Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

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.

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