Thursday, November 06, 2014

Teaching literacy skills the write way

I’ve blogged on the subject and importance of writing by hand a number of times before: here, here, and here. I return to the subject because this week’s New Scientist (29th October 2014) devotes no less than the cover page, an editorial and four of its pages to how the latest technology may be affecting the ways in which we read and write and learn to read and write.

As the article points out, more and more we are opting to read and write digitally. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you’d see people commuting into work by bus or by train deeply engrossed in a book, newspaper or magazine, nowadays they’ll be reading a digital book, or, more likely, a mobile phone or notebook of one kind or another. Whereas twenty or thirty years ago you'd see students in a seminar or lecture busily scribbling away in longhand, today many of them are typing into laptops.

Are technological changes affecting the way in which we learn and retain information? Yes, says Tiffany O’Callaghan in ‘Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’. Certainly, since I last wrote about the work of Karin James at Indiana University and also that of Marieke Longcamp at Aix-Marseille University in France (see links above), both of whom figure in the New Scientist article, the research evidence seems to confirm what has long been argued: that writing by hand helps create neuronal pathways in the brain that assist the learner in remembering not only the way in which way letters are formed and how to recognise them when reading, but also the process of writing in longhand seems to aid retention of the information encoded in the writing itself. Moreover, the evidence strongly suggests that typing letters does not have the same effect.

On the issue of retention of information, Pam Mueller, of Princeton University, and David Oppenheimer, now at UCLA Anderson School of Management, ran a number of studies which indicate that taking notes in longhand on the subjects of lectures is superior to taking notes on a laptop. Mueller speculates that the reason for this may be that taking notes very rapidly on a laptop or digital device encourages students to write down transmitted information verbatim. In so doing, they may not be paying attention and processing the information in the way that taking notes in longhand forces the writer to do.

In the New Scientist piece, O’Callaghan also brings into her piece the issue of ‘multitasking’, or the ‘widely held fallacy’, as Hattie calls it, and talks about the numerous distractions we, as readers, face when reading online. Apart from the kinds of things that are likely to distract, such as advertisements and other items competing for our attention, it takes the determination of Ares to resist that quick peek into our Facebook page, Twitter feed, or email account. As John Hattie, in his book Visible Learning and Science of How We Learn, affirms, allowing oneself to be distracted in this way, reduces mental focus and depletes attentional resources, which leads to poorer comprehension.

Lost for Words: the writing is on the screen’ is a thoughtful and provocative piece, although I’d question O’Callaghan’s conclusion when she claims that ‘the nature of knowledge is changing’. It isn’t the nature of knowledge that is changing; it’s the way that knowledge is encoded and is disseminated that is changing. And we need to bear in mind that while the technology constantly mutates, human cognitive architecture and the way we learn remains pretty much as it did thousands of years ago. Keeping that distinction clear is vital. As Hattie writes: ‘Skills such as becoming highly familiar with  the digital world, being adept on mobile phones, being able to perform Internet searches, and being able to use clever graphics packages, ought not to be confused with actual advance of knowledge acquisition, genuine understanding of complex ideas, and becoming aware of deeper understandings’.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about high frequency words?

Well, how confused can Key Stage 1 teachers be about HFWs? Answer? Very confused!
Here is a letter to parents sent home recently from a primary school somewhere in the south east of England.
Dear Parents/CarersThis week in phonics the children have been learning the following sounds:a, i, m, s, t, n, o p
They have been using the sounds to spell words. For example:at, it, an, as, sat, sit, mat, man, not, potThere are 100 common words (key words) that occur frequently in much of the written material young children read and which they need when they write.  In order to read simple captions and sentences, it is also necessary to learn to read the key words before reaching that stage in the phonics programme. The high frequency words are taught by sight from memory and we explain that we can not sound out these words. [My emphasis] Below is a list of the first 100 high frequency words.0 high-frequency words in order
1. the               21. that            41. not             61. look             81. put
2. and              22. with           42. then           62. don’t            82. could
3. a                  23. all              43. were          63. come            83. house
4. to                 24. we             44. go              64. will              84. old
5. said             25. can             45. little           65. into             85. too
6. in                 26. are             46. as              66. back             86. by
7. he                27. up              47. no              67. from             87. day
8. I                   28. had            48. mum          68. children       88. made
9. of                 29. my             49. one            69. him              89. time
10. it                30. her             50. them          70. Mr               90. I’m
11. was            31. what          51. do              71. get               91. if
12. you            32. there          52. me             72. just              92. help
13. they           33. out             53. down         73. now             93. Mrs
14. on              34. this            54. dad            74. came            94. called
15. she            35. have           55. big             75. oh                95. here
16. is               36. went          56. when         76. about            96. off
17. for             37. be              57. it’s             77. got               97. asked
18. at               38. like            58. see            78. their              98. saw
19. his             39. some         59. looked       79. people          99. make
20. but             40. so              60. very           80. your           100. an
Of course, what is being asserted here is, to use an old fashioned expression, poppycock! To begin with, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have at some point in time been assigned spellings. So, what the teachers who have written this rubbish haven’t seemed to have understood is that the structure of the writing system is conceptually very straightforward: there are sounds and there are spellings to represent those sounds. So, contrary to the piffle being peddled by the teachers concerned, ALL words can be sounded out.

Now, let’s examine the list they provide, which, incidentally comes from Letters and Sounds, a government document which has now been archived. If you look at it carefully, you will see that no less than thirty-two of the words in the list are very easily decodable. Given that pupils are being taught how to blend and segment properly and that they are learning to link sounds to spellings, what could possibly be difficult about reading or spelling words such as ‘in’, ‘it’, ‘not’, ‘mum’ and so on? In fact, you can see how confused the writers of the letter to parents are by the fact that they say in their preamble that they using ‘sounds to spell words’ and yet haven’t seemed to have noticed that one of the words listed – ‘it’ – is then presented in their list of undecodable words!! if it were not more serious, it would be laughable.

It is undoubtedly the case that the alphabet code gets more complex to teach because there are many ways of spellings individual sounds and that many spellings represent different sounds. This is complex because it means that there is a lot to learn. However, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be taught if it’s taught from simple to progressively more complex.
What the school is doing goes against not only what the research on the teaching of reading and spelling has found but also what Ofsted and the government are saying teachers should be doing.

It is shame that, in spite of the training, research and evidence available, teachers insist on reverting to the practices of a bygone age.

If you want to know what to do about high frequency words which contain sound-spelling correspondences that have not yet been taught formally in a phonics programme, you can find out here in one of my previous postings.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Potton Lower School in Bedfordhsire

A very short message but a no less powerful one for that!

Frances Woodward, one of our team of Sounds-Write trainers tells me that yesterday she finished another training at Potton Lower School in Bedfordshire. She was also able to pass on that she has just ‘finished a course in Potton, Beds. The school now has all the staff trained. In the two years they have been using Sounds-Write, they have achieved 98% and 96% pass rate in the Yr1 Phonics Screening Test!

The power of a good programme and thorough teaching!’

Well done to Potton and well done to Frances for training them!

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Eyes to the Write (in English orthography)

Following on from my previous posting, I want to consider what the implications are for what our eyes are doing when we are learning to read?

Certainly, because the span of fixations are more limited, the beginning reader needs more fixations and saccades to hold text in foveal view. This and the fact that publishers increase font size may, the authors speculate, lead beginning readers to look at the initial letters in a word and to guess. Of course, as we are well aware, many teachers promoting multi-cueing techniques reinforce this tendency by asking young children to look at the first letter or the accompanying illustrations and to guess what word might come next.

Such a strategy may seem to offer a quick solution, especially if a word is guessed correctly. However, this is rarely the case! Multi-cueing must always collapse back into a whole language approach, which, to paraphrase Diane McGuinness, promises everything and delivers nothing’*.

On the other hand, in their research article 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', Jane Ashby and Keith Rayner insist that by attending carefully to the detail of words and linking print to sound, a child is embedding and anticipating advances in later reading development. After all, it is the internal details, the complexities of the spellings of many of the vowel sounds, that are fundamental to successful decoding. The corollary of this is that it is vitally important to teach beginning readers using high quality phonics programmes because children who can recode spellings into speech sounds are able to match them to their oral/aural repertoire. This skill is also an indispensable device in ‘generalizing the meaning of spoken words to written words [and] is a valuable self-teaching tool’.

In addition, being able to identify (read) words without having to resort to context has a number of crucial ramifications:
First, it helps to build high quality representations of word-specific sound-spelling correspondences.
Second, the ability to process text automatically enables a reader to apply themselves entirely and without distraction to such things as ambiguity of language, lexical choice, the ‘vagaries’ of plot construction, as well as the complexities of syntax and grammar in more challenging texts. As I have pointed out before in postings, if the cognitive load of decoding text is low, resources can be allocated to other, higher order skills. 
Third, automatic word recognition (or decoding) also reduces the difference between reading and listening comprehension. In the beginning, readers’ listening comprehension skills vastly exceed their reading comprehension skills; yet, as decoding ability improves to the point of automaticity, the disparity between the two reduces to the point where written text is easily comprehensible. 
Moreover, given how lexically impoverished everyday speech is in comparison with written language, reading will offer vastly more opportunities for learning new words than oral language alone can offer [cf Keith Stanovich’s ‘Measuring Print exposure’ in Progress in Understanding Reading].
Interestingly, the authors also point out that ‘[b]ooks with short words allow children to register all the letters in a word during a fixation’ (p.58), a contention which would lend strong support to the use, in the beginning stages of learning to read, of decodable readers containing short words.

However, the central message conveyed by Ashby and Rayner I will leave in their words:
“Instruction that develops a child’s ability to read unfamiliar words accurately (and familiar words quickly) will, by definition, build the efficient word-recognition processes that are necessary for text comprehension.”
Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63
McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction, London, The MIT Press.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The eyes have it!

To most competent readers, reading is something they do naturally, much like walking or talking: things we do that we have developed to the point of automaticity. Because we seem to be unable to look at text without gaining meaning, we are rarely aware of the cognitive processes that go into this most complex of skills.

In fact, when we read, our eyes are moving forward very rapidly and stopping a number of times along each line of written text. Each one of these rapid movements is called a saccade and it these saccades that carry the eyes forward from one part of the text to another in staccato fashion. I say ‘staccato’ because in between each of these saccades, the eye pauses and becomes relatively still and it is in these moments of stasis, known as ‘fixations’ that we gain information from whatever it is we are reading.

According to Ashby and Rayner*, each saccade lasts for about a quarter of a second [see also Crystal’s Encylopedia of the English Language, p.218], making the reading process, as they put it, ‘similar to a slide show, in which the text appears ..., is interrupted briefly by a saccade, then reappears, and so forth’.

There is good reason for why this happens. The human visual system enables us to see with greater acuity in the centre of what is known as the fovea, the area of the retina which offers the best visual detail, hence the need to fixate on a limited group of letters before moving on to fixate the next group. Outside the fovea in the parafoveal and peripheral regions of the retina, our visual receptors are unable to discriminate the detail of letters to distinguish one from another: in other words, the further from the fovea, the poorer our perception of difference in detail.

The authors of the piece liken the visual field to a bull’s eye, with the fovea at the centre, surrounded by the parafovea, which is, in turn, encircled by the peripheral region. However, to be more accurate, you would need to imagine a bull’s eye skewed or attenuated to the right for readers of English. Thus, perceptual spans are not symmetrical, extending three or four letters to the left and, in the case of skilled readers, ‘only seven or eight letters to the right of fixation to support their recognition of upcoming words’. However, as they point out, much of that information is parafoveal. [Perceptual span also varies according to the writing system, with perceptual span in Arabic and Hebrew, for instance, operating in the reverse direction.]

For obvious reasons, fixations are also influenced by factors such as word length and by lexical access. So, when a word is less frequently encountered or it contains a less frequent spelling, fixations are longer. This factor would appear to link ‘lexical access processes that operate very efficiently during skilled reading’ to eye movements. Furthermore, skilled readers are, as you would expect, able to glean syllable information parafoveally during a fixation.

So, how do young, beginning readers differ from skilled readers? The answer is that their eye movements reflect the problems they have in decoding words in connected text: fixations last longer, their perceptual span is shorter, and they tend to regress more often. Neither in the beginning stages of learning to read is fixation symmetrical, as it is in more fluent readers.

What the authors speculate is that more fixations and shorter saccades, as well as a more restricted perceptual span, limit the amount of text a reader can hold in foveal view.

What are the implications of this for teaching beginning readers? In my next posting, I shall be looking at some of the suggestions put forward by the authors.

* Ashby, J. & Rayner, K., 'Literacy Development: Insights from Research on Skilled Reading', in Dickinson, D.K and Neuman, S., Eds, (2006), Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol 2, London, Guilford Press, pp 52-63.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Dr Louisa Moats on spelling

The following is a short video of Dr Louisa Moats talking about how "spelling deserves much higher status in the attention of reading educators". We, at Sounds-Write, have always argued this, which is why we have collected so much data on children's spelling.

Below is a verbatim transcript of why Dr Moats believes spelling is so important.
"...spelling is a visible record of language processing. It is language written down. If we know how to look at a child's spelling, we can tell what a child understands about speech sounds, about how we use letters to represent those and, as it turns out, anything that is going to cause trouble with a child's reading will show up even more dramatically in the child's spelling and writing.
So, it's a wonderful diagnostic tool. It provides very detailed insight into what children need to know and it can also tell us when children are gaining insight and what improvements they are making in their understanding of language."
Dr Moats also goes on to mount a defence of the use of nonsense words, which, she says, indicate so well how much a child understands about
"the sounds in a word and the sound-symbol correspondences that are used to spell those words and, possibly, you also understand the structure of the words: whether they have a prefix, a root, and a suffix. English is very pattern-based and people who are proficient at reading and spelling nonsense words in fact are better at reading for meaning".
I would like to thank Alison Clarke of Spelfabet for bringing this video to my attention and you can read more about the work of Dr Moats here at Children of the Code.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What human cognitive architecture has to tell us about instructional design in phonics teaching.

The following post is what I intended to get across at the recent researchEd conference and didn’t have time to finish! The post covers some of the important issues raised by John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, John Hattie, Daniel Willingham, David Geary and others in a number of academic pieces published on human cognitive architecture and how we learn. I’ve tried to relate to the teaching of phonics some of what I think is most relevant for teaching practitioners to think about.

It is a long post, for which I apologise.The post is also a tacit plea to government to train teachers properly – something it (whether this or the last government) has signally failed to do. Learning to read and write underpins everything a child does and will do in the future, and it is vital that it is taught to a very high level of proficiency as soon as children enter school.

According to John Sweller, Emeritus professor of education at the University of New South Wales in Adelaide, instruction will only be effective to the extent that it takes into account the characteristics of human cognition ('Human Cognitive Architecture').

‘Ideal learning environments in accord with human cognitive architecture are are not always in accord with realistic learning environments that mimic the real world’ (Sweller, 'Human Cognitive Architecture', p.370) or we take for granted as naturalistic human behaviour. If they did, then there would be no need for schools and universities or indeed for specific instructional procedures. Simply being in the world with an eye and an ear to what is going on around us would be sufficient.

Sweller and others contend that we have evolved to ‘assimilate and process information’ in order to direct human action. In so doing we have evolved what they refer to as a ‘natural information processing system’: human long-term memory. This repository is no longer viewed as a jumble of unrelated facts we store and retrieve from time to time. It is now seen as absolutely central to the structure of human cognitive architecture. In other words, it is central to how we learn.

So, what it is that differentiates experts and novices in solving particular classes of problems, by which I mean domain-specific (mathematics, chess, writing systems, etc.) problems? The answer appears to be simply the amount of knowledge or information held in long-term memory. To be skilful in any domain, it is necessary to have at one’s disposal a huge stock of knowledge that is instantly available, a point also made by E.D. Hirsch on many occasions.

As Sweller et al contend, we have evolved cognitive systems to impart and receive knowledge from others around us. From our first moments we begin to imitate what others do. We are primed for naturalistic human behaviour, such as learning our own language or languages, recognising faces, assimilating our own specific cultural practices, and spotting predators and prey. These we learn pretty well without explicit instruction though that isn’t to say we can’t improve these abilities with further guided instruction and practice.

However, what we, as educators, are concerned with is what Sweller and his associates refer to as secondary learning, or ‘biologically secondary knowledge’. In this respect the essential task for educators lies in devising efficient instructional procedures for transmitting knowledge to the long-term memories of learners.

All efficient procedures for the transmission of knowledge are dependent on what Sweller calls the ‘borrowing principle’ or probably what we think of more generally as learning from presented information or direct instruction. The alternative is leaving the learner to work things out for themselves, or, as Sweller calls it, ‘random generation followed by effectiveness testing’, which is really another way of saying trial and error approach. Trial and error approaches are highly inefficient for a number of reasons, not least of which are that they are extremely time-consuming and, perhaps more importantly, they run the risk of pupils misunderstanding important concepts or being misled by surface impressions (classifying whales as fish because they live in the sea, for example). As Michelene Chi points out in ‘Two Approaches to the Study of Experts’ Characteristics’ (in Ericsson et al, p.23), experts are more able to ‘perceive the “deep structure” of a problem or situation’ because they are more knowledgeable. So, for a number of reasons, the research evidence seems to indicate that, at least in the early stages of learning a new domain, direct instruction is much more effective.

Now apply this to the situation of teaching reading and writing to young children in school. We have one of the most complex writing systems, if not the most complex, and we know that the long tail of underachievement in learning to read and write is enormous: as much as 50% if we rely on figures given by the OECD (Canada) in 1997. So, given the prodigious task of learning to read and write to a very high level of mastery – one which is vital to an individual if they are to maximise whatever potential for learning they have – why would we expect a young child to work out for him/herself how our complex writing system works? As Sweller confirms, ‘The absence of explicit instruction that works perfectly in the case of biologically primary knowledge is likely to fail abysmally when dealing with secondary knowledge’ (Sweller, J., ‘Human Cognitive Architecture and Constructivism’ in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure, (2009), p.130.

In my long experience of training teaching practitioners, I have found that very few have a clear and unambiguous idea of how the alphabetic writing system in English relates to the sounds of the language.

According to one of the world’s experts on writing systems Peter Daniels, 'writing is defined as a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer.' (Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W., (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ in The World’s Writing Systems, London, OUP, p.3) A writing system must represent the sounds of the language and for that you need a graphic symbol inventory. The decisive step in the development of writing was phoneticisation of graphic representation. This came with the realisation that if you worked out how many sounds there are in a language and you invented a series of squiggles to represent those sounds, you would have an entirely accurate means of recording anything.  Writing, then, is a cognitive tool, a huge systemic mnemonic, if you like.

As Daniels is also at pains to point out, writing is different from spoken language ‘in a very fundamental way. Language is a natural product of the human mind ... while writing is a deliberate product of the human intellect: no infant illiterate absorbs its script along with its language; writing must be studied.’ (Ibid., p.2)

To make such a system work someone has to set about working out what the sounds of a language are and inventing symbols to represent them. Since its invention in Mesopotamia, it has passed from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, to the Etruscans and on to the Romans. The Romans brought it to the British Isles, since which time it has undergone many changes. Nevertheless, regardless of the changes to the language over time, it remains the case still that writing, no matter its complexity, represents the sounds of the language.

When we present young children (or anyone for that matter) with the written material that makes up our writing system, this novel information for which they have little, incorrect or no prior knowledge, their working memories are very limited. What we must do therefore is to present them with a phonics approach that builds a schema for sounds and individual spellings and teaches them from simple to ever more complex, turning that schema into an ever more sophisticated tool.

Schemas enable us to organise and store knowledge. They categorise the elements of information you want to teach according to the way in which you want them to be used. They also reduce working memory load because, as K Anders Ericsson (Ericsson et al: The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance) and his colleagues have long argued, even a highly complex schema can be dealt with as if it is a unitary element in working memory.

Because schemas can incorporate facts, functions, procedures and entities specific to a domain, the building of schemas is a long process and there are no shortcuts. I was once told by a disdainful head teacher that phonics was a quick fix! If only that were the case! All the literature, tells us the same story: development of individual performance in any domain is ‘relatively slow and graduated even when a large amount of time is invested’ (Hattie, 2014, p.95). Growth, as we always tell people on our courses, is uneven and is punctuated by sudden improvements, long plateaus, and/or periods of regression. That’s what learning looks like. Messy!

To continue to make improvement in any domain, you need to devote time to deliberate practice, which is ‘mindful, sequential and highly structured’ (Hattie, 2014, p.96).

Of course, you also need expert tuition, persistence and goal setting. I don’t know whether you listened to Professor John Hattie talking on Radio 4 ( a few weeks ago but, aside from telling us what doesn’t work, he highlighted a few things that do. Chief among these was expertise in teaching… and to get that, you need to train the teachers.

In the beginning at least, confirms Hattie (Hattie, 2014, p.96), the focus should be on short-term, immediate goals, where the teacher concentrates attention on critical aspects of practice, helps to refine the procedural skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation, provides time and space for repetition, and offers corrective feedback where necessary.

One of the most critical aspects of successful teaching is practice. The more anyone practises an activity, the more able they are to switch from a conscious to an automatic function. Automaticity frees working memory capacity for other activities because, it is argued by the proponents of Cognitive Load Theory, a schema that has been made automatic acts as a central executive that directs activity without the need for processing in working memory. This is what enables people to perform an activity without even thinking about it: the activity dips below the level of conscious attention. In one way, this is very useful because it enables the performer, in Hattie’s words, to ‘peg a skill at a given level’.

Furthermore, as Fletovich, Prietula and Ericsson point out, ‘[a]utomaticity is important to expertise. It appears to have at least two main functions. The first has to do with the relationship between fundamental and higher-order cognitive skills, and the second has to do with the interaction between automaticity of processes and usability of available knowledge. With regard to the first, in complex skills with many different cognitive components, it appears that some of the more basic ones (e.g., fundamental decoding, encoding of input) must be automated if higher-level skills such as reasoning, comprehension, inference, monitoring, and integration are ever to be proficient.’ Fletovich, P.J., Prietula, M.J. & and K. Anders Ericsson, in ‘Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives’, in K. Anders Ericsson et al, Eds, (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, London, CUP.

In terms of reading then, this is what enables us to decode text and understand it; in terms of writing, it is what enables us to think about what we want to write while actually writing it. The two processes can operate in parallel simultaneously.

The paradoxical thing about this is that simply spending time honing a skill you have already acquired doesn’t automatically enhance your actual level of performance in that skill. People tend to learn a complex skill to the extent that they are satisfied with its functionality and then they don’t usually bother to burnish it. They only want, as in, say, the case of golf, to be good enough to keep up with their friends, or, as with driving, to negotiate the particular driving conditions they are routinely faced with.

So, if we want learners in a domain to continue to improve, we need to present them with further challenges. This, in the case of learning a musical instrument may mean finding a more highly skilled teacher. In the case of teaching children to read and write, it means training teachers to a high level of proficiency.

Novel information (squiggles on a page combining to represent sounds in words) coming through the senses is unorganised and random and often imposes on working memory too heavy a cognitive load. Sweller maintains that ‘anything beyond the simplest cognitive activities appear to overwhelm working memory’. So, our problem as teachers of reading and spelling is one of how to present the information necessary for young children (or even older learners who are illiterate or semi-literate) in such a way as not to overload working memory and to enable successful transfer of information to long-term memory, where information is organised and structured. Throwing all the complexities of the English alphabet code at them in the form of whole words that they are asked to remember as wholes is an impossible task.

To help young children learn, we need, in the first instance, to restrict the amount of new information we present them with. In essence, this is one of the basic tenets of cognitive load theory. As Hattie says, ‘Novices need to concentrate as deeply as they can on specific ideas without encumbrance from other sources’ (Hattie, 2014, p.150). In other words, we need to take things one step at a time and do our best not to distract learners with unnecessary information, and distractions, such as the ‘all singing, all dancing’ features that often go alongside phonics activities: what Sweller and van MerriĆ«nboer call ‘extraneous cognitive load’, or load that is unnecessary for learning.

Hattie describes working memory as ‘the workbench of the conscious mind’ and as a ‘bottleneck to our ability to learn’. It can only deal with a very limited amount of information at any one time. While this would appear to be an impediment to learning, in fact it safeguards long-term memory from being deluged with too much unstructured information pouring in at any one time

So, first, the question remains of how we can facilitate the loading knowledge from working memory into the long-term memory system. At the same time, we need to ensure that the material being loaded into the system is coherently structured so that new information can be processed and integrated in a way that is commensurate with what has already been learnt. For example, after teaching all the one-to-one sound spelling correspondences, it is very easy to teach the double consonants, ff, ll, ss and zz (because they look very similar to the single letter spellings), while making explicit that we can spell sounds with more than one letter. The third problem is one of retrieval: how to enable ease of access to the store?

Because teachers of good quality phonics programmes know how the alphabet system works in relation the sounds of the language, they should be the arbiters of what we deem important enough to transfer into long-term memory. How can we expedite this? The answer is simple: we create a schema in which the material we want young children to learn from the start is from simple to more complex. For this reason, we need to introduce a limited amount of information at any one time and to recycle information that has already been learned, by which I mean committed to long-term memory.

Thus we can begin by presenting simple information in cumulative steps in the form of a limited number of ‘templates’ or lessons or instructional procedures that are unchanging. If the way in which lessons are presented is unchanging and provided that they are an effective means of conveying what it is we want to teach, once established and practised, cognitive load is reduced to input of the new material.

If done properly, the learner can now devote all their attention to what Sweller et al call ‘intrinsic cognitive load’ or only what the learner needs to learn to achieve the desired outcome. At the same time, ‘extrinsic cognitive load’ or all the stuff that the intrinsic cognitive load comes wrapped up in (instructional design,  the practice that goes into creating automaticity) is reduced to a minimum.

As I’ve already made clear, working memory is limited. There’s general agreement that it can handle only about seven bits of information at any one time. We also know that it can actually only operate on between two and four new elements at a time and that, unless rehearsed constantly even those elements are likely to be lost within as short a period of time as twenty seconds.

These capacity limits only apply to the input of new knowledge because we also know that working memory has no known limits when operating on information stored in long-term memory. What this means is that whatever is stored in long-term memory has the capacity to alter dramatically what is happening in working memory.

So, how we develop expertise in reading and writing depends on how well we design instructional materials and build a comprehensive schema, which is additive, open to complexity and automation. When posed in this way, teaching reading and spelling is no different qualitatively from teaching mathematics or other knowledge domains.

Daniels, P.T. & Bright, W., (1996), ‘The Study of Writing Systems’ in The World’s Writing Systems, London, OUP.
Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P.J. & Hoffman, R.R., (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, London, CUP.
Hattie, J & Yates, G., (2014), Visible learning and the Science of How We Learn, London, Routledge.
Geary, D.C, ‘Educating the Evolved Mind: Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Psychology’,
Van MeriĆ«nboer, J. & Sweller, J., ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Complex Learning: Recent Developments and Future Directions’, in Educational Psychology Review, Vol 17, No 2, June 2005 (p.150)

Sweller, J., (2009), ‘Human Cognitive Architecture and Constructivism’ in Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure, London, Routledge.