top of page

Dual coding – how can it be used in Languages

 We – teachers spend a lot of our time planning and designing engaging resources for our students. However, the question I will pose is: ‘What is the purpose of these resources?’ 

The foremost purpose for them is to be a teaching tool which should enable students to understand, process and remember the information/knowledge at hand clearly and easily.

I have often spent a lot of time designing a resource – PowerPoint presentation or a worksheet – making it colourful, with beautiful fonts and pictures only to notice that quite a few of my students, especially the younger ones, would concentrate more on the cute/attractive pictures, animations or bitmojis than at the knowledge I wanted them to learn. The attention was not on the learning I was set up to deliver…

My post will cause mixed feelings and possibly a controversy as so many of us love creating beautiful resources and we can spend hours creating them, however are they causing split-attention? Are they fulfilling their purpose?

At the heart of learning is the imparting of knowledge from the working memory to long-term memory. This is crucial for our learners in terms of encoding, storage and retrieval. The information that we present, must be revisited and processed numerous times to ensure that clear connections are made between the old and new learning for it to be embedded into long-term memory. 


As mentioned in my previous post on Rosenshines Principles, the presentation of new knowledge is important in creating a rich schema and dual coding can be one such method to support it. The Seneca course on Dual coding designed by Oliver Caviglioli has made me think and reflect on how I design and present new knowledge to my learners. 

The significance of dual coding has been recognised for years in fields of psychology and learning sciences, but has not been applied much in its earnest to teaching pedagogy until recently.

What is dual coding?

There are two channels into our working memory. One processes visual information (pictures, graphics, diagrams) and one processes verbal information (speaking, listening, reading, literacy).  

In its most basic form it is combining words and imagery to facilitate learning. Due to the limited capacity of our working memory when processing and retaining information that has been delivered in written word(s), combining these with images (parallel processing) allows for more working capacity and therefore reducing the cognitive load. One of the experts in the field of educational psychology – Paul Kirschner calls this method ‘double barrelled learning’.

Through meta studies researchers such as Robert Marzano (2001) rated the average size effect of dual coding as 0.75 (0.4 being of significant impact on learning) and John Hattie as 0.57.

So what are the benefits of dual coding?

It can:

  1. Boost attention – graphics and imagery help to draw attention to the key message of verbal information whether it is written or spoken.

  2. Stimulates interest – especially for concepts that are abstract (in languages – Grammar – tenses, cases, genders, word groups etc.) thus helping students to visualise information rather than facing constant verbal input.

  3. Helps to manage cognitive load – does not split students attention – see my post on CLT for more information, helps with focus and allows for more efficient working memory capacity.

  4. Triggers retrieval of prior learning/knowledge – visuals boost the ‘retrieval strength’ and ‘retrieval storage’ and support the recall of prior knowledge.

  5. Creates schemas in working memory – organising information helps students build connected schemas in long-term memory – introducing visual and auditory stimuli simultaneously allows the brain to encode the knowledge and makes its transfer back to working memory easier in the future.

When implementing dual coding successfully it is worth noting that there is a vast number of techniques that can be involved which are only as good as the intention, purpose and design of the teacher. Many of these techniques will take trial and error to gain the best results as a technique that works for one class may not work for another class.

The key point to remember with this strategy is that for students to be able to implement it successfully it will need to be modelled by the teacher. This means having a bank of images (the Noun Project is great for this), visuals or templates for students to work from to build their understanding which they can use then themselves as a study tool.

Important points to consider to use dual coding successfully:

1. Design – when designing your resource (PowerPoints or worksheets) structure, colour and imagery play a large role in the learning process. It is important that you consider how you present new information to your students. 

Are your PPTs too cluttered? Are you using too many colours and fonts? Do you need to break steps down onto separate slides so that students concentrate on one idea at a time? Are there images that can support this modelled with pictures of your explanations? 

Oliver Caviglioli recommends using no more then two fonts (sans serif and one serif), no less then 40 points, no colour text on top of colour background.

It is also important to cut minimal margins, too-long columns and insufficient spacing. Making sure ideas are organised in chunks presented logically and sequentially (visually explicit), aligning elements – using grids to structure information like magazine/newspaper pages.

2. Repeat imagery – pick images and pictures that you choose to use repeatedly with students to help them build memory of vocabulary, task (i.e. the different Conti activities – image for sentence stealers, faulty echo, pyramid translation etc.) so students know instantly what the task requires them to do; concepts (such as Grammar) and processes (I use a picture of a burger to model perfect tense in German). This could be also useful for retrieval practice when students can create their own questions using imagery to practice retrieval during ‘Think Pair Share’.

3. Help students to organise their knowledge – though teaching the skills of pulling valuable information by creating summaries with images.

In the language classroom this could support the oral practice – picture tasks/roleplays – when students have 12 minutes preparation time – so using images to remind them of the ideas/key points they would like to mention instead of writing lengthy written summaries.


4. Use dual coding to walk through processesmodelling a process such as word order when using subordinate or relative clauses with basic images or diagrams, adding annotations to break down larger concepts.

Examples of Dual coding in languages:

Knowledge organisers: these were originally designed by @MrBCurrier in Spanish and then translated and adapted to different languages via collaboration of group of colleagues and shared with the languages community on social media (with all credits given). 

Diagrams to show processes – for example when teaching different tenses – I have been drawing pictures of burgers and boots since I have started to teach 16 years ago, but I like the analogy of smashing a wall to re-build the verb forms in present tense and of a fortune cookie to demonstrate the construction of future tense (an idea posted by a colleague on Facebook last year – please let me know if it is you, so I can credit you) to model the process or for modelling the word order (WO) – this is always a challenge, especially in German. 

I would not teach it now explicitly but as a ‘pop up’ Grammar once chunks and structures were introduced and practiced.

Summaries for oral/written practice – using images to plan, re-write or summarise tasks (examples from my German writing support workbook adapted from the Spanish original by @MrBCurrier). I am very keen to trial this with my students once back in the classroom.

Clarity of key terms/vocabulary – using images/icons for key vocabulary – opinions, connectives, time phrases, subjects (people) etc.


Dual coding with teachers by Oliver Caviglioli

Classroom Instruction That Works by Robert Marzano

Dual Coding in the Classroom by Blake Harvard

Double-Barrelled Learning For Young & Old by Paul A. Kirschner

text analysis template inspired by @MorganMfl

Alicia Mangan – Ercall Wood Academy Teaching and Learning Journal


bottom of page