Cognitive Load Theory – How Significant Is It? (part 2)

In my previous blog I discussed how an experience with my son struggling to complete a maths multiplication homework had led me to re-evaluate the importance of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). In this blog, I will discuss a second experience which has convinced me that we should put CLT at the heart of everything we do as teachers.

First, let me give a little context. In September, I started working as TA (teaching assistant) in a primary school Reception class. I had worked in Reception before for two terms in another school, so I had a good understanding of the Early Years curriculum and objectives. In my previous school, I had been assigned a group of eight children to teach phonics to in a 20-minute session four days a week. Surprisingly, given I had no prior experience of teaching phonics (and I was given no training), I was assigned to the ‘lowest’ ability group. That is, I was given the pupils that were most behind and needed the most intervention. This was surprising to me, because I would have expected that such pupils would be taught by the most experienced practitioner, not the least experienced.

I was told to simply teach those eight children the initial phase 2 sounds, using the Jolly Phonics letter rhymes and some flash cards. If you are not acquainted with these songs, they would go something like this (to the tune of Skip to my Lou):

“/a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arms, /a/ /a/ ants on my arm, they’re causing me alarm”.

While singing the song, you would mime the movement for the letter sound, which in this case was touching the top of your arms as if you had ants running up them. Each letter had its own little song and mime routine. The children were so practised in this that it got to the point where if you showed them the flash card for a letter, they would immediately act out the movement, such as putting their arms out and pretending to be an aeroplane for the sound /n/. It was all very jolly and fun, but I had a niggling suspicion in my mind that I wasn’t really teaching them very much by singing lots of rhymes and showing them flash cards. On one occasion, I tried to get a little more creative. I gave the children mini-whiteboards and tried modelling how to write the letter we were focusing on that day. Later, the class teacher took me aside and told me not to give them mini-whiteboards as they were not “developmentally ready” for writing. She had spotted me trying to help a pupil who was struggling to grip a pen correctly and made her disapproval clear. In her mind, writing was far too ambitious a step for children who still didn’t know all their initial letter sounds. I believe this is a commonly held view in the Early Years sector.

Before I move on to discuss how my experience of teaching phonics differs in my new setting, let me interject with two little observations I made during my time at that school. I noticed that overwhelmingly, the children who could read and write well (for their age) were the ones able to sit still, listen and focus. Most of the eight children in the low ability group I was teaching were unable to do this. They constantly fidgeted, called out and got distracted. They found it very difficult to focus. From an anecdotal perspective therefore, there was a clear link between poor focus and low attainment. A few other children in the group were quiet but had English as a second language and ended up in the lower ability group simply by dint of being labelled EAL. The second observation to be made is that I was teaching these children the very basic letter sounds, not in the first half-term so that they could catch up with their peers, but in the Summer term, by which time they had well and truly been left behind. Hold these two observations, if you please, as I will be returning to them later in this blog.

My new school uses the Sounds-Write programme to teach reading and writing. I am currently undergoing training in this programme and I’ve also been able to observe it being taught daily in class this past month. As from last week, I have been able to put some of my training into practice, as I’ve been assigned a group of five children to run an intervention programme with. We have a teaching session together while the rest of the class goes off to the main hall for assembly. This means we have a quiet classroom and I sit them around me on a horseshoe shaped table so that their focus is on me, with little to distract them.

Cognitive Load Theory is at the heart of the Sounds-Write programme. I do not have space in here to go into too much detail about the programme itself, but I will make some observations how it uses CLT to advance pupils’ learning.

  • The programme is very carefully sequenced to teach the children how to read and write in small incremental steps. Nothing new is introduced until the previous concepts/knowledge/skills have been consolidated. The idea is that at no point should children have to process too much information and suffer from cognitive overload.
  • Once a sound is taught, the children get to practise writing it straight away. There is no concept of focusing on the reading first, and letting the writing catch up at a later stage on the assumption that children are not yet developmentally ready for writing. The two skills are taught in tandem. On the contrary, it’s thought that getting the children to write the letter sound being taught helps to reinforce recognition of that letter/sound correspondence. As they write each letter, the children have to say out loud the sound they are writing. They also get a motivating sense of success by learning how to write a few simple CVC words from a very early stage.
  • Lessons are scripted with very concise and precise language. So for example where I would have been minded to correct a child I’m reading with by using language such as “this letter makes the sound /i/”, the Sounds-Write approach would have me simply say (pointing to the letter) “this spells /i/”. Cutting out extraneous language such as “this letter makes the sound” and replacing it with “this spells” is a powerful way of keeping the focus on the main thing. Again, the fewer the distractions, the greater the focus. Since we are dealing with young children who have not yet learned those essential focussing skills, we need to be very mindful about creating a framework where what we are teaching can cut through.
  • Similarly, when encountering everyday words that have extended code sounds (those so-called tricky words such as “the”, “was” or “is”) we don’t go into any extended explanation about them. We simply say for instance: “in this word (while pointing), this spells /th/”.
  • The core of the programme is taught by way of set piece lessons, which are repeated over the different learning units. This means that while the content being taught may change, the actual lessons stay the same. Within a few weeks, the children become very familiar with the lesson framework and this means that their focus is on the new content rather than on the delivery of that content. Because the children know what will come next, they can anticipate and be ready for it. If their attention momentarily strays, they will not be lost at sea when it returns. They can immediately work out at what stage of the lesson they are and what will happen next. Therefore, even easily distracted children can still stay on track with the content being taught. By keeping to a familiar format, limited working memory can focus on learning the new content and not be wasted on processing other things.
  • Having the same set of lessons repeatedly is not boring. The new content is what keeps it fresh.

Over the last four weeks I have watched with interest the daily Sounds-Write lessons. These are done when the children are sitting on the carpet, and I spend my time supporting the teacher, checking what the children are writing on their whiteboards and helping those that are struggling.

There is one little boy, I’ll call him Steven, who is quite young, easily distracted and struggles to hold the pen in his hand. When we come to writing a simple word we have built (lesson 1: word building) he finds it hard to replicate the shape of the letters on his whiteboard. I have had to help guide his hand, as well as write out the word in green and ask him to trace over my writing in black. Even such a task, he finds tremendously difficult. Many educationalists would say Steven is not developmentally ready to write. In my old school, he would probably have been placed in the low ability group and relegated to repeating the phase 2 sounds. Here, there is no opt out. He participates in all the lessons with the rest of the class, and even though he gets distracted, something of the repetitive nature of the lessons must be cutting through.

Steven, unsurprisingly, is one of the five children in my intervention group. Last week I had my first session with them. I didn’t give them a specially tailored programme. I simply taught two familiar lessons: symbol search (lesson 2) and word building (lesson 1). This meant that there was no messing around trying to work out what they were supposed to do or getting excited by an exotic new task. By now, all the children were well versed in the handful of lessons from the programme. In symbol search, I say a sound and they point to the correct letter on my letter grid. Steven still struggled with this task. When I asked him to point to the sound /i/, he pointed to the letter “a”.

We then went on to the word building lesson. I helped them to build the word “mat” and modelled how to write it on my board. They then had to write the word on their mini-whiteboard. This is usually the point where Steven looks at me and asks for help. Not this time. Before my astonished eyes, I saw this boy pick up his pen and carefully write out, inelegantly but legibly, the word “mat”. We then proceeded to build the word “sit”. As we build it, I ask a child to tell me what the first, next and last sound of the word is and to then point to the correct letter corresponding to that sound (they are displayed on post it notes). After “s” was put in place, I turned to Steven and asked him what sound comes next. He immediately answered “/i/” and then picked the correct letter and placed it after the “s”. Finally, when the word was built, they each had to write it down on their own mini-whiteboard. The shape of “s” was a little too tricky, so I did my usual of writing it in green pen and asking him to trace over it, then to try to write out the whole word independently. My heart sang as he held up his white board with a clearly written “sit” in his own hands.

We still have a long way to go with Steven. However, I have been impressed with the rapidity of his progress. This means he won’t get left behind with an ever-growing attainment gap. He’s going to catch up. The deceptively simple design of the instruction programme has helped him to keep up. He doesn’t have to grapple with lots of unfamiliar processes or too much new information. Even though he’s not sitting rapt and focused like some of the other high attaining pupils, the necessary content is cutting through and he is learning to read and write.

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