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Top tips to reducing cognitive load in the beginner to pre-intermediate classroom

  1. Constantly recycle vocabulary and grammar to establish long term memory and reduce cognitive load on working memory. Use known vocabulary with new grammar and vice versa. Textbooks tend to cover one lexical set then move on to a new one so cannot be relied on to recycle language – teachers need to integrate their own recycling plan into their lessons. Increasing language content in long-term memory will decrease cognitive load in future lessons.
  2. Keep instructions clear and simple by using an established setof recycled instructions or language from the same level being taught. Trying to understand the instructions is additional cognitive load and also blocks access to supporting information from long-term memory. Some activities, however, are time-consuming to set-up the fi rst time but worth the effort as the method will be re-used regularly. In this case take time to break the of activity down – one small part at a time.
  3. Use clear, worked examples for all exercises and activities to further clarify the instructions. For example, if students are practising conversion from the active to the passive voice, write out one example, making clear how the conversion occurs: ‘someone locked the cat out last night’ (active) becomes ‘the cat was locked out last night’ (passive).
  4. Keep a clear focus on the activity or task in hand. Avoid splitting students’ attention (which increases cognitive load) by, for example, searching for supporting information or translations. Keep irrelevant information to a minimum.
  5. Choose content that draws on what students already know. Avoid teaching new or diffi cult content primarily or exclusively in English. For example, when linking English to other curriculum content, choose content that has already been covered rather than a brand- new topic. Pre-teach key items for listening and reading tasks.
  6. Teach in ‘chunks’, for example teaching collocations will maximise working memory capacity for learning new vocabulary and grammar.
  7. Teach supporting learning strategies (metacognitive practices) such as effective, ongoing revision: how to practice retrieving information from long-term memory to consolidate long-term storage and cross-link information. Increase motivation for this by explaining that it will make future learning easier. Authentic material is good retrieval practice when the content is already familiar.
  8. Be aware of factors that may be affecting students’ working memory processing, such as naturally occurring individual differences, stress and poor health. Some students may need a narrower language focus and more recycling practice.
Image courtesy of Library
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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