intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load · VAS blog · Word building

The Reading Achievement Challenge – the child’s view at the point of learning

Following on from two previous postings (here and here) on the subject of cognitive load in the domain of the teaching of phonics, here is a practical demonstration of the cognitive challenges a four-year-old child has to contend with in just one simple word building exercise.

But first, why word building? Word building is our starting point because it is where we teach code knowledge explicitly. Rather than introduce young children to random spellings (letters) and then tell them that such and such is this sound or that sound, it’s much better to give the learning a practical context. Word building offers the opportunity to learn a limited number of sound-spelling correspondences at any one time in the context of a word. This approach gives phonics teaching both a purpose and a psychological reality. For the child, who already knows what a mat is and what sit means, word building pulls back the curtain on the mystery of the connection between spoken language and writing.

Assuming the child does not fall within that very small percentage of children who have particular speech and language difficulties or suffers from a serious learning difficulty, what follows is a measure of the cognitive load involved in learning how to build words. It is designed to make concrete the relationship between the word, the sounds comprising the word, and the spellings that represent the sounds.

To start with, anyone wanting to teach word building and looking for tips on reducing cognitive load from the start would do well to introduce children to small whiteboards, pens and wipe-off cloths. Getting children to become familiar with these items and to get used to drawing lines on the board, like the one below, is very useful because teaching a child to link sounds to spellings and to manipulate them at the same time as thinking about drawing lines on a whiteboard without prior learning will overburden some children.

_  _  _
Now, if we are going to introduce the class to the three sound-spelling correspondences that we’ll need to build the word ‘sat’, we need three Post-Its, laminated squares with magnetic tape on the back, or even squares of paper on a sheet of paper on a table top. On these, the teacher writes the spellings, though not necessarily in the correct order because some children are adept at spotting the order in which the sound-spelling correspondences are placed on the board and then don’t have any cognitive work to do.

The teacher places the three squares, jumbled up and out of order and slightly out of line, like this:

 t         a
_  _  _
The children are sitting on the carpet or in desks with the classroom whiteboard in front of them looking like the above. To some children, it’s likely that, without prior learning, the symbols representing the sounds will be new to them. To others, whose carers/family members read to them and even teach them, the spelling symbols will not come as anything new and this will give them a huge learning advantage (prior knowledge).

The extraneous cognitive load we’re presenting them with is the lesson template itself. As I explained in the previous post, the lesson presentation in itself does not contribute to schema creation or to the teaching of procedural skills. The intrinsic content is what we want to create a schema for: sounds and spellings, starting with s, a and t. But that’s not all! We are also going to be teaching them the procedural skills of segmenting sounds in words and of blending. In addition, we are, simultaneously, going to be teaching explicitly that spellings are symbols for sounds in words.

The teacher stands by the board and says to the children, “I’m going to say the word ‘sat’ very slowly. Listen carefully to hear the sounds that make up the word ‘sat‘.” This is scaffolded by the teacher drawing their finger in one sweeping movement under each sound as they stretch out the word, taking care not to do the segmenting for the children. This should be done so that the finger corresponds to each sound as it sweeps across the word.

Note too that we are also teaching a word that begins with a continuant (/s/: a sound we can hang on to) allowing the teacher to stretch out the sound so that all children have the opportunity to hear it. [We know that gesturing in a way in which the movement of the finger corresponds to what is being spoken is very helpful. Using continuants in the beginning also enables children to hear the separate sounds in words.]

Now the teacher says, “What is the first sound (gesturing to the first line) you hear in ‘sat‘? Listen to what you hear when my finger is under this line.”

As already indicated above, say the word slowly, but don’t segment it. (Example: sssssaaat‘) As you say the word, slide your finger along under the lines corresponding to each sound.

Now choose a child to answer. I personally have never seen a reception class in which there isn’t at least one child who is able to do this. I choose a child to respond with /s/ and the teacher should say, “Yes, you can hear /s/. Everyone say that sound.” And, all the children say /s/. Now you have all children saying /s/ and not ‘suh’ or ‘ess’.

Next, the teacher asks: “Which of these is the way we write/spell /s/?” [Notice the accurate, brief and explicit language.] And, we choose someone to come out and demonstrate which spelling is ‘/s/’. Having done that, the child pulls the spelling on to the first line and says ‘/s/’ and all the children are encouraged to say the sound as it is pulled into place ‘/s/’. If the child doesn’t know, simply tell them by pointing to the spelling and saying, “It’s this one!”

The process is now repeated for the second sound and then for the third.

When the word is built and we have the spellings s a t, sitting on the three lines. We now ask the children to say the sounds and read the word. Every day, I would choose four or five children to repeat the process by saying the sounds and reading the word. That way, the teacher makes sure that every child is able to do what is being asked and also that every child gets the kind of rehearsal and practice necessary for learning.

After the word has been read, I remove the squares and I ask the children to tell me the sounds in ‘sat’. As they tell me, I write them, thus providing a model of how the letters/spellings are formed. Then, to check that we got what we wanted, we say the sounds and read the word, the teacher gesturing to each spelling as the children say the sounds.

Finally, with the word still on the whiteboard, I ask the children to draw three lines on their board and show me their boards. Now comes the writing. I ask them to write and say each sound as they write it. After they’ve finished writing, everyone puts their finger under the first line and we all say the sounds and read the word.

Of course, making a child fully literate, which for me means teaching them to be able to read and write very long, complex words, takes time and patience but this is the kind of practice required to turn novices into experts over time.

Can you expect this process to go smoothly from the start? The short answer to this is no! It will take children time to grasp the format of the ‘game’ (because that’s what it is) and some will take longer than others. Teachers need to remember what learning new activities are like from the perspective of what Jean of VAS blog calls ‘the child’s view at the point of learning’. They also need to remind themselves just how much effortful practice goes in to learning a new activity from scratch. In laboratory activities involving unfamiliar materials, even adult participants evidence surprisingly poor performance; on the other hand, when presented with tasks and materials to which they are accustomed, people demonstrate competent thinking, they grasp things readily and they can manipulate materials to problem solve.

So, just to summarise how carefully we’ve been to follow the kind of advice given by John Sweller and his colleagues, we’ve:
  • introduced only three items for children to learn
  • begun to give practice in procedural learning skills of segmenting and blending, skills the children will need all their reading lives
  • begun to build a schema for sounds and spellings
  • kept down the amount of teacher talk to a minimum and made sure that the language used is accurate
  • introduced a simple lesson template which will serve for lots of other similar lessons in which we introduce new elements of learning
  • challenged the children to combine their auditory, visual and oral skills in a way that offers success very quickly.

Here‘s an example I contrived on a course to help teachers see the difficulty they had in learning just four new symbols to represent sounds in English and to manipulate them in a word building exercise.

4 thoughts on “The Reading Achievement Challenge – the child’s view at the point of learning

  1. I enjoyed the detailed method behind this teaching method! I had similar experiences when I was in grade school and my teacher would have us spray shaving cream on our desks and have us write out words on it. I am attempting to learn script in a foreign language where the writing is based solely on script and was wondering if you would recommend the same process?

  2. What a great post!

    In thinking about my own education experiences, I realized that I was taught in a pretty similar way. My most vivid memory was when my teacher scrambled the letters of a very simple word with blocks, and we were told to place the blocks in the correct order.

    Last summer, I worked at a school program where I helped kindergarten students with their reading. What was most surprising to me during that time was the use of technology to help children sound out parts of the words they were reading. In today's technological age, to what extent should technology play a role in establishing the foundations of reading and literacy?

  3. Hi Meera,
    When I was learning Spanish, every time I learnt a word, I wrote it and, as I wrote it, I said the sounds. Over time, the process became more and more automatic.
    I'm convinced that linking sound to print is enormously helpful in learning a language.
    Best wishes,

  4. Hi Katelyn,
    I'm not a fan of technology for teaching children to read and write in the early years. Why? For several simple reasons:
    1) Technology isn't designed to respond to different accents in English. What may make sense in one area of a country, won't make sense in another. For example, do we say the [ a ] in 'path' as /ar/, as in 'father', or as /a/ in 'sat'. It makes a difference.
    2) Machines cannot respond well to the individual needs of children. How does a computer correct the error when, instead of saying /m/, says 'muh', or uses a letter name instead of a sound when reading. Have a look at the 'Linguistics v traditional phonics' post on my blog.
    Teaching children to become literate in the early stages of learning to read and write depends very much on having well-trained teachers.
    With best wishes,

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