Saturday, November 28, 2020

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

 '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

                                                               teacher saying the word and pointing to it

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.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Making Homework Meaningful and Purposeful in Languages classroom

I believe that homework is crucial for successful delivery of languages curriculum and should be treated as such. It is not an optional but an imperative extra to successful language acquisition. If it is used effectively it can support and aid learning of a new language, develop students' language skills and cultural awareness.

Meaningful and well-thought through homework also helps to reinforce what's being taught in the classroom and gives students a good chance to practise what they have learnt at school as the time in the lesson is limited and often not enough for students to explore and practise. 
Students often question the purpose of homework, so making it clear why this homework is set (i.e. to improve fluency in the TL) or why in this way (i.e. to improve listening/writing/reading skills or Grammar knowledge) is also very important if we want our students to complete their homework to high standard. The discussion about how we learn and how to organise learning to aid retrieval; using spacing to avoid forgetting is in my opinion also very important to have with our learners.

With subject such as foreign language which on average is timetabled maybe for two lessons a week at KS3 and 5 lessons per fortnight at KS4 in most of the U.K. comprehensive schools, it is also essential that students regularly re-visit new language and structures again at home as this will reinforce their knowledge.

Because the research on homework is rather mixed, we should think  carefully about the types of tasks that we assign and what is their purpose and whether they have a positive impact on students' learning and progress.

There have been times in our teaching careers when many of us have been guilty of  setting  homework just for the sake of it, following the school's or departmental homework policy with tasks ranging from word searches, designing posters to asking students to write paragraphs on specific topics that we have taught in the lesson only to find out that the work submitted to us didn't really enhance students learning or that it has been completed by Google Translate and not by our students!

Over the past few months during the 'Lockdown', I had the time to critically look at how we set homework in our department and update our homework policy and on reflection I have decided to change how we set homework! These are the changes we have decided to make.

We set two types of homework:

Learning Homework

This type of homework supports learning of new vocabulary and structures based on our sentence builders. Students can complete this type of homework in two ways.

1. Students can either use Quizlet cards that I have created for them - they practise first choosing any games and activities they wish, once they feel they have learnt their key vocabulary they need to take a test. Acceptable % benchmark is set by the teacher (i.e. they need to get 80%), when this benchmark is reached students take a screen shot of their result and upload it to Show My Homework (SMHW) as evidence.  
This ensures that students complete their homework to a desirable standard and if they don't the teacher will notice immediately, it also enables them to improve (i.e. having to practise more in order to achieve the acceptable standard), they will also instantly notice where their weaknesses are for example in spelling.

                                                               Example of Quizlet cards

Another tool you could use for homework is Carousel Learning, where you can set up your questions and classes and create quizzes to assigned to your students as homework. This platform is new to us and we are still exploring it. For a useful and easy to follow tutorial on how to set up your carousel learning classes, upload questions and assign quizzes watch a tutorial created by @basnettj here.

2. Students can use self quizzing at the back of their book with set of key structures given by the teacher - this also gives no excuses to students who can not access the technology for various reasons.

                                                                     Example of Self-quizzing

Homework supporting language skills

This type of homework is set to support listening, reading or speaking skills. Please, note that we have decided against writing tasks for homework as we have come to the conclusion that they were often not completed by students using their knowledge but using 'google translate', which then proved to be a complete waste of time not just for the students but also for the teacher and didn't enhance students' learning, progress or knowledge. 
We are now focussing on independent writing skills in the lessons during our production or extension phase when we can oversee that students are completing them without any support.

The types of homework we set (click on the picture for a link to the resource):
  • TeachVid - supports listening and reading (writing) skills. The resource below I made myself, but there are many ready made videos in different languages which can be used. You and your students will need to open a free account to access the activities. You can give students a link for the specific task you want them to complete i.e gap fill, break the flow etc. Once the task has been completed students will be given a score, so no marking for the teacher. I do not set a % benchmark for these tasks - this is more about exposing students to different resources and also to the cultural capital. They might find some of the tasks challenging, but what I tell my students is - the more they practise the more words/structures they will encode and it will get easier. The key here is exposure to as much language as possible in variety of contexts.
  • LearningApps - you will need to open an account and can create your own activities or there are ready made activities that have been shared by other teachers and which you can use. Result is generated upon completion of the task. Teacher marking not required. 

  • Wordwall - you will need to create an account. Free account will allow you to create 5 resources, for more you will have to subscribe, but again there are many resources ready made and freely shared by other teachers. Many resources for German have been shared by Abi Bryan. Result is generated upon completion of the task. Teacher marking not required. 
                                                                     Resources by Abi Bryan

  • - supports listening and reading skills as after watching the short video there are comprehension questions to answer. Levels from A1 to C1 covered with various topics to choose from. Result is generated after completing the comprehension task. Teacher marking not required. 

  • - good for Grammar testing, but specific for Logo, so you will have to choose activities carefully. Result is generated upon completion of the task. Teacher marking not required. 
  • Flipgrid / TEAMS or QWIQR - great to support speaking practice, especially now during 'Covid times'. Teacher feedback can be recorded as well.
Other websites that could be explored for homework :
  5. easygerman on YouTube
Final thoughts... 
So how do we ensure that students do a 'decent' job when completing their homework? What are the consequences if the homework is not of the desirable standard? Well, these are the questions individual schools/departments will have to decide on and answer for themselves, but if homework is to make an impact on learning and students progress long term it is an important and valid point for discussion for the departmental meeting agenda.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Retrieval Practice in Languages Classroom

 What is 'retrieval practice'? Is it just the newest trend in education or is there more to it? On social media you have probably seen a lot of people recently talking and commenting on 'retrieval practice'. To understand what retrieval practice is all about, first we need to understand how we learn and how our memory works.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark are often quoted for defining the learning process as a change in long-term memory, 'if nothing has been changed nothing has been learnt'.

How learning happens (diagram by Oliver Caviglioli)
                Environment affecting learning                                          Embedding into long term memory-
                        Recall of new learning                                                            reusing information.


                                                            if not revised or used learning gets forgotten

Environment - classroom learning environment - teachers need to ensure high levels of focus, concentration and attention from students - study habits - keeping it simple to avoid cognitive overload.

Working Memory - cognitive system with limited capacity - only about 5 chunks - can hold information only temporarily (18-30 seconds) - information processing in working (short-term) memory is necessary for storage in long-term memory - cognitive overload leads to information loss - small steps are essential - builds on prior knowledge.

Long-Term Memory - classified as a vast store of knowledge with unlimited capacity - holds information in schemas and from where we can retrieve information back to working memory when needed - includes prior knowledge and experiences.


To understand the importance of retrieval we need to have a look at Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:


Through his research Ebbinghaus concluded that the rate in which our memory decays depends on the time that has elapsed following our learning experience as well as on how strong our memory is. Some degree of memory decay is inevitable, but as educators, how do we reduce the scope of this loss?            

Retrieval practice could certainly be the answer to it.

There have been many studies and books published on the topic of retrieval in the past, but also fairly recently. If you want to have a deeper look into this topic you could look at the research study conducted by Roediger and Karpicke, Dulonsky's 'Strengthening the Student Toolbox or read the book 'Retrieval Practice' by Kate Jones (click on the picture). Her new book 'Retrieval Practice 2' is coming out soon.


In her book Kate Jones defines 'Retrieval practice' as 'The act of recalling learned information from memory (with little or no support) and every time that information is retrieved, or an answer is generated, it changes the original memory to make it STRONGER!
She talks about 'Retrieval storage' referring to how well information is embedded in the long-term memory and about 'Retrieval strength' which refers to how easily information can be recalled in short-term memory when/if needed.

So what are the benefits of 'Retrieval practice'? (Kate Jones)
  1. Retrieval practice aids later retention - 'every time you retrieve a memory it becomes deeper, stronger and easier to access in future'
  2. Testing identifies gaps in knowledge - shows students what they know (can recall from memory) and what they don't know
  3. Testing causes students to learn more from the next learning episode - studying after test will be more productive and effective
  4. Testing produces better organisation of knowledge - helps students to connect and structure knowledge
  5. Testing improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts - making links between new and existing knowledge is  a central aspect of learning
  6. Testing facilitates retrieval of material that wasn't tested 
  7. Testing improves metacognition - involves self-monitoring and links with point number 2
  8. Testing prevents interference from previous material when learning new content - refers to the act of using a test to prevent proactive interference, which can occur when content is studied in succession.
  9. Testing provides valuable feedback to teachers - test outcome is a reason to have a flexible lesson plan
  10. Frequent testing encourages students to study more - students know a regular retrieval will take a place every lesson and can prepare for it
Tom Sherrington published really good guidance in the form of  Retrieval Practice Principles which lays out various alternative methods of reviewing students' knowledge and understanding. For more information look here.

Languages Classroom

However, I would like to have a look at how we can use retrieval practice in Languages classroom and how we have implemented it in our department at our school. I will also provide some examples of Retrieval Practice tasks in Languages classroom that we use.

I think it is a fair comment to say that in the languages classroom we have always used some form of retrieval. All language teachers know how important the recall of previous learning is and this has been our practice for years even if it was just in the form of routine vocabulary tests. 
Language lessons follow on each other and require students to learn and memorise chunks of vocabulary and structures on a daily basis which retrieval practice covers naturally so this is not something we need to additionally incorporate into our lessons as it has always been there in some kind of shape or form. However, we can always improve on how we conduct retrieval and on the tasks we use.

Researching 'retrieval practice' has made me pause and think: Does it not get boring doing the same type of vocabulary tests over and over again usually testing only what was taught the previous lesson? Same format every lesson? Waiting to test the knowledge of one entire unit at the end of the unit in an end of unit test? 
We have often noticed that students do fairly well in their end of unit test but not so well in their end of year test! The reason being we have not revised/retrieved all knowledge consistently throughout the year which is often the problem with GCSE exams! Students end up 'cramming' revision just before their exams! Schools start intensive 'intervention' programmes (often after school) in year 11!!! Regular retrieval should take place from the moment students start to study the subject in order to secure the highest possible retention.

We all strive to motivate our students to keep them interested and engaged, to ensure they progress and learn, but we are also busy and do not want to add to our massive work load even more!
Well, investing some time into planning our retrieval tasks will pay off in the long term. In our department we have decided to share the work load. We have looked at what types of tasks we would like to use - we were convinced that varying the 'diet' is important to keep the interest going and we came up with the ideas you can see below, all which are now an integral part in our lessons - each lesson will start with some type of retrieval practice across all year groups - it is not just about year 11 revision!!

Using our Sentence Builders (E.P.I. methodology by Gianfranco Conti) I have created cards based on our SB on Quizlet - for an example of my Quizlet cards, click here. This is one form of our retrieval quizzing. Other great tools that can be explored are Quizzes, Plickers, Learning Apps , Flippity or Google forms. 
                                  Flippity examples - flashcards + randomizer (click on the pictures)

We also use Retrieval Roulette (see resources page) that I have seen mentioned on Twitter and I have adapted it to suit our subject. The beauty of it is that it generates a new quiz every time you press the F9 key - all you need to do is type in your questions and answers. The games question grid generator is from, based on an idea by Jonny Hemphill and developed from a spreadsheet by Adam Boxer.


Here are some other examples (some templates collated by other inspired by various posts on social media - if I haven't mentioned you, please let me know and I will edit) that we use:


Retrieval clock - could be used with different                                                                                                topics or Grammar points - brainstorming ideas.

It is essential that your tasks include not just knowledge from the last lesson, but also knowledge from previous week, month or unit to ensure interleaving. It is also useful to have prepared possible answers for quick checking on students part. I spend around 10 minutes on retrieval, but there might be a time when I want to spend more time on it (usually before summative assessment is due) - a half of my lesson or even a full lesson, so I make sure I plan this into my lesson sequence.

As Kate quotes in her book, retrieval practice should be regarded as a learning strategy, that should be used throughout the academic year not just as simply a revision strategy. It should include interleaving (mixing and combining multiple topics to improve learning) and spaced practice (spreading out revision over period of time) - the most effective revision strategy as suppose to mass practice (cramming just before an exam).

Final words - to make sure our  GCSE students are optimally prepared for their exams I support them by helping them plan their revision as some students are not so great at organising themselves. At the start of the academic year I give students a week by week timetable of what they need to revise each week interleaving all their GCSE topics in manageable sections. This timetable is signed by the parents (I believe involving parents in the process is invaluable) and checked by the classroom teacher every week. I also discuss with my students what effective revision strategies look like and how to study. I will provide more information and examples of this practice in another post. 
I hope you find some of these ideas of use for your own practice and your feedback is always welcome.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Receptive Processing Phase LAM/RAM (Conti Methodology of E.P.I.)

On this post I would like to concentrate on the Receptive processing phase of Dr Conti's E.P.I methodology. After the introduction of the new language/sentence builder through intensive modelling and awareness raising stage the next stage in my delivery is the receptive processing phase of the sequence of lessons that I have planned for a unit. I would spend on this phase approximately 2 lessons, but depending on your classes this may vary. 

It involves a high intensity processing practice of enriched controlled input through receptive skills - listening and reading. I remain on this phase until I am satisfied that students' receptive knowledge is firmly embedded. The aim of this stage is to practise, practise, practise the language without cognitive overload. Students will still use their MWB in this phase. 


In these unprecedented times, when schools across the country are not allowing students to use shared resources including MWB and if your students do not have their own MWB in the planner, you can always use a digital mini white board such as You will have to create a class and share the code with your students. However, this requires students to have their own devices to join the class with their board to be then displayed on the main classroom screen. 

This might not be an option for many schools on tight budgets, so another cheap alternative would be to laminate a piece of paper which can serve as a MWB and can be shared within the year bubbles.

So what activities could you use for this stage? 

Please note, that students can still refer to their Sentence Builder during this phase if needed and this is only a small fraction of the activities that can be used. However, these are the activities I, as someone who is still rather new to this methodology, feel pretty confident using now.
Translations from L2 to L1 activities

These could include faulty (bad), running, mad or delayed translations. Below is an example of year 8 'Faulty translation', type of a task which I regularly use in my lessons. Students need to look at the text in L2 and compare it with the translation to L1 and try to find all of the mistakes. When I first started this activity, my students were rather confused as to why I would make mistakes in the translation, however once they have come to understand that it was done on purpose, this activity now often turns into quite a competition. 
On purpose I do not tell them how many mistakes there are, but give them a time limit to find as many as possible in the given time frame.

One pen one dice translation - from L2 to L1. Students work in pairs, using only one pen and one dice. Students agree who will start with the pen first (it could be the youngest/oldest one) and can start translating from L2 to L1. The other person must keep rolling the dice until they roll an agreed number for example a 6. When they roll 6, they must say "sechs" and swap the dice for the pen. Then they can start translating. The winner is the one who finishes first. 
If it is not possible to share a dice you could use an electronic dice such as one from teknologic. I roll the dice and students translate.

                                                   Example of one pen one dice translation

Delayed translation - from L2 to L1. Sentence is displayed, after 10 seconds it disappears and students have to translate it. If students are confident and working well or tell me 'This is easy!', I like to challenge them and I add another sentence so they see 2 or 3 short sentences or one extended one and they have to then erase the previous translations and translate the whole sequence. We use MWB for this as well. Most of my classes get really excited about this and I have done this challenge even with my bottom set with about 70% of them able to translate 2 sentences at once with a decent degree of accuracy. 
I strongly believe it is important to develop students' memory capacity and this type of task will do that.

Sentence puzzles - solving problems through thorough processing, using activities such as tangled translations or pyramid translations - L2 to L1 at this stage.
Pyramid translations - working in groups of 3. One person is the referee with the answers, the other two students take it in turns to translate each sentence perfectly. If they make a mistake, the referee must tell them and the other partner can start translating from the start. The first person who translates the sentences perfectly is the winner.

Example of pyramid translation
You could even use Tangled translations but only do the section where students translate into L1 and  leave the section where they translate into L2 for the Structured Production  or Expansion phase.

                                                         Example of tangled translation

Narrow listening activities

Spot the missing detail - explain to the class they are going to listen to a text in which some words have been left out. Provide a hand out with the missing words/write missing words on the board. 
There are no gaps to indicate where the omissions are. As the text is read out they can note the missing words on their MWB/on a sheet or in their exercise book.
When I teach my two top sets I do not provide this as so far they were able to complete this task without the support.

Example with missing detail

Example with gaps filled

Spot the nonsense - explain to the class they are going to listen to a text in which you have planted a nonsense information 'At the weekend I walked to Germany.' As you read the text students write on their MWB/a sheet 'possible' or 'impossible'.

Narrow reading activities

Spot the difference - students are given this activity on paper - in our department we have introduced booklets to save us time on photocopying, cutting and gluing (some examples on my resource page). Students need to correct each text to match the English as well as identify which text matches exactly.

                                                         Example of spot the difference

Error - teacher reads out two sentences, one correct the other incorrect. The student has to chose which one is the correct one and write the number of the sentence on the MWB.
                                                          Example of 'Error'

Every piece of text is created so that it is 'flooded' with the same chunks and patterns over and over again thus ensuring 90-95% comprehensible input and scaffolding via Sentence Builder is available throughout.


There are many other activities that can be explored, for more reference you can read the 'Breaking the sound barrier' book written by Gianfranco Conti and Steve Smith or the Language Gym blog. 
If you are still not very confident or if you are fairly new to this approach like my school is, I personally would add new activities gradually so that the students but also the teacher don't get too overwhelmed. 
From my personal experience you will get more confident with the activities as you trial them, you will also work out which activities work for your specific class profile and which don't. Many can be also tweaked and adapted. 

We have been following the Conti approach for the past 8 weeks and we have observed that initially the transition between the tasks can be somewhat time consuming because we had to spend time explaining the new activities to our students, however now we have completed a sequence of lessons, this should not cause any issues when delivering the next topic. We also feel more confident in our delivery and can now start to explore some other activities to keep lessons varied and engaging.

You might also consider as an individual or as a department to invest into the Sentence Builders books which provide a variety of ready made activities which can be photocopied and used in the class or as homework.

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

  'First, the theory itself needs to be guided by our knowledge of human cognition - how we learn, think and solve problems. Second, the...