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Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and how can it be applied in Languages Classroom?

split-attention reduced format split-attention reduced format ‘First, the theory itself needs to be guided by our knowledge of human cognition – how we learn, think and solve problems. Second, the effectiveness of the theory’s recommendations must be testable and to have actually been tested with positive outcomes using randomised, controlled  trials.’ 

John Sweller

During the past few weeks, I have been reading ‘Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action’ by Oliver Lovell and I personally found it informative and accessible with many practical examples. Below is my summary of the first part of the book. 

The 5 key principles that underpin CLT:

A – Architecture: the cognitive architecture of human memory – looking at how our memory works,  the different types of memory we have, how they are different and what influences them (environment, working memory, long-term memory). For more information see my previous post here.

B – Biology: Biologically primary information (knowledge that we have evolved to acquire, can not be taught – basic social functions, such as ability to speak/listen/recognise faces…unconscious, effortless) and biologically secondary information (knowledge that has become relevant only in last few thousand years, such as academic subjects taught at school…conscious, effortful).

C – Categorisation: Categorisation of intrinsic load (core learning we want our student’s working memory to be occupied with) and extraneous load (extrinsic – represents the manner and the structure of the instruction, takes attention away from core learning) – we need to reduce this load. Both loads cannot exceed the capacity of working memory if we want learning to occur.

D – Domains: a field in which an individual can develop from novice to expert. Domain-general knowledge (biologically primary knowledge) refers to general capabilities, transferable across range of task such as problem-solving, communication, creativity, teamwork, domain-specific knowledge (biologically secondary knowledge) refers to knowledge within specific subject such as languages, maths, arts… 

E – Elements: Element interactivity – for learning to take place a number of elements have to be considered in working memory and then incorporated into long-term memory. The more elements of new information a student has to think about and process in working memory during a task and the more complex the relations between these elements are, the number of interactions the more challenging the task will be – this is described as ‘elemental interactivity’ – source of all cognitive load.

Cognitive load is classed as anything that takes up the capacity of working memory. The fundamental recommendation of CLT is to reduce extraneous load and optimise intrinsic load in order to increase students’ learning. 

The elements of information that we store in our long-term memory increases in complexity over time. We combine smaller elements to form larger elements – this is called ‘chunking’ – this allows us to conduct more complex tasks/thoughts. For language teachers it could reflect Conti’s Sentence Builder Methodology where new language is taught in ‘chunks’ via SB rather then teaching vocabulary in isolation.

As educators we face the challenge of reducing the cognitive load for our students. 

New information takes up more working memory capacity than information that is familiar to us. When information becomes familiar, it becomes automatic and effortless (recognising words, recalling times tables etc.) and this is how working memory load is reduced. This is what we are aiming for!

Model from Oliver Lovell’s Sweller’s CLT in action book

Intrinsic load can be optimised by well planned curriculum sequencing, pre-teaching, segmentation (sequencing and combining) and extrinsic load can be minimised by good instruction.

So how can language teachers apply this theory to their teaching, their resources/instruction and to their delivery in languages classroom.

We can reduce the extraneous load by:

  • eliminating unnecessary or replicated information – CLT suggests that using spoken (listen) and written (read) input simultaneously or using images + written word could be classed as redundant. However, we have to be cautious when it comes to languages!!!

In languages, especially for novice learners with weaker decoding skills, based on research referenced in the book, read + listen is preferable – in this case hearing with reading is not redundant – without it the students in the study couldn’t connect the sound to text as their letter-sound connections weren’t secure, so here it was vital! 

However, for expert learners with stronger decoding skills, read-only might be the best as listen-only was too fleeting and listen and read was redundant as students already had letter-sound connections. This draws on the redundancy element being different for different learners/classes. What is redundant for expert isn’t redundant for novice!

  • avoiding split-attention effect – integrating the necessary information together in space and time.

split-attention format

split-attention reduced format

  • modality effect – by presenting new vocabulary via auditory and visual channels in tandem we can eliminate visual split-attention.

  • using dual modality to eliminate split-attention – if both pieces of information which need to be combined are presented in visual form there will always occur a delay when students look at the first piece of information and then at second piece before integrating them. Therefore, if we present one piece visually and second one is pronounced/spoken aloud, so that students can hear it, the two pieces can be truly presented simultaneously and split-attention can be eliminated completely. (See below)

Examples of different formats:

split-attention format

split-attention reduced format

split-attention eliminated

Modality effect refers to how we present new language where dual coding refers to how we remember new language.

I have been looking specifically at how I could adapt some of the resources I have been using, to reduce the split-attention format and make them more accessible to my students, using what I have learnt from this book about the CLT.

Presenting new vocabulary: traditional text book format vs sentence builder format (idea to use light blue for English translation by @TeacheryDiaz) – for expert learner remove the blue translation and just point and say the word in tandem. This way the split-attention effect will be eliminated.

Split – attention format  using a text book                     

 Split-attention reduced using a SB

Other resources:

Split – attention format-tangled translation                 

Split-attention reduced-tangled translation

Split-attention format – translation 1st letter             

Split-attention reduced – translation 1st letter

Split-attention format – text analysis                           

 Split-attention reduced – text analysis

There is a lot more that can be explored about CLT and its application to language teaching. I have looked only at a fraction of it.

There are many worked examples for various subjects and evidence why they work; ideas on self-explanation and self-explanation prompts (general and specific) that support learning.

Example of subject specific self-explanation prompt

The aim of this post is to give a summary of some of the key concepts and a few of my own ideas on how they could be applied in my own practice. 

I would value any ideas and thoughts other language specialist might have as well as other ways of applying CLT to language teaching. Please, feel free to leave a comment with suggestions either here or an my social media sites. 

All resources available and adaptable on my resource page.

* original resource by Wendy Adeniji – adapted.


Nov 28, 2023

Really like your take on the redundancy effect as this is where I felt most uncomfortable when reading Lovell's book. Especially in languages (and early literacy) sometimes we don't necessarily read for meaning but to understand how sound and text are linked. If the focus is on meaning then having the text read whilst being presented with the written word is indeed not only redundant but can interfere with the construction of meaning in my own mind. What do you think?

Unknown member
Nov 28, 2023
Replying to

Yes, I absolutely agree with you. I think, it really depends on type of a learner as well - novice vs expert. I, personally, when learning any new language/vocabulary prefer to see the word and hear the word at the same time as that is how I embed it in my memory, that's how I store it. It all depends on purpose and proficiency... Thank you for your comment.

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