Babies are born knowing physics. They express surprise when an object appears to be suspended in mid-air or pass through walls (nice article here). These are the primitive physics schemas we are all born with. Onto these, we add experiences from our lives: metals are cold; batteries run out of charge; the sun moves. Then in physics lessons we try to supplant this knowledge with formalised knowledge. With mixed results.
Reading is a physics problem that doesn’t receive much attention in class. I think it should. Science professionals read a lot:
It turns out that the people who responded to the survey read a lot. Almost 85% of them read professional texts for more than 5 hours per week and 20% of them read for more than 15 hours per week. And they read to learn…
But most weren’t taught to do it at school.
This last chart troubles me. I know STEM texts (exams, textbooks, papers) are different to other texts. They use different vocabulary; follow different conventions and have a different purpose. Either learning to read these texts is so easy, it doesn’t require teaching, or it is hard and we are letting learners down.
How many capable young scientists and engineers are dropping out because they can’t access the information in texts? I worry about this a lot.
Cognitive Load Theory explains why reading is difficult and tells us how to make it easier. All three memories are in use:
- long-term memory – the knowledge you already have. Commit as much to memory as possible – use quizzes every lesson.
- working memory – where we compare what we’ve read to what we know and try to make meaning. There isn’t much we can do to boost this, though a good night’s sleep always helps me.
- external memory – the text, and any scribbles you’ve added to it. This is a skill and we should teach it.
Comprehension depends most on what you already know. The two most important things for reading are in your long term memory (or they need to be). They are vocabulary and knowledge. Readers who are equipped with these are equipped to understand texts.
Science teachers are good at teaching science vocabulary. We explain clearly; we use example sentences; we revisit; we match words to diagrams. We use every trick we know.
But we ignore key non-specialist vocabulary. Words like: determine, suggest, establish and system (I took these from a couple of recent GCSE papers).
These words should be taken as seriously as technical vocabulary. It is hard to choose words to focus on. I tend to teach words as I come across them in textbooks and exam papers (especially if I think they could come up again).
Along with vocabulary, the most important part of understanding is what you already know: your schemata. As we read, the information in the text is held in your working memory to be presented to knowledge from your long-term memory like a debutante or a novice speed-dater. If sense can be made, great. If not, the reader has work to do.
Skills get tough press – but there are a few reading skills (or habits) which make a difference. These are the four that expert science readers (like us) use most often.
- I Wonder…. Expert readers ask questions of the text. Often these questions are related to meaning, but they can be “I wonder what that word means?” or, “I wonder why the writer said that…”
- In other words…. Paraphrasing (rewording, often making clearer) is a powerful comprehension checking skill/habit.
- I predict…. Asking readers to predict what comes next in a test is a useful way of drawing attention to the structure and conventions of scientific texts – it is extremely useful when scanning a text for the information you want to be able to predict whether the information might be in a nearby section.
- So far… Summarising is a habit which encourages prioritisation of information.
If these activities can be practiced enough (several times over a few weeks, with occasional top-ups) they quickly become part of a reader’s reading schema, increasing your students’ ability to learn from texts.
This blog is a development of the blog I wrote in 2015 for the Royal Society of Chemistry – here. I am reassured to find that I still agree with most of what I wrote then. Thank you if you’ve stuck with me all this time!
There is a lot being written about Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and how important it is. I have written this blog to share my understanding – please send me corrections, recommendations and advice.
My own understanding has been developed through:
- Hattie’s ‘The Science of How We Learn”
- Willingham’s “Why Students Hate School”
- Kellog’s “The Psychology of Writing”
- Oliver Caviglioli’s summary of Sweller’s “Cognitive Load Theory”
My aim it to add something useful for teachers. I am a teacher, not a psychologist. Please send me corrections and recommendations so that I can improve this post.
Thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope it is useful.
Cognitive Load Theory, and How to Use It
Here is my explanation for how cognitive load theory works and how to use it.
I think this will be the last of my problem-solving blogs for a while – it’s a little one about reducing the split-attention-effect.
In this series of blogs, I have suggested strategies to reduce the cognitive load of problems, so that novices can focus attention on the elements you want. This one is about text and diagrams.
There are words in the English language that science teachers wish the English department would teach – words like process, appropriate and monitor. We don’t expect anyone else to teach scientific vocabulary such as photosynthesis and nucleus, but if someone (English teachers?) could teach all of the rest, that would be great.
Worse luck – it doesn’t work that way. If you want your students to be able to read science textbooks and understand exam questions, teaching this sophisticated, but non-specialist vocabulary is down to you.
Specialists call these words tier 2. Here is my strategy for teaching tier 2 words in science. Continue reading
Have you got time to read two very short science texts? Both of them are surprising and wonderful.
First text: a beautiful piece of writing by Lewis Thomas called ‘The Lives of A Cell’ (thelivesofacell) – you will thank me for this.
Second text: the original paper by Crick and Watson (watsoncrick) announcing the structure of DNA (it’s 1 side of A4 and it is readable – just read it).
Quantitas materiæ est mensura ejusdem orta ex illius densitate et magnitudine conjunctim.
The quantity of matter is the measure of the same, arising from its density and bulk conjunctly.
(Newton, translation by Motte)