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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