Learning to read and write is difficult. Most schools make it even harder by asking students to read and write about subjects they know little or nothing about.
Education expert Dylan Wiliam said (or at least tweeted) that cognitive load theory is “the most important thing teachers need to know”. And yet, few people learn it during their training or on the job.
For the nuances of the theory, I recommend a few user-friendly books by two Australian educators, Greg Ashman and Olivier Lovell. What I’d like to do here is apply the theory to basic literacy teaching—which I’m not sure anyone else has done. If they did, I think they would be surprised at how far the standard approach deviates from what cognitive load theory tells us is likely to work.
The basics of cognitive load theory
When learning, we rely heavily on working memory, the aspect of our consciousness where we take in new information and try to make sense of it. And working memory has a very limited capacity. It can juggle maybe only four new material for about 20 seconds before it begins to overwhelm, reducing our ability to understand or retain new information. The load on working memory is called “cognitive load”.
There is a way around working memory constraints: long term memory, which is potentially infinite. If we can retrieve relevant information that we have stored in long-term memory, we have more capacity in working memory to absorb new information. If, for example, you read articles about baseball and you already know the term “double play”, you do not need to think about what it means or research it, which also imposes a heavy burden of work. Memory.
However, before we can take advantage of long-term memory, we need to to transfer new information from working memory, ideally in give it meaning. One way to do this is to explain it, orally or in writing.
We also need to be able retrieve information. Studies have shown that the more you practice retrieving an item, the more likely you are to find it when you need it. The quiz is a form of recovery practicebut it’s also powerful to take information and put it into your own words, again, to explain it, orally or in writing.
I must introduce another concept of cognitive load theory before moving on to how it applies to literacy teaching: biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. Biologically primary knowledge and skills are things that humans have evolved to do over many generations, such as walking and talking. We don’t have to teach children to do these things, and by themselves they impose no cognitive load. Biologically secondary knowledge and skills are things that we didn’t evolve naturally for, like reading, writing and math – basically, the things that schools are supposed to teach. These tasks can impose a heavy cognitive load, especially when children are learning them for the first time.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the validity of the cognitive load theory. Most have been done in the area of mathematics, but the principles apply to any type of learning. And usually they support explicitly teach new information rather than asking students to figure it out more or less on their own. But let’s turn to what theory can tell us about teaching children to read and write.
Cognitive load theory and literacy
One aspect of literacy education that has received a lot of attention, although not generally in terms of cognitive load: how we teach children to decipher or “decode” words. Most teachers have been trained encourage children to guess words using pictures or context rather than systematically teaching them phonics and forcing them to use them. The result is that many children never learn to pronounce words.
Here’s the problem in terms of cognitive load: if you don’t have phonic patterns stored in long-term memory, and/or if you haven’t practiced retrieving those patterns to the point that they become automatic, your working memory will be so overloaded by your efforts to read individual words that you will not have the cognitive ability to understand what you are trying to read unless you have memorized all the words. But as the text becomes more complex, this becomes impossible.
It is therefore crucial that readers become expert decoders. But cognitive load theory can tell us much more about why so many students – and adults – struggle with reading and writing.
First, it is important to remember that literacy involves listening, speaking, reading and writing, and that these tasks impose different levels of cognitive load. Listening and speaking are biologically primary and therefore easier than reading and writing, which are biologically secondary.
This suggests that before students have fully mastered the decoder, they will acquire new knowledge more effectively through listen. And indeed, it has been found that children’s oral comprehension generally exceeds their reading comprehension until the age of 12 or 13. Thus, children can absorb complex concepts and vocabulary better through listening than through their own reading, and not just while they are still learning to decode.
This is why teachers should read aloud engaging books that are more complex than what students can read on their own. They will not only develop children’s knowledge and vocabulary, but also their familiarity with the complex syntax of written language, which can be a major obstacle to understanding.
So there is Speaking. Remember that explaining new information can both transfer it to long-term memory and make it easier to retrieve. If students are guided to talk about key parts of the text they have just heard, it will help store the information in long-term memory and increase the likelihood that they will recall it when needed.
It is also important that teachers devote enough time to a single subject. Children need to hear the same concepts and vocabulary over and over, in different contexts, for these things to stick in long-term memory. This means reading and discussing a series of texts on the same specific topic – perhaps marine mammals – for at least two or three weeks.
Now let’s go to reading. If students read about same subject they have learned, they will already have relevant information stored in long-term memory. This opens up a capacity in working memory for the cognitive loads imposed by the reading task which are borne by the teacher when reading aloud: how to decode this word? Where is the emphasis in this sentence? Children should now be able to read about the topic at a higher level.
And then there is writing, which is even more difficult than reading. Inexperienced writers can try to juggle a lot of things in working memory: letter formation, spelling, word choice, syntax, organizing their thoughts, and the content they write about. If they know the content, they will have more cognitive abilities to devote to these other aspects of writing. As with reading, they should be able to write at a higher level.
Additionally, writing can be a powerful form of recovery practice –if it is taught in an explicit and logically sequenced way that modulates cognitive load. And if students learn to use complex syntax — things like appositives and subordinating conjunctions — that information will also stay in long-term memory, making it easier for them to understand that kind of syntax when they read.
Problems with the Standard Approach to Teaching Literacy
This may sound like common sense, but it’s the opposite of what happens in most elementary classrooms.
Teachers using standard literacy teaching techniques read texts aloud, but they are at a level that students would likely be able to read on their own rather than at a more complex level. Additionally, teachers focus class discussion on a comprehension “skill” such as “making inferences” rather than text content, and the topic of reading aloud changes from day to day. Students then try to practice the skills using texts on topics that have nothing to do with reading aloud and are often unfamiliar.
Children are often expected write on another subject about which they know little or nothing. It’s even harder than reading on an unknown subject. And they are asked to write for a long time without having first learned how to construct sentences, which further increases the cognitive load.
This standard approach not only makes reading and writing harder for elementary school children. It also often leaves them without the skills and knowledge that the program assumes at higher levels.
Ideally, districts and schools will adopt literacy programs that systematically teach phonics, reinforce knowledge through reading aloud and discussion of rich content—and ask children to listen, talk, read and write about the same content. Now there are half a dozen such programs, about which you can read here. A growing number of schools across the country are using them and offering teachers support in implementing this new approach.
Teachers who make the switch are often surprised by the vocabulary their young students use in the classroom and their level of engagement, and most importantly what they can write. Whether or not these teachers are familiar with cognitive load theory, they can see with their own eyes that it works.