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Supporting students who use English as an additional language: Lightening the cognitive load

Written by: Emily Walker
5 min read

Emily Walker, Shaw Primary Academy, UK

Cognitive load theory has been continually developed since the 1980s and is concerned with the processing ability of memory (Garnett, 2020). The following two areas of cognitive load are important to consider when supporting learners: 

  • the characteristics and level of complexity of the material or task itself, known as the intrinsic cognitive load
  • the way in which a task is designed or presented (along with any extra elements that are required to undertake a task), known as extraneous cognitive load (Sweller et al., 2019; Shibli and West, 2018).


For students for whom English is an additional language (EAL), the cognitive load of tasks may be heightened since they may have to translate lesson content or understand unfamiliar topics and concepts. In addition to acquiring academic skills, these pupils are also expected to acquire social and academic language simultaneously (Gustad, 2014) which can create more demands on their working memory when compared with their native speaking peers.

As a teacher working in various multicultural primary schools, I have seen the need for clear teaching techniques and formative assessment strategies for English language learners. This article explores techniques used to plan and deliver effective lessons within a mainstream primary setting, with careful consideration of alleviating unnecessary barriers for students whose English proficiency is developing. 

Planning and delivery

A task brings with it the need for several cognitive elements: 

  • working memory: the ability to hold, process and manipulate information in a short period of time in order to achieve an almost immediate response, almost like a mental notepad (Gatherole and Alloway 2007), where ‘conscious cognitive processing occurs’ (Paas et al., 2003, p. 2) 
  • long-term memory: knowledge stored as ‘schemas’ – specific nuggets of information that are held in the memory and can then be called upon to support working memory, and therefore further develop cognitive processing to support the retention of knowledge (Paas et al., 2003)
  • logical reasoning ability, along with being able to select relevant and important parts (sifting out the details in order to get to the main events). 


Planning needs to be carefully considered and any activities that do not add to the learning need to be removed. Irrelevant information that adds to the cognitive load of the task will ultimately hinder learning (Garnett, 2020). Introducing learning sequentially can help to ensure that students do not become overwhelmed (Van Merriënboer et al., 2003). When planning, consider the specific learning that is required to take place for that lesson. We envisage the ‘end goal’ and work our way backwards in steps to ensure that the path to learning is clear and that the foundation knowledge is there for students to build on. Then ‘unpick’ the learning required to complete the objective. For example, when retelling a story, we ensure that students have access to the story as a whole, that they know the story well and that they are able to piece the story together from given materials, before then being expected to do this from memory. 

A student with EAL may well have lots of prior knowledge and understanding of concepts in their native language (Gedge, 2016). By offering appropriate tools, such as pictures, to accompany teaching and avoiding unnecessary details, students can relate the new content to their prior knowledge. We also ensure that students can share their learning outcomes in accessible ways, such as a poster, freeze frame, collage or discussion – through teamwork or with a scribe. 

The curriculum is also designed in such a way that learning is sequential across key stages. Through the use of carefully mapped out subject-specific provision, the level of expertise in a certain subject area is identified for each year group. This is used at each planning stage, thus ensuring that planning and delivery can refer to prior learning and identify points where more support may be required (Sweller et al., 2019). 

Worked examples 

Using ‘worked examples’ (Sweller and Cooper, 1985) encourages independence by providing a visual guide to problem-solving, particularly when approaching written methods in maths. Take the example of expanded multiplication for HTO x O. Having been taught the method, students are required to then apply this to their learning. When broken down, this task involves the ability to set out the digits correctly with knowledge of place value; knowledge of times tables; the ability to apply their knowledge of times tables by powers of 10; and addition skills and application of place value with addition. Throw into the mix the fact that this is all in a language that is not your own, and the cognitive load of the task is considerable. By providing worked examples, students are able to see the method in action and refer to it to support with applying their own knowledge.

Supporting students

All English language learners are provided with their own learner’s pack, which is created, used and added to during any intervention sessions. This pack is tailored by a specialist intervention lead for EAL students. Packs consist of word mats and vocabulary cards (with varying degrees of visual prompts depending on the fluency of the student), and some will include first-language-to-English translations, aiding proficiency in reading English in addition to their first language. The EAL student packs allow them to take their learning from their interventions back to the classroom, enabling them to access their vocabulary at any time. This provides students with a way in which to independently remind themselves of certain words or phrases that they have been working on, easing the burden of working memory. 

Promoting independence contributes to easing the transition of language structure and vocabulary from working memory to long-term memory, helping to ease some of the strain of information processing where students may momentarily forget a word or phrase and just need a quick reminder or prompt (Garnett, 2020). 


Continual formative assessment allows progress to be monitored and ensures that if a student does have any additional barriers to learning, these are picked up on as early as possible. Students are not only assessed academically, but they are also monitored for their confidence with applying spoken English (in a variety of situations), vocabulary acquisition and social interactions. The use of support plans creates small-step targets for the students to work towards, ensuring that the students aren’t overwhelmed (Garrett, 2020), and allows them to celebrate their progress and focus them on their journey to becoming a fluent speaker of English. 

In conclusion, it is important for educators to consider the limitations of working memory on the learning journey of their students. For English language learners, teachers need to be mindful of the approaches to instruction, delivery and content so that these students are empowered to be successful not only in their language acquisition, but also in their academic learning.

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