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.


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.