Cognitive Load, Vocabulary and Essay Writing

Most of what I have read about cognitive load theory seems to focus on science or maths, but it made me wonder whether these principles could be applied to English. We regularly model analysis and essay writing, whether as live models or through deconstructing exemplar material, so the worked examples element proposed by CLT is already a significant part of our regular practice. However, I wondered whether there were elements of the complex task of essay writing that could be broken down into simpler tasks for students to explicitly practise to improve the quality of their essays. We have already embedded the principles of spaced practice, as explained here, and this seems to have helped students to commit key knowledge to their long-term memory, which is a good starting point for reducing cognitive load; but we wanted to take this further. Central to our approach has been the explicit teaching and modelling of vocabulary which has been inspired by our reading of the work of Andy Tharby and Alex Quigley. Below are some of the ways we have taken the principles of cognitive load theory and used this to improve our teaching of essay writing.

Vocabulary mapping – for every unit we teach, from Year 7-13, students are given vocabulary lists linked to the text or topic they are studying. Students are explicitly taught this vocabulary through modelling, etymology, prefixes and suffixes, similarly to how Andy Tharby describes in his blog. Students have regular tests on this vocabulary in the form of filling in the blanks in sentences, applying appropriate vocabulary to quotations, matching definitions, or being asked to give synonyms or antonyms. Students are then challenged to use appropriate vocabulary in every essay they write which is supported through modelling by the teacher both verbally and in written exemplars. The introduction of the marking code syn? as a prompt for students to replace words with more sophisticated synonyms has also been effective, as students are given the challenge of having as few syns in their essays as possible. For Jekyll and Hyde, vocabulary lists include ‘troglodytic’, ‘atavistic’, ‘vicariously’ and ‘intuitive’, or for Macbeth, ‘nihilism’, ‘equivocation’, ‘penitent’, ‘benevolent’ and ‘malevolent’ etc. Whilst in Year 7, when teaching The Lady of Shalott, students are taught and can confidently apply adjectives such as ‘chivalric’ or ‘soporific’, and when learning about The Odyssey students are taught words such as ‘barbarous’, ‘futile’ and ‘ingenious’. The explicit teaching and modelling of vocabulary helps students to better express the effects created in the texts, both in terms of their analysis and annotation as well as in their essay writing. This method also reduces cognitive load by providing a formula for their essays in the form of the vocabulary they need to express their ideas.

Vocabulary for introductions – we’ve found that focusing on vocabulary is particularly effective when teaching students how to write introductions as they can use this vocabulary to form the core of their argument. One way of doing this is to encourage students to use three adjectives in their introduction as a way into their argument. For example, for the Edexcel SAMs question which asks students to analyse the presentation of Enfield in an extract from Jekyll and Hyde, students may begin with ‘Stevenson presents Enfield as righteous, heroic and intuitive.’; or for the Summer 2017 paper based on Jekyll’s letter to Lanyon, students may begin with ‘Stevenson presents Jekyll’s request for help as desperate, demanding and mysterious’. This method helps students when reading the extract as they can apply adjectives to different parts of the text and use this as the starting point for gathering evidence and analysis. This also helps to avoid technique spotting as the focus is on effects from the outset. Students then have a structure for their essay as each paragraph deals with an adjective or phrase from their introduction. Another advantage of this method is it helps students to slow down and think about what they are writing in their introduction and then in their essay. Although the GCSE does not require an introduction to answer this style of question, students tend to begin their essay with a version of ‘The author uses language and structure to engage the reader’ which is often employed as a delaying tactic whilst they gather their ideas. However, this doesn’t really add to the sophistication of their essays or with formulating their argument, whereas a vocabulary-focused introduction helps students to do both.

Contextual vocabulary – we have found that a focus on explicit teaching of vocabulary can also be helpful when teaching students how to weave contextual details into essays. Students often find this difficult and fall into the habit of ‘bolting on’ context at the end of paragraphs. We now teach students the contextual knowledge for a text and then extract key vocabulary related to that context and model how this may be weaved into sentences as part of their explanation of ideas. This has led to more concise explanations as students are better equipped to write about their ideas in a sophisticated way. For example, when asked to explore Shakespeare’s presentation of the relationship between Iago and Othello (Edexcel A-Level Summer 2017) students drew on their taught vocabulary such as ‘Aristotelian’ ‘hamartia’ ‘anagnorisis’ ‘credulity’, ‘inferior’, ‘regressive’, ‘nepotism’, ‘Machiavellian machinations’ ‘regression’ etc. weaving this into their essay rather than giving long explanations of contextual factors. So, rather than describing Machiavellian principles and applying this to the text, students weave in this vocabulary to help them to explore the point they were making rather than ‘bolting on’ contextual details at the end. An example from one of our student’s script from the Summer 2017 exam paper demonstrates this in practice: ‘Iago’s professional jealousy motivates and catalyses his Machiavellian machinations which causes so much trouble for the titular character’. Here, the student has combined ‘catalyse’ and ‘titular’ taken from her text-related vocabulary list and combined this with her contextual vocabulary to give a concise explanation of her ideas.

Comparative essays – firstly, for all comparative essays we encourage students to begin each comparison by comparing themes or ideas, rather than techniques, as comparisons such as ‘Both writers use rhetorical questions’ or ‘Both writers use language’ rarely lead to insightful comparisons. When students begin with a concept or theme, they are more likely to focus on the question, and then they compare techniques within their analysis of that theme. To write a sophisticated comparative essay, particularly for A-Level, the best essays weave in and out of texts throughout. However, with the cognitive load created by having to draw quotations from such weighty texts, sophisticated comparisons can be quite difficult for students to identify and they tend to rely on broad and often quite vague comparisons such as ‘both writers use settings…’ or ‘both writers present violent characters’. To encourage more insightful comparisons, we began to look at the detail in the texts and compare at word or sentence level, rather than across broader themes. When comparing Dracula and Dorian Gray, students were given or found paired passages that dealt with similar themes. Having the passages next to one another allowed students to see similarities in the writer’s craft, for example the use of dynamic verbs in both texts to emphasise the horror of violent acts committed, the use of anthropomorphism, or the use of symmetry and tableaus. When students are taught key aspects of the writer’s craft by comparing well-chosen extracts or quotations, it is easier for them to make more insightful comparisons that move from thematic, narrative or character comparisons, to delve into comparisons of the writer’s craft. If students then have a bank of paired passages, these can be drawn on for a variety of themes, and analysis is often multi-purpose and applicable to a range of possible essay questions. Rather than have a separate quotation bank for each text, students have paired quotations and passages that they revise together rather than separately and they can have these passages in front of them when writing essays, reducing cognitive load by having already identified comparisons at theme level so they can focus on comparisons at word and sentence level. Students also have sheets that detail aspects of the texts, like you would for a Knowledge Organiser, but instead of having one sheet per text, texts are combined, with each page outlining a key aspect, such as themes, plot, contextual details or narrative style, so students revise through constant comparison.

Simplifying essay writing – one of the principles related to cognitive load theory is based on taking a complex task and reducing it to simpler tasks. Taking this principle, we wanted to model for students what they need to pay attention to when writing an essay. We did this by taking them through a series of stages before building up to the more complex task of writing an essay based on an exam question. One of our processes is outlined below:

Stage 1: Give students a character, theme, or essay style question to gather quotations for.

Stage 2: Students apply their vocabulary to these quotations to help identify effects e.g. ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’ might be linked to vocabulary such as equivocation, disruption of natural order, malevolence, hypnotic, inversion, corruption. Starting with vocabulary, rather than techniques, helps students to focus on effects rather than technique spotting.

Stage 3: Students apply terminology such as paradox, ambiguity, fricative alliteration, chiasmus.

Stage 4: Students then decide which techniques are important and link these to their vocabulary and any other effects e.g. fricative alliteration adds to the hypnotic quality of the witches’ speech. Chiasmus as an inversion hints at the way they will disrupt nature and the natural order. The exchangeability of fair and foul is a paradox that highlights their corruption and malevolence, whilst the ambiguity of their statement illustrates their tendency toward equivocation.

Stage 5: Students use stages 1-4 to formulate an essay paragraph in response to the question.

Breaking down the essay into stages makes the knowledge students require for essay writing more explicit. They can then transfer this knowledge and these stages to other essays. To scaffold this task further, students can have the vocabulary, quotations and techniques in front of them, like you would a formula for a Maths problem. This allows more explicit focus on practising combining quotations, effects, techniques and vocabulary allowing a greater focus on written expression and reducing the cognitive load of combining all these stages at once. As students continue their study and become confident in their writing, these stages are removed. However, as students have worked through the process by explicitly practising each stage, they know where to begin when first answering a question and the knowledge required to do so, most of which they are then so used to using, they can draw on it very quickly.

Common language for essay writing – a few years ago we introduced the W-H-Y structure for essay writing. This is detailed on the sheet below and again some of what is included here is inspired by Andy Tharby and his analytical sentences he posted on twitter a couple of years ago. Every student from Year 7-13 is given one of these sheets at the beginning of the year and this is referred to in most lessons. It helps students analyse in more detail and makes feedback straightforward as annotations in margins can often be simplified to ‘how?’ or ‘why?’ and students immediately know which element they have missed and return to the sheet to use the prompt questions to improve their writing. We then found that students would say ‘this is a bit like PEAL in History’ or ‘PEE in RE’, or that they were choosing to use W-H-Y in their essays in other subjects as it was a structure they were familiar with. It then made sense to create a common language for essay writing across subjects to reduce the cognitive load of remembering the knowledge for the subject and the specific essay structure or acronym for that subject, rather than applying their knowledge to a familiar framework. After a couple of meetings with subject leaders, W-H-Y sheets were adapted for History, RE, Music, Drama, Media and MFL. This has meant students have plenty of opportunities to practise this essay style and allows more collaboration across subjects.

English Written Expression WHY Download

English Written Expression Knowledge Organiser.jpg

 

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Spaced Practice in Practice

In my first blog, I mentioned our attempts to use the principles of spaced practice, interleaving and low-stakes testing to help students retain information. This blog offers details on what that looked like in practice.

Firstly, we introduced ten-minute recall sessions at the beginning of every lesson. This meant that we could test students’ knowledge effectively without creating extra workload. However, using some of the principles of interleaving, these sessions would not necessarily be based on the text being studied in the lesson; they would be based on knowledge taught in the lesson, week, month, term, or even several terms before. So, the beginning of a lesson might involve a recall task focused on Macbeth, then the main body of the lesson would be focused on Jekyll and Hyde. With these ten-minute recall sessions in every lesson, we could have mini revision sessions for every unit, almost every week.

These ten-minute recall sessions would take the form of:

  1. Multiple-choice tests.

We try to construct these tests based on what we’ve read on Daisy Christodoulou’s blog where she outlines the application of Dylan Wiliam’s research in Principled Assessment Design. Questions have 5-6 possible answers and have multiple correct answers, for example this question from a Year 7 test:

Which of the following words are adverbs?

  1. Play
  2. Quickly
  3. Beautifully
  4. Lovely
  5. Gently
  6. Exceptional

Or, this one from a Year 10 test on Macbeth:

Which of the following characters are killed at the hands of Macbeth?

  1. Banquo
  2. King Duncan
  3. Lady Macbeth
  4. Macdonwald
  5. Macduff

Often, like the examples above, these questions lead to interesting discussions to help students better understand more complex concepts. The Year 7 example offers an opportunity to discuss adjectives and adverbs beyond the usual trick of looking for words ending with ‘ly’. In the Year 10 example, this question invites a discussion about character development and the significance of certain deaths in the play.

  1. Filling in the blanks (KOs).

We now have knowledge organisers for every unit we teach, but it is the collection of knowledge organisers we developed for the GCSE poetry anthology that I think has had the most impact. After studying and exploring the poems in detail, students learn the information on the KOs for homework, usually one poem or section at a time. The poems are organised by theme – ‘difficult relationships’, ‘familial relationships, and ‘love’ – to help with recall and comparison. During the ten-minute recall sessions, students are given blank versions of the KOs and they fill in as much as they can remember. They then look at the original KO and add anything they missed in a different coloured pen. By the time our students sat their exams, they could fill in nearly all of a blank KO without looking at the original. By using two different coloured pens the teacher could very easily identify students’ progress and follow up with students who perhaps didn’t have the most effective revision technique. We still looked at the whole poems regularly, but we found that by extracting the key ideas, contexts, themes and quotations, students had a better foundation for understanding the whole poem and in doing so gave them the confidence to go further in their exploration and analysis.

Familial Relationships Knowledge Organiser:Family KO

  1. Filling in the blanks (QT).

Students were also given lists of quotations divided by theme or character and learnt these for homework. During ten-minute recall, they would complete quotation tests where some of the key words in the quotation (the ones that would be most helpful for their essays) would be blanked out. For Macbeth, that might be: Look like ________  but be __________’. In the first few tests only one or two words would be blank. By the time of the exams, students could list up to fifteen quotations per theme or character without any aid.

  1. Quick-fire quotations.

To save photocopying, we would also simply ask students to take a scrap piece of paper and write down as many quotations as they could remember. However, we gave structure to their recall by giving them specific themes or characters they needed to recall quotations for. We would then keep narrowing the focus to give students plenty of opportunity to practise identifying more discerning and judiciously chosen quotations. For example, students would be asked to recall quotations or references said by or about Mr Birling. This would then be narrowed down to asking for specific references or quotations that demonstrated Mr Birling refusing to change his views, or him showing insecurity, or examples of his arrogance, or evidence of his capitalist ideology.  This helped students to recall information quickly but also to consider the relevance and judiciousness of their choices. This also helped students to think more about characterisation or about thematic links between characters and contexts.

  1. Interleaving homework

Technically not a ten-minute recall task, but the principle is similar. Whilst we studied Jekyll and Hyde in lessons, students’ homework would be to write essays on Macbeth or An Inspector Calls, or on the occasional Language paper question. Students were then constantly writing responses answering different types of questions on different texts – something they would have to do in the exam. Students then not only constantly revised and practised tasks for all of the units we studied, they also practised having to shift from one type of exam or text to another in a short space of time.

 

These methods contributed to students writing well-developed, insightful essays using quotations and references that were discerning and judicious to give more interesting responses. This was due, in part, to students being able to quickly recall the knowledge they needed and therefore spend more time constructing a well-crafted argument. We also found that students used these methods when revising independently – no more random highlighting and no more claims that ‘you can’t revise for English’. Instead, they would take extra copies of blank KOs, or create their own fill-in-the-blank quotation tests, or construct their own essay questions based on the themes and ideas from the quick-fire quotation activities.

So, by taking the time to read a couple of blogs and think about the principles in practice:

  • We reduced workload by having tests that we could use to monitor progress without having to do any marking.
  • We saved time by being able to focus on essay practice rather than content in the weeks before the exam, therefore time was better spent in lessons and we reduced the need for extra revision sessions.
  • We saved time in the long term by creating fairly simple but effective resources that could be recycled year after year (or until the specs change again).

 

Sharing the (research) love

Bringing research-informed practice to the whole school.

Some practical advice based on how we brought research-informed practice out of the English Department and into the whole school:

1. Read and experiment in your own classroom and then see what seems to work in your context, both in terms of improving your teaching and reducing workload

2. When you’ve done 1, talk about what you’re doing to anyone who will listen – try to get other people excited, or at least interested, in some of these ideas. This could just be through informal conversations or you could ask to present your ideas to the whole school in a training session.

3. Put out some feelers and see how much enthusiasm there is for a research group in your school – I was blown away by how many teachers were keen to be involved. This was partly due to the USP that the meetings would lead to more efficiency in the long term, even if at first it required people to give up some of their time.

4. Talk to people about the areas they want to improve and then find the research that will help address this.

5. When you’ve chosen your research area, try to find bloggers who have already read around the subject and have helpfully extracted the key information and have come up with practical advice for the classroom – you’ll be surprised by just how many generous people there are that have done just this – Greg Ashman’s blog on cognitive load is an excellent example.

6. When you’ve read the research try to come up with 4-5 key points for discussion, ideally with extracts taken from the research to give the discussion some shape and context. Send these discussion points to those in your group along with anything you have from the original research that you can easily share – this gives teachers some flexibility in terms of what they need to read before the meeting. These are examples of the first two we used:

Research Group Daisy C       Research Group Cognitive Load

7 . Don’t try to do too many things at once. Last year we focused on two key pieces of research – Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress and two blogs based on cognitive load. From these, we chose 3-4 key methods to trial in the classroom over several months.

8. Give enough time between meetings for teachers to experiment and start to properly embed some of the methods into their classroom practice. Having a go at one method once is inefficient in terms of the time invested in researching that method and isn’t enough to see if it will work for you and your students.

9. ‘Show and tell’ – this is my favourite bit! Make time in your meetings just to share resources, compare different approaches, and to look at some students’ work to see if there’s been a positive impact. This is the perfect opportunity for efficiency as it’s a time to ‘magpie’ other people’s ideas and resources and to really talk about what the research looks like in action to give you ideas for your lessons and your delivery.

10. When you find something that works in your context – share it. Spread the word. Maybe even start a blog about what you’ve done…

And finally, if you are a member of SLT and you have any capacity to give someone in your school the time to lead a research group, then please do so. I would not have had the time to continue finding the research and condensing it into ‘bite-sized chunks’ without the time and autonomy given to me by my Head teacher. Plus, if being more research-informed in our practice means that teachers are more efficient and therefore goes some small way towards reducing workload, then it’s an interesting answer to Sean Harford’s question:

 

 

Research: the gift of time

This is the first of a series of blogs about how research can make our teaching more efficient. This blog gives an overview of why we began using research-informed practice in English and later blogs will attempt to show exactly how this worked in the classroom, along with the resources we used.

For me, engaging with and using research has one very clear purpose: making my teaching practice more efficient. Teachers are a school’s most expensive resource so our time is, quite literally, too valuable to waste on practices that are inefficient. But, being efficient doesn’t take any of the love or soul out of teaching; it gives us more time, energy and knowledge to deliver really great lessons. Understandably, it may seem counterintuitive that to improve efficiency and reclaim our time, we spend more time doing something that may not immediately impact our teaching. If we are marking books then we can see something tangible emerging from the time we spend. If we are spending time reading research that doesn’t seem immediately relevant to our day to day practice, then it seems wasted. This is the challenge that we have to consider if we want to encourage teachers to engage with research in schools; but it’s the gift of time that research can offer, that is one of its greatest selling points.

The issue of efficiency came into particularly stark focus with the introduction of the new specifications in English. The content-heavy curriculum meant we didn’t have the luxury of hoping that what we were teaching would stick; we had to use everything available to us to give us the best chance that it would. We read about interleaving and spaced practice, low-stakes testing, cognitive load, and knowledge organisers, plus anything we could nab from the blogs and tweets of the awesome #TeamEnglish tribe. We read and ‘magpied’ anything we thought might help make some of this new knowledge stick for students – including, of course, Peter Brown’s Make It Stick. Without taking this time to read and research, as well as the time to discuss and implement these ideas, we would have continued teaching a topic and then moving on to the next. We would have left revision to the weeks after the January mock exams and then scrambled to put on extra revision sessions when, unsurprisingly, students couldn’t remember what we had taught them in the Autumn term of Year 10. Instead, students revised constantly. With these new research-informed strategies, students got used to coming into English and having to constantly access their long-term memory before the new knowledge or practice of the current lesson began. Then, when it came to the end of Year 11, students knew stuff – loads of stuff. We were amazed at what they could recall and write about. The time spent reading and thinking about how students learn wasn’t time wasted – we couldn’t have afforded not to take that time, not when students only really had one chance for us to get it as ‘right’ as we possibly could.

The second blog in this series will offer some advice on how to bring research-informed practice to the whole school, including some examples of resources you can use when leading a research group.