int/advanced classes where you have the change to explore long reading texts.

Finally, I recommend rewatching Inside Out – I watched this while writing up my action research and it got me thinking all about memory and the connections we make! Probably not very accurate, but fun anyway 🙂 

Anyway, there are my assorted thoughts! Like I said, I’m definitely no expert, but I enjoy talking/thinking about cognitive load theory! It’s been interesting reflecting on the things I’ve learnt on the PGCE which were missing in my EFL practice. Hopefully I make it back to the English teaching world one day!

Five emotion characters from Inside Out: Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness, Anger
The five main characters from Disney Pixar’s film Inside Out

This was my response to Rose’s message:

Thank you so much for that – so many interesting things there. I’d come across a few of them before, mostly from the Learning Scientists, but I’ve struggled to find the time or mental space to apply them to my own teaching. I also haven’t really been able to do in-depth research or reading on it beyond the bits and pieces I’ve picked up from blogposts, podcasts or the psychology in English teaching book I read (really need to go back to that!).

Your message adds so much depth to that – I think there’s so much opportunity for cross-pollination between state and private schools, and it’s good to see some of that in action.

I’m guessing you’ve seen the ReadWriteThink resources? They’re the main source I have for graphic organisers, and I use KWL charts fairly often but not much else. I also agree with you that cognitive load isn’t just for low-level students, but I do think that that’s where it can make the biggest long-term difference if teachers understand how it adds to the stresses of a task.

Inside Out is one of my favourite films – I think I’ve seen it 3 or 4 times. Everyone should watch it!

I’ll definitely be coming back to this post and this topic in the future I believe – lots of interesting things to explore here.

Reported speech practice/revision online using Jamboard

This is a super quick activity I suggested to a teacher last week which I haven’t tried out, so please do let me know if it works! I also haven’t created an example because I’m feeling lazy today, so I hope it makes sense; let me know if you need one to help you understand how to set up the activity.

We were talking about how to practise reported speech patterns in a fun way when you can’t play Chinese whispers/telephone, which I think would be pretty hard to transfer online (I’m happy to be corrected if you’ve made this work somehow).

It goes like this:

  • Set up a Jamboard with a 5 or 6 stickies of direct speech, all in the same colour. This could be before the lesson (easier to ensure all patterns you want to include are covered), during the lesson (using real things students have said so potentially more motivating) or in a follow-up lesson (using real things from a previous lesson and ensuring all patterns are covered – win-win!). Duplicate the frame so that different pairs/groups can work on the same set of sentences simultaneously. Put a different number in the corner of each frame for ease of reference.
  • In the lesson, demonstrate the activity on frame 1 (your frame!) Choose one of the direct speech quotes. Ask students to help you change it to reported speech – type this version onto a sticky, choose a different colour to the original speech, and move it on top of the direct speech. It’s important that students can’t see the direct speech any more once they’ve written their original version.
  • Share the link, telling students which frame they should work on. With their partner(s), they write reported speech versions of all of the quotes, hiding the direct speech with their new versions.
  • To extend the activity/For fast finishers, add an extra stage (or two or three) where students look at the reported speech and try to reproduce the direct speech. They can compare their version of the direct speech to the original version to see what problems they had with tense shifts etc. They can do this flip-flop for as long as you think it will be useful / to give slower finishers more time to complete the activity.

I think the most important thing to point out in any activity incorporating reported speech is that while there are some common patterns, it’s not an exact science. There may be multiple possible versions of the reported speech depending on what the imagined speaker is trying to emphasise when they reproduce the speech.

Interactive grammar activities for C2 students (guest post)

I saw Fari Greenaway presenting activities to use with proficiency students at the IH Online conference in May 2019.  Since it’s hard to find good ideas to use with such high-level students, I asked her if she’d mind sharing them with the readers of this blog.  Many of them can be adapted for other levels too. Thank you for agreeing, Fari! (Yep, this post has been a while in arriving! It was also written before any of this COVID malarky happened, hence the fact that online teaching isn’t mentioned, though most of the activities should be pretty easy to adapt online.)

My experience with teaching C2 Proficiency classes is that the materials tend to be very dense and lack communicative or interactive ideas. As a result, teaching C2 often means creating your own activities. I’d like to share some of the activities I use in class.

As with all students C2 level learners can gain from the benefits of interactive work: helping memory, promoting practice and providing motivation by making lessons more fun.

Presentation

Extreme adjective mingle

1) List adjectives and their extreme versions on the board ask students to match the two, e.g.:

hot                                                       exhausted

cold                                                     boiling

tired                                                    furious

interesting                                          starving

angry                                                  freezing

hungry                                               fascinating

2) Elicit the differences between the two lists (the extreme adjectives on the right are non-gradable and take different adverbs – you may want to go through some examples)

3) Give each student a regular adjective on a card and ask them to write a statement on the card with the adjective e.g.: “It’s hot in here”

4) Students should mingle and read their sentences to each other, the listener should answer with the extreme adjective in the correct intonation e.g.. “Hot? It’s boiling!”

Here’s a ready-made extreme adjective activity to give you an idea, but I prefer that the students make their own sentences https://www.eslprintables.com/grammar_worksheets/adjectives/Extreme_adjective_mingling_act_607982/ (retrieved on 15/05/19)

Peer teaching memory test

If your book comes with grammar explanations that you like to use or think are useful: give students a set (short) amount of time to read the information. Ask them to close their books and reconstruct as much they can of the text / rules whilst speaking with their partner.

Reported speech and reporting verbs

  • Students brainstorm reporting verbs.
  • Display a list of reporting verbs on the board and ask students to work together to organise them into groups according to the structure that follows them, this can be done with the verbs written on cards or on a board (ideally an IWB). There is a good table at: https://de.scribd.com/document/136102001/Reporting-Verbs-Table-pdf (retrieved 15/05/19).
  • Check as a class.
  • Give each student a reporting verb and ask them to come up with a sentence that illustrates that verb but doesn’t use it (in direct speech) e.g.: you give them a card saying “apologise” and they write “I’m sorry for being late”.
  • Students mingle and say their sentences to each other.
  • Put students into small groups, they should now report on what the other students in the group said using the structures revised previously, e.g.: She apologised for being late.

Passive/Causative structures

The TV show How it’s made is great for passive and causative structures.

  • Choose a video to show e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1VfdXmqjN8 and then ask students to recall.
  • Ask some introductory questions about the topic, e.g.: in this case: Have you ever tried Japanese noodles? How are they different from Chinese noodles etc…
  • Watch the video and ask students to make notes on what they see.
  • Elicit the structures used in the video, e.g.: “This factory was formed in…” “433 tonnes will be used every year.”
  • Display key words and ask students to reconstruct the procedure, speaking in pairs.
  • Feedback as a class.
  • Students work in pairs to write about the manufacturing process of the product of their choice.

This is also a great video for ellipsis and provides lots of vocabulary and examples of collocations.

Practise

Jigsaw activities

  • Choose a fairly long grammar practice activity (I use activities from Destination C1 and C2) [Amazon affiliate link]
  • Make two copies of it and complete half of the answers on each page i.e. the odd numbers on one page and the evens on another. Label the pages “Student A” and “Student B”. Sit students in A/B pairs and ask them to tell each other what they think is the correct answer
  • They should help each other to find the answer by giving leading responses rather than giving them the correct answer immediately if they get it wrong.

Grass skirts (a race!)

  • Copy sentence transformations and cut them into fringed tear off strips.
  • Tape the pages to the board or door so that students can tear off one transformation at a time.
  • Put students into pairs or small groups.
  • One student from each group at a time should come and tear off a strip from their page (you may want to mark the pages with team names or letters) and take it back to their team.
  • When they have agreed on an answer they write it on the paper and show it to you. If it is correct they tear off the next strip and repeat. If not, they go back to their group and try again.
  • The winning group is the one which finishes their sentences correctly first

Revise

Peer teaching

  • Put students into pairs or small groups.
  • Write structures you have covered and would like to revise on cards for students to randomly select.
  • Supply students with reference material to research their structure.
  • Give students 15 minutes to prepare a short presentation for the rest of the group: it must be presented without prompts, they must provide examples and other students should make notes.

Structure bingo

Create a short grid of structures you would like to revise and a list of 6 topics on the board. Students roll a dice to select the topic and try to be the first to correctly get bingo whilst discussing their topic.

Phrasal verbs / verbs with dependent prepositions

  • With a reading text from the book, do the reading in class or for homework.
  • Give students a list of verbs to find and to underline which preposition they go with.
  • List the prepositions on the board for students to complete with the correct preposition (books closed!)
  • Display gapped sentences on the board or around the room.

Recommended resources

Total English Advanced: Teacher’s Resource Book, Pearson Longman, 2007. Will Moreton [Amazon affiliate link]

Destination C1 and C2 Grammar and Vocabulary, Macmillan, 2008. Malcolm Mann and Steve Taylore-Knowles [Amazon affiliate link]

Devilish Dilemmas game [Amazon affiliate link]

Bio

Fari likes baking.

Other than that she is a linguistics graduate, DELTA qualified and DELTA tutor. She has written numerous EFL articles for different journals and has written teaching material for Edelvives. Fari has spoken has spoken at a variety of provincial, national and international conferences and is a great believer in promoting learner autonomy.

CrowdScience – learning as you get older

BBC World Service’s CrowdScience is one of my favourite podcasts, as the listener questions are fascinating and it features experts from all over the world.

BBC World Service CrowdScience logo

One recent CrowdScience episode was particularly relevant:

Why is learning stuff harder as you get older?

Have you taken classes to learn a new sport or musical instrument or a language? It’s hard work! Why is it that as children we effortlessly absorb new skills and we don’t as adults?

That’s what 50-something listener Gary Grief wondered about playing guitar. Do you need to play more frequently as an adult to attain the same level of expertise? Does the 10,000-hours theory still apply?

Presenter and budding tabla-player Anand Jagatia embarks on a musical journey to discover what neuroscience can tell us about muscle memory and learning. Do musicians and sportsmen share the same challenges? By understanding what’s happening in the brain, can we learn how to learn better?

With tabla-teacher Satvinder Sehmbey, neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn, viola-player Dr Molly Gebrian and sports scientist Prof Yannis Pitsiladis.

CrowdScience episode page, retrieved 15/5/2021

The whole 30-minute episode was fascinating, and I’d recommend all teachers listen to it. My favourite part was the metaphor about learning being like creating tracks in a very deep snow field, that you have to keep going over the ‘correct’ route again and again for it to stand out and become easy to follow, and that when you first start learning something it’s hard to work out which of the single sets of footprints is the ‘correct’ or most efficient one to follow.

CrowdScience is also a good podcast for learners to listen to because there is a wide range of different accents, and because it’s for the World Service the speech is generally a little slower and clearer than programmes intended for home service stations. There’s also normally clearer signposting of topics in the programmes.

Bridge Education Best EFL Blogs list

Best blog for ELT thought leadership
Sandy Millin

Sandy Millin

Who should read it? ESL teachers interested in keeping up with the latest conversations happening in ELT, including information about using technological resources, book reviews, Delta resources, news about conferences, and more.

It was lovely to see my blog featured on Bridge Education’s list of best EFL blogs. Although I knew the article was being written because I was interviewed for it, I had no idea what the final results would be. ‘ELT thought leadership’ isn’t something I’ve ever considered I do, but I’ll take it!

The other 5 blogs on the list are all worth checking out – there really is something for everyone: they cover ESL, pronunciation, working with refugees and immigrants, business English, young learners, and technology tools, just as a starting point. It’s also worth looking around the Bridge Education website, for example the Professional Development section. (Please note: I don’t know anything about their courses at all, and this should not be taken as an endorsement of them – I have no connection with Bridge other than my blog appearing on the above-mentioned post!)

Thank you Catarina and Bridge Education for including me!

Dissertation research request – IELTS examiners (guest post)

I’ve known Ben Naismith online for quite a while now. I’m sharing this request to help him along with his dissertation research – please complete it if you’re a current or former IELTS examiner.

Dear IELTS examiner,

I would like to request your participation in my dissertation research by completing an online questionnaire.

The purpose of this research study is to determine which quantitative features of writing correspond to expert assessors’ ratings. For that reason, you have been asked to complete this survey based on your own assessment expertise as either a current or former IELTS writing examiner.

If you are willing to participate, in Part 1 you will rate three learner essays and provide reasons for your ratings. In Part 2, you will be asked background information questions (e.g., about your teaching experience and education). In total, the survey should take approximately 20 minutes to complete. Please complete the survey on a computer rather than a mobile device. There are no foreseeable risks associated with this project, nor are there any direct benefits to you, and you will not receive any payment for participation. All responses are confidential, and results will be kept under lock and key. It is optional whether or not you provide your name. Participant names will only be used to ensure that there are no duplicate submissions. Your participation is voluntary, and you may withdraw from this project at any time.

Here is the link to the survey: https://pitt.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_cYCXODEEMESPYGy  

If you have any questions, please email me at bnaismith@pitt.edu, and I would be happy to answer them. In addition, I would also ask that you share this request with any other current or former IELTS examiners in your professional network.  

Thank you for your consideration,

Ben Naismith

Ben is originally from Victoria, Canada and has been involved in language teaching for nearly 20 years. In this time he has worked in numerous countries and contexts as a teacher, teacher trainer, materials developer, assessment specialist, and researcher. Currently, Ben is completing his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh to help bridge the gap between academics and practitioners and to promote evidence-based practices. To this end, Ben’s research interests relate to lexical development, teacher pedagogy, second language acquisition, and learner corpora. His dissertation focuses on learners’ collocational proficiency and the impact of statistical lexical features on experts’ ratings.