Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Reading Achievement Challenge revisited and Cognitive Load Theory (2 of 3)

To begin with I need to re-state what is at the heart of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), according to its proponents John Sweller, Jeroen van Meriënboer, Paul Kirschner, Daniel Willingham and others.

What CLT emphasises is that working memory is severely constrained in terms of both capacity and duration. The argument is that we can only store in our working memories about seven items at any one time and that we are only able to operate on (manipulate) between two and four of those items.

Furthermore, the consensus seems to be that almost all information in working memory is lost after about twenty seconds unless it is constantly rehearsed. Think about what you do when someone gives you an unfamiliar phone number. You have to keep repeating it to yourself until you’re able to record it somewhere more permanent or else it is gone.

However bleak a prospect this may seem for us in managing to remember anything at all, in fact, once established in long-term memory, there is no known limit to the amount of information/knowledge that can be retrieved from long term memory into working memory.

The 64,000-dollar question is: how do we get information/knowledge into long-term memory? The answer to that question lies in our ability to create schemas. Schemas are mental models that organise and store knowledge. I’m not sure quite how valid this simile is but it’s a bit like opening a bank account which only allows you to deposit small amounts of money at a time. The process is cumulative and each small deposit adds to the whole, which, in turn, is changed as a result. It’s a dialectical process.

That’s about as far as I can push the analogy because schemas are much more dynamic in that they act, according to Sweller et al, as a central executive for processing and assimilating new information and adjusting accordingly the schema already created.

Here’s a concrete example: a child has been taught to blend, segment and manipulate one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences in CVC words. As the child is reading a class reader, the child comes to the word ‘ship’. The child, doing exactly up to this point what they have been taught, tries to decode the word by saying each individual sound /s/ /h/ /i/ /p/ and, after several tries without success, looks at the teacher wondering why what the teacher has been teaching doesn’t work. The more capable teacher steps in at this point, runs her pencil under the spelling and says to the child, “This is two letters but it’s one sound. Say /sh/ here.” Whereupon the child says /sh/ /i/ /p/, ‘ship’. The child has been sensitised to what is going, in due course, to be taught formally. The child has also been given a better way of conceptualising how the alphabet code works: we can spell a sound with two letters, in this case . This understanding can and will be generalised across the domain to include all the consonant and vowel digraphs.

So, the role of the teacher is to help learners to build schemas systematically and structurally. Of course this presupposes that teachers have a clear understanding of how their domain is structured from simple to complex and that they know how best to teach it. This is where cognitive load theory is particularly relevant.

The corollary of Sweller et al’s view of how we learn is that in order to get novel information into long-term memory most effectively requires lots of rehearsal or practice, Moreover, once incorporated into long-term memory, it also needs to be made automatic.

Here, it is worth quoting Feltovich et al. on the value of practice:

Research on the effects of practice has found that the character of cognitive operations changes after even a couple of hours of practice on a typical laboratory task. Operations that are slow, serial and demand conscious attention become fast, less deliberate, and can run in parallel with other processes. [In the case of reading, this means that the reader is able to decode efficiently and fluently while simultaneously attending to meaning.]
With enough practice one can learn how to do several tasks at the same time. Behavioural studies of skill acquisition have demonstrated that automaticity is central to the development of expertise, and practice is the means to automaticity.’ Feltovich, et al, ‘Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives’, in K. Anders Ericsson et al, Eds, (2006), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, CUP, p.53.

Developing cognitive schemas depends on the ability of the individual to process novel information and integrate it into an ever more sophisticated model and this is precisely where the teacher comes in: the ease with which novel information is processed in order to create schemas in long-term memory is highly dependent on how it is presented (by the teacher).

This raises another problem for us: it isn’t just that there is information which needs to be taught; the manner in which it is mediated is also an important factor. Sweller and his colleagues refer to the ‘what we have to learn’ as the 'intrinsic cognitive load'; the way in which it is conveyed they refer to as 'extraneous cognitive load'. Extraneous cognitive load is, in the word of van Meriënboer, ‘not necessary for learning (schemata construction and automation)’.

Now, the problem with many instructional procedures is that if the extraneous cognitive load is too great, intrinsic cognitive load cannot be absorbed into working memory and thence into long-term memory. At the risk of another analogy, do we go for the Model T Ford as our conveyance, or do we decide on the gaudiest of stretch limos, fully equipped with all the latest, distracting gizmos?

The fact is that the more the conveyance intrudes on the learning process, the greater the imposition on working memory and the less likely that what we want children (or anyone for that matter) to learn will be learnt.

This is why what you want is a Model T template, simple and direct, and not the stretch limo. For the purpose of instructional design and efficacy of method, lesson templates need to be consistent. The pupils quickly get used to the conveyance and can then attend to the addition of new content.

The next post will show the kinds of cognitive impositions we are making when we teach word building activities to young children who are just beginning to learn to read.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The reading achievement challenge

In her education blog for the Huffington Post, Karin Chenoweth cites recent figures from the (United States’) Nation’s Report Card on reading. Even though there has been a marginal improvement since the early nineties, the statistics are still shocking: 52% of ‘eighth-graders (year 9 in UK) whose parents graduated from college can't read at the proficient level as measured by the Nation’s Report Card’; and, another 14% can’t read ‘at a basic level’. As you may imagine, if the numbers are so poor for the children of parents who have graduated from college, what then might the figures be like for those whose parents didn’t graduate, or for those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Chenoweth is right to point out that the persistence of the massive achievement gap in the USA (for which read too the UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries) is a blight on the education system. [In fact, the great Harvard academic Jeanne Chall devoted a whole book – The Academic Achievement Challenge – to the subject fifteen years ago.] She is also correct in underscoring the importance of teaching knowledge and information, without which, even if children are taught to read fluently, understanding will inevitably be impaired. I, and of course many of my fellow phonics advocates, completely agree with what she is arguing. The purpose of teaching phonics is to enable children to access meaning from text. What children need is the cumulative growth and development of cultural capital: from a very young age they need lots of interactive talk, preferably quality talk, and caregivers who read a wide range of literary and non-literary texts, amongst many other things. In short, they need to know lots of ‘stuff’.

However, when Chenoweth, in her article, writes that she hasn’t heard ‘the term “whole language” in a school in a long time, and [that] most early elementary teachers know that they need to teach kids phonics in some kind of systematic way’, I suspect that just because she hasn’t heard the term doesn’t mean that it has ceased to exist; after all, as Hamlet says, ‘the devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape’. In the case of reading, the ‘pleasing shape’ comes in the form of ‘mixed methods’, which, as Bonnie Macmillan demonstrated in her book Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read, reduces to whole language. She may also not be aware of how utterly dreadfully badly trained in teaching reading most trainee teachers in ed. schools are – at least if the UK and Australia are anything to go by.

Where Chenoweth is absolutely on the money is where she declares that ‘reading instruction is one of the most complex tasks our schools undertake’. I would contend that poor training of teachers and poor instructional design of reading programmes are the principal reasons why children aren’t ‘proficient’ readers by Grade 8. If reading and spelling (two sides of the same coin) are rigorously taught during the first three years of schooling and children acquire automaticity, they have direct access to meaning. The process of reading becomes ever easier and, if the subject matter is suitable and well pitched, reading is pleasurable. When reading is pleasurable, children are much more likely to want to read: the rich get richer!

At Sounds-Write we have long argued that teaching teachers how to teach phonics and thus how to teach young children how to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency is an immensely skilled job. It doesn’t involve only the simple mapping of one-to-one correspondences between sound and spelling – as we sometimes hear from the denigrators of phonics: ‘Oh phonics! That’s just kuh a tuh, isn’t it?’ Neither does phonics ‘merely’ involve the teaching of all the complexities of how the writing system maps to the forty-four or so sounds of the English language. It includes the teaching of the procedural skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation. It involves making clear conceptually how the alphabetic code works*. And, just as importantly, teachers need to have a good understanding of how complex learning takes place and what good instructional design looks like. This latter aspect of the teaching and learning process is something that never crosses the radar screen of the vast majority of trainee teachers and yet is an essential element of successful teaching. What I am alluding to here is cognitive load theory and in the next couple of days I shall explain the relevance of CLT to the teaching of phonics.

* See what Pamela Snow, associate professor of Psychology at Monash University, and Alison Clarke of Spelfabet have to say on this here.