Reducing Cognitive Load

Stacy Hagen
By Stacy Hagen

As teachers, we are trained to focus on activities that are communicative and task-based. Grammar practice, particularly at the sentence level, often brings associations of rote drills and repetition. However, Zoltan Dornyei (2009) points out that communicative language teaching is based on learning by doing and does not look at how people actually learn. Some second language researchers have turned to cognitive science to look at what is happening in the adult brain as we learn, and findings related to memory and skill acquisition have important implications for how we practice the skills.

This article discusses the concept of cognitive load.

Our working memory (think of this as our immediate memory) has capacity limits.  Basically, we can’t handle as much information as had previously been believed.  New research on learning tells us that students benefit if we can reduce the cognitive load.

Scientist used to think that 5-7 chunks* of information could be held in our working memory.  But new research tells us that two to four chunks are more realistic.  The implication for teachers is that we need to break our explanations into more manageable chunks for our students. In practical terms, one of the things we can do is to introduce less information at one time.  You’ll see this in the fifth edition of the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series.  Long charts have been broken up into smaller ones.  Here’s an example from the Fundamentals of English Grammar, Fifth Edition:

example of a grammar chart with information in manageable chunks

Previously, this introduction to articles was in a two-page chart.  Now there are two new charts, and we have simplified the explanations.  We also use pictures to illustrate the concept of specific and non-specific. This is more manageable and user-friendly for students.

As you will see in the new editions of the Fundamentals of English Grammar and Understanding and Using English Grammar, the presentation of material in the grammar charts helps reduce the cognitive load. Breaking down explanations and exercises into shorter pieces or sub-tasks helps reduce the working memory load, allowing learners to absorb material better.

*A chunk is a single unit.  Think of a phone number.  There are 10 digits or 10 unrelated numbers.  But we can group phone numbers into 3 chunks to make it easier to remember.

References:

Dornyei, Zoltan. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Stacy Hagen is a teacher, a teacher trainer, and the co-author of the best-selling Azar-Hagen Grammar Series. The most recent edition of Fundamentals of English Grammar is now available. pearsoneltusa.com/azar

Re-thinking the Purpose of Grammar

Stacy Hagen
By Stacy Hagen

There is still controversy about whether or not to teach grammar, and some teachers are unsure of its purpose.  It’s helpful to look at this quote from Martha Pennington.

Grammar is “nothing more or less than the organizing principles of a linguistic or (broader) communicational system, without which, there is no system.”

Basically, explicit grammar instruction helps students organize the language.  It forms the BASE for the other skills we teach:  reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  It’s simply a base.  It’s not about teaching students terminology for the sake of terminology.  In fact, as a teacher, I try to avoid using terminology as much as possible.  Our students don’t need to be grammarians; that’s our role.

Explicit grammar instruction helps students see patterns.  This is critical because cognitive science tells us that the adult brain is a pattern-seeking organ.  Adult learners are looking for rules.  That’s why grammar charts work!  According to neuroeconomist Arkady Konovalov at the University of Zurich, humans try to detect patterns in their environment all the time because it makes learning easier.

As you know, other, another, and the other can be really confusing for students.  One way to show the pattern is by using circles, as in this new chart from the fifth edition of the Fundamentals of Using English Grammar:

Chart 6-15 from Fundamentals of English Grammar, 5E

While visuals work well, summaries, as in the green words in (c) and (d), are also helpful.  In other words, clear, uncluttered charts help students see patterns. 

We can also show patterns in exercises.  It’s very typical to tell students (via a chart) that the passive is formed with the verb be plus the past participle.  And then we expect students to begin forming passive sentences. But students can really be confused by the various forms of be and whether a verb is a past participle or not.  In the following exercise, students are asked to find the be verb and the “past participle” and then decide if it’s passive or not:

Exercise on the passive voice

In item 1, they will see there is no be verb and no past participle, so it can’t be passive.  But item 2 is passive because both the be verb and the past participle are present.

By going through several items like this, students begins to realize that they need BOTH the be verb and past participle necessary for the passive to be formed.

Seeing patterns makes learning more efficient.  Let’s help our students become aware of them.


References:

Grammar and Communication:  New Directions in Theory and Practice.  Pennington, M.   From:  New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, edited by Eli Hinkel, Sandra Fotos, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2008.


Stacy Hagen is a teacher, teacher trainer, and co-author of the best-selling Azar-Hagen Grammar Series. The new, fifth edition of the intermediate level, Fundamentals of English Grammar, is available now. www.pearsoneltusa.com/azar.

Teaching practical vocabulary in your grammar lessons

By Stacy Hagen

Recent shifts in adult education have placed a priority on workforce and academic readiness. English language programs need to not only help learners develop English language competencies but also develop the skills they will need as they further their goals of education and better employment.

In this new educational landscape, preparing our students for college and career readiness is critical.  One thing we can do is to focus on practical vocabulary and content in our exercises.  Let me show you several examples.

Beginning students need to learn the basics of filling out forms.  In this exercise from the new edition of the Fundamentals of English Grammar, the grammar point is simple present and present progressive, but the context is completing forms.  While students are practicing the verb forms, they are also learning the language necessary for filling out forms.

Email is the number one form of communication in the workplace, but many of our students don’t use it at all.  When they get to college or start a job, it’s likely they may not know how to compose a proper message.  Here’s an exercise to introduce students to email appropriateness while practicing the verb will.  Through reading, discussion, and writing, students learn that casual language, emojis, reduced speech, to name a few, are not appropriate for academic or workplace emails.

Beginning and intermediate students need practical life-skills vocabulary; this can be easily included in sentence-level practice.  In this exercise with another/the other, the context is appliances and tools. Students practice a new grammar point while also acquiring practical vocabulary.

A traditional way to teach students how to ask for the meaning of something is by giving them an unfamiliar word.   For example, if they are at an intermediate level, we might give them the word spectacular and have them ask, “What does spectacular mean?”  Now, at some point, students will probably encounter a word like spectacular, but we could also give them content that would help them navigate their more immediate world: texting.

Helping our students become college and career ready also involves teaching them useful learning skills and strategies. Tips for how to be a better learner can be embedded into grammar lessons as illustrated by this example:

The topic of this reading is based on an interesting insight from cognitive science that shows we remember information at the beginning and the end better than information in the middle. Students tend to study in long blocks, maybe an hour, or two.  But if they study for a shorter amount of time, 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break, they create a new ending and beginning.  This will help them remember information better.  

The Fundamentals of English Grammar and Understanding and Using English Grammar now have a series of blog that include study tips to help student become more successful in the academic world. Whether students are preparing for college or seeking employment, we can help them by providing practical and relevant content from the start. As these examples illustrate, this practical and relevant content can be easily embedded into any grammar lesson.


Stacy Hagen has been involved in ESL for 40 years as a teacher, administrator, teacher-trainer, and materials writer.  She has taught intensive, immigrant, refugee, high school, and MATESL students. She is the co-author of the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series, including the most recent Fifth Edition of Fundamentals of English Grammar.

Learn more about the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series here.

My Favorite Teaching Tip

Stacy Hagen_NEWStacy Hagen

The best teaching tip I ever got came from a TESOL presentation long ago. A very perceptive teacher-trainer, whose name I no longer have, suggested that every time we ask a question — no matter the question — we silently count to 10 before moving on. Ten seconds sounded like a long time to me, but when I got back to class, I decided to give it a try. It didn’t take long to see the wisdom in his advice. Continue reading

Roll Your Way to Grammar Fun

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Would your students enjoy working on editing skills via a board game? Are you interested in an activity that takes just minutes to prepare? Here’s a lively and collaborative activity that works with any of the Check your knowledge exercises found in all three levels of the Azar-Hagen Grammar series.

Materials: A game board (attached) and dice.

1. Choose any Check your knowledge exercise from the text you are working in. These exercises are usually toward the end of the chapter.

2. Students work in groups of three or four. You need a game board and one die for each group.

3. To prepare the board, randomly write the number for the sentences (not the sentence) in the blank squares. If there are 12 sentences, you will have 12 marked squares. Skip the example sentences. (You can mark one board and then make photocopies, or make each board different for every group.)

4. Each student needs his/her own token: a coin, a paper clip, etc.

5. The first student rolls the die and moves accordingly.

6. When students land on a sentence number, they have to give the correction for the corresponding sentence in the book. The other students in the group can decide if it is correct or not. If they are unsure, they can check with the teacher.

7. If the answer is incorrect, the student goes back 2 spaces. (When this happens, the student skips any instructions on the square two spaces back.)

8. Play continues until one student reaches You Win! (You can decide if they need to roll the exact number or not to get to the final space.)

9. As a follow-up, the teacher can review the more difficult or challenging sentences.

A wealth of activities to supplement the texts can be found at: AzarGrammar.com/Classroom Materials

Board game template_Final