Learning to read and write is hard. Most schools make it even harder by asking students to read and write about topics they know little or nothing about.
Education expert Dylan Wiliam has said (or at least tweeted) that cognitive load theory is “the single most important thing for teachers to know.” And yet few if any learn about it during their training—or on the job.
For the nuances of the theory, I recommend a couple of user-friendly books by two Australian educators, Greg Ashman and Oliver Lovell. What I’d like to do here is apply the theory to elementary literacy instruction—something I’m not sure anyone else has done. If they did, I think they’d be surprised at how much the standard approach departs 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 perhaps only four new items for about 20 seconds before it starts to get overwhelmed, reducing our ability to understand or retain new information. The burden on working memory is called “cognitive load.”
There’s a way around the constraints of working memory: long-term memory, which is potentially infinite. If we can retrieve relevant information we’ve stored in long-term memory, we have more capacity in working memory to take in new information. If, for example, you’re reading about baseball and you’re already familiar with the term “double play,” you don’t need to think about what it means—or look it up, which also places a heavy burden on working memory.
Before we can take advantage of long-term memory, though, we have to transfer new information there from working memory, ideally by giving it meaning. One way to do that is to explain it, orally or in writing.
We also have to be able to retrieve the information. Studies have shown that the more you practice retrieving an item, the more likely you are to come up with it when you need it. Quizzing is one form of retrieval practice, but it’s also powerful to retrieve information and put it into your own words—again, to explain it, orally or in writing.
I need to introduce one more concept from cognitive load theory before we move on to how it applies to literacy instruction: biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. Biologically primary knowledge and skills are things humans have evolved to do over many generations, like walking and talking, We don’t have to teach kids to do those things, and in themselves they don’t impose a cognitive load. Biologically secondary knowledge and skills are things we haven’t evolved to do naturally, like reading, writing, and math—basically, the things schools are supposed to teach. Those tasks can impose a heavy cognitive load, especially when kids are first learning them.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the validity of cognitive load theory. Most have been done in the area of math, but the principles apply to any kind of learning. And generally, they support teaching new information explicitly rather than asking students to discover it more or less on their own. But let’s turn to what the theory can tell us about teaching kids to read and write.
Cognitive load theory and literacy
One aspect of literacy instruction has gotten a lot of attention, albeit not usually in terms of cognitive load: the way we teach children to decipher or “decode” words. Most teachers have been trained to encourage children to guess at words using pictures or context rather than systematically teaching them phonics and requiring them to use it. The result is that many kids never learn to sound out words.
Here’s the problem in terms of cognitive load: if you don’t have phonics patterns stored in long-term memory, and/or you haven’t practiced retrieving those patterns to the point that it becomes automatic, your working memory will be so burdened by your efforts to read individual words that you won’t have the cognitive capacity to understand what you’re trying to read—unless you’ve memorized all the words. But as text becomes more complex, that becomes impossible.
So it’s crucial for readers to become expert decoders. But there’s a lot more that cognitive load theory can tell us about why so many students—and adults—struggle with reading and writing.
First, it’s important to remember that literacy involves listening, speaking, reading, and writing—and that those tasks impose different levels of cognitive load. Listening and speaking are biologically primary and therefore easier than reading and writing, which are biologically secondary.
That suggests that before students are fluent decoders, they’ll acquire new knowledge most efficiently through listening. And indeed, it’s been found that children’s listening comprehension generally exceeds their reading comprehension through age 12 or 13. So kids can absorb complex concepts and vocabulary better through listening than through their own reading—and not just while they’re still learning to decode.
That’s why teachers need to read aloud engaging books that are more complex than those students can read themselves. They’ll not only be building kids’ knowledge and vocabulary but also their familiarity with the complex syntax of written language, which can be a major obstacle to comprehension.
Then there’s speaking. Remember that explaining an item of 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’ve just listened to, that will help lodge the information in long-term memory and make it more likely they’ll remember it when they need it.
It’s also important for teachers to spend enough time on a single topic. Kids need to hear the same concepts and vocabulary repeatedly, in different contexts, for those things to stick in long-term memory. That means reading and discussing a series of texts on the same specific topic—maybe sea mammals—for at least two or three weeks.
Now, on to reading. If students read about the same topic they’ve learned about, they’ll already have relevant information stored in long-term memory. That opens up capacity in working memory for the cognitive burdens imposed by the task of reading that are shouldered by the teacher during read-alouds: How do I decode this word? Where does the emphasis go in this sentence? Children should now be able to read about the topic at a higher level.
And then there’s writing, which is even harder than reading. Inexperienced writers may be trying to juggle lots of things in working memory: letter formation, spelling, word choice, syntax, the organization of their thoughts—and the content they’re writing about. If they’re familiar with the content, they’ll have more cognitive capacity to devote to those other aspects of writing. As with reading, they should be able to write at a higher level.
In addition, writing can be a powerful form of retrieval practice—if it’s taught in an explicit, logically sequenced way that modulates cognitive load. And if students are taught how to use complex syntax—things like appositives and subordinating conjunctions—that information will stick in long-term memory as well, making it easier for them to understand that kind of syntax when they’re reading.
Problems with the standard approach to literacy instruction
This may all seem like common sense, but it’s the opposite of what goes on in most elementary classrooms.
Teachers using standard techniques of literacy instruction do read texts aloud, but they’re at a level students would probably be able to read on their own rather than one that’s more complex. In addition, teachers focus class discussion on a comprehension “skill,” like “making inferences,” rather than on the text’s content, and the topic of the read-aloud changes from day to day. Students then try to practice the skills using texts on topics that have nothing to do with the read-alouds—and that are often unfamiliar.
Kids are often expected to write about yet another topic they know little or nothing about. That’s even harder than reading about an unfamiliar topic. And they’re asked to write at length without first having been taught how to construct sentences, making the cognitive burden even heavier.
This standard approach doesn’t just make reading and writing harder for kids in elementary school. It also often leaves them without the skills and knowledge the curriculum assumes at higher grade levels.
Ideally, districts and schools will adopt literacy curricula that systematically teach phonics, build knowledge through read-alouds and discussion of rich content—and have children listening, speaking, reading, and writing about the same content. There are now half a dozen such curricula, which you can read about here. An increasing number of schools across the country are using them—and providing teachers with support in implementing this novel approach.
Teachers who make the switch are often amazed by the vocabulary their young students are using in class and their level of engagement—and especially what they can write. Whether or not these teachers know about cognitive load theory, they can see with their own eyes that it works.
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