How to help students manage cognitive load when writing

How to help students manage cognitive load when writing

The act of writing can put a lot of cognitive pressure on students. In this video, logonliteracy's Pat Hipwell explains what teachers can do to ease this burden on students to help them develop their writing skills.



The way in which to reduce the cognitive load of writing is to start off thinking about purpose. So if you want students to focus on the what; what they are writing about - the topic knowledge, then you give them the how. The how might take the form of sentence starters or connecting language.

If you want them to focus on the how, that is putting the writing together, then you give them the what. So you might give them the content in a completed graphic organiser. That way the cognitive load is reduced because instead of having to think about both what they are writing about and how they are writing about that, they can focus on the how. So it depends on the purpose.

There is a danger of when we provide scaffolding for writing that that scaffolding stays in place for too long. Students can become very reliant on being given either sentence starters or the information in the graphic organiser. 

I guess the key thing to remember is that scaffolding stays in place until the building is built. Some of our students may never get past that step of what we call joint construction. In other words, that's where the teacher has done some of the work and the student has done some of the work. To get this right is difficult, and many teachers in schools use the gradual release of responsibility model. This is where over time we reduce the input of teachers, requiring students to become more and more independent as they write. 

One thing I have observed though is that we over-scaffold in the junior years and then start to panic a bit when students get to senior. This is because over-scaffolding can lead to work that is very similar, which is not a good thing in the senior years. So we pull the rug out rather too quickly. 

The keyword in the gradual release of responsibility is gradual. And over time we must reduce and remove little bits of the scaffolding so that students can get to the independent phase of writing.

Pat's quick tips for teaching writing

Hooking students into learning... in all curriculum areasWith technology and with typing most of what we communicate through writing now, our fingers often go ahead of ourselves. So you see with many developing writers, sentences that go on forever. They don't make sense. And that's often because they haven't rehearsed the sentence in their heads before they have committed it to paper or screen. So oral rehearsal of sentences is something that I strongly recommend. And secondly, any activities, and there are many in Hooking students into learning... which require students to manipulate language (are beneficial). So something as simple as answering a question by making the question part of the answer is an excellent way to encourage writers. 

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How to help students manage cognitive load when writing