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What is cognitive load theory?

There is a lot of discussion in the educational world at the moment about cognition and in particular Cognitive Load Theory, so I thought I would look at this model and relate it to second language learning. Remember that I come at this as a teacher, not an academic scholar!

How information is processed

Cognitive Load Theory builds upon a widely accepted model of human information processing published by Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin in 1968. It describes the process as having three main parts: sensory memory,
working memory and long-term memory (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Researchers have added to understanding of this concept over the years, but the basic model remains the same.  Figure 1 shows how processing works. You receive huge amounts of sensory information all the time you are awake. Sensory memory filters out most of this information, but keeps hold of the most important items long enough for them to pass into working memory.  For example, in a crowded room you can hear all sorts of conversations going on, but you attend to the one you are interested in.

So information from your sensory memory passes into your working memory, where it is either processed or discarded. Working memory can generally hold only several items or chunks of information at any one time (estimates vary somewhat, but between four and seven is sometimes quoted).

When your brain processes information, it categorises that information and moves it into long-term memory, where it is stored in knowledge structures called "schemas" (e.g. areas of vocabulary, whole phrases and sentences, or behavioural schemas like driving a car). These organise information according to how you use it. The more practice you get at using these schemas, the more effortless behaviours become. Think of it as speaking naturally without having to plan of the words carefully.

What is Cognitive Load Theory? 

Cognitive Load Theory was developed by John Sweller (1988). "Cognitive load" relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time. Sweller argued that, since working memory has a limited capacity, teaching methods should avoid overloading it with additional activities that don't directly contribute to learning. One obvious way to do this is by making diagrams very clear and not including extraneous information.

Cognitive Load Theory also explains that working memory can be maximised in two ways. First, the brain processes visual and auditory information separately. Auditory items in working memory do not compete with visual items in the same way that two visual items, for example a picture and some text, compete with one another. This is known as the "modality effect."

Secondly, working memory treats an established schema as a single item, and a highly practised "automated" schema hardly counts at all. This means that learning tasks that draw upon existing knowledge expand the capacity of your working memory. This means that teaching people prerequisite skills before introducing a more complex topic, will help them establish schemas that extend their working memory which means that they can understand and learn more difficult information.

Implications for language teachers?

Firstly, it should be made clear that most researchers would argue that language acquisition largely occurs at a sub-conscious level, so they may doubt the relevance of CLT. For example, in the view of Stephen Krashen and others, acquisition occurs as a result of exposure to comprehensible speech and writing. Students "pick up" the language by repeated exposure to vocabulary and syntax just as we do when we learn our first language. There is clearly a lot of truth in this for second language acquisition as anyone who has spent time in the TL country would attest. This view makes the huge assumption that language acquisition is not like the learning of other skills.

On the other hand, most teachers are of the view (even if it receives little support from research) that we can teach items in an ordered way, respecting the tenets of CLT (one item at a time, do not confuse with irrelevant items etc). We tend to believe that we can build up skill with a language, establishing ever more complex schemas as we go along until automaticity (proficiency) is established. (The fact that this only rarely works should give us pause!)

With CLT in mind, the following advice makes sense to me. many of you will find these points obvious and confirm your sensible practice.

1.  In early stages  (when establishing "schemas" in this view of things) teach only one item at a time, e.g. with beginners avoid teaching a whole verb conjugation, focus on practising lots of forms of one verb ending. Most text books respect this principle by only teaching the first and perhaps third person singular of present tense verbs.

2.  Make use of dual coding by using written words, pictures, gesture, realia and video, as long as they are clear and not otherwise distracting.

3.  Make use of dual coding by reading aloud texts as students read them.

4.  If you want to drill one item, e.g. a verb tense, don't sow confusion by including unknown vocabulary. Use this as an opportunity to recycle known vocab.

5. When introducing a new, complex verb tense, take it one step at a time. For example, with the perfect tense in French begin with regular avoir verbs. If students later over-generalise the rule and use avoir with être verbs and reflexives, this is not the end of the world!

5.  Keep listening items brief at beginner level, recycling the same language items as much as possible.

6.  Use a range of question types and other interactions (e.g. true/false, giving false statements to correct) to recycle a limited number of items.

7.  Teach whole chunks as well as individual words. It is important that pupils hear and practise collocation (e.g. jouer au football, as opposed to jouer and football separately) to maximise the space in working memory.

8. Focus as much as possible on the key items to be practised. A lesson may be fun and memorable whilst failing to teach the key items. (Although a fun, memorable lesson may have other benefits in terms of overall motivation.)

9.  At advanced level when, by this model, when large numbers of schemas are established, focus more on general comprehensible input to take advantage of natural language acquisition competence.

10. When doing listening and reading tasks, pre-teach some key items in advance to lighten the load on working memory during the task.

11. Make the material as stimulating as possible so that students wants to engage their senses in the first place!

Concluding remarks

I think CLT has some very useful things to tell us about learning in general and language learning in particular. I doubt very much that it is the whole story for language teachers. To me it makes sense to keep CLT in mind mainly for the earlier stages of language learning (say, up to Y10 in English schools). In addition, if, like many academic scholars, you believe that language acquisition is not subject to the same rules as the learning of other complex skills, you can always fall back on the notion that, even when you do carefully build skills, you are still providing plenty of useful language input which the sub-conscious mechanisms can work on. Maybe we can kill two birds with one stone.

For a more detailed look at this topic as it relates to modern language teaching:


Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

Sweller, J (June 1988). "Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning"Cognitive Science12 (2): 257–285. 


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