In-class support vs Cognitive Load Theory

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We started the academic year online. As you can imagine, virtual learning doesn’t easily lend itself to providing effective in-class support to EAL students. Nevertheless, we need to find a way to succeed because it’s hard to tell when we will be able to return to face-to-face teaching.

Why in-class support?

In the past 2 years, we dedicated a lot of time and resources to teaching basic English language skills, however, we now have to offer more. English isn’t just a foreign language for students in international schools; it’s also the vehicle in which grade-level content is taught. Withdrawal sessions are useful for targeted intervention but they have their downsides too. When EAL students are withdrawn from a subject lesson, they might miss out on some aspects of learning despite the best efforts of the EAL teachers. On the other hand, when these same students can get linguistic help within the context of a subject lesson, the intervention is more specific and they have the chance to access the learning in the context of the same lesson as other students. The social factors of in-class support are also important. When EAL learners feel involved in the lessons, it can help with their motivation and self-confidence too.


There needs to be a careful balance of who does what, though. The subject specialist is responsible for delivering the main lesson to ALL students, including EAL learners. Therefore, differentiation is still expected. The language specialist’s job is to support these learners with the language that will help them access the content of the lesson. This support should not equal simplifying content (simplifying language might be needed and justified in certain cases) or modifying assignments for them. The expectations should be the same for EAL students, however, the two teachers need to cooperate effectively so that they can ensure equal access to the learning.

Cognitive Load Theory

CLT identifies three types of cognitive load. Intrinsic load refers to how complicated a task is for the students. Extraneous load is everything that might distract students from the most important points. Germane load links new learning to past knowledge and hopefully results in that much-awaited lightbulb moment. So what we as teachers want is to reduce the intrinsic and extraneous loads for our students.

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes

Unfortunately, trying to support our EAL learners during virtual learning seems to add to the extraneous load rather than reduce it. Students describe what they experience as ‘technology overload’ – they are trying to follow an online lesson while they have another meeting open where the support takes place. Not the ideal situation!

What can we do about it?

Until we can return to the classroom we have no other way around the technical aspects of in-class support. However, there are certain things that might improve our practice. Here is a list of things that my team is experimenting with:

  1. Focus on lowering the intrinsic load: by breaking down instructions, providing key words and images, we can help EAL students get through the first hurdle a bit more quickly. And we must make sure that they truly understand the task before they attempt to answer it. Find out more about simplifying instructions here.
  2. Limit speech input: the support teacher should only communicate verbally when it’s absolutely necessary or when it doesn’t distract the students from the main lesson. For instance, when students are given individual assignments to work on or when they are doing group work can provide great opportunities for verbal support. We also make use of the chat as much as possible to avoid the echo resulting from having two rooms open at the same time.
  3. Develop learner autonomy: we are trying to find ways to teach certain strategies that students can help to support themselves. For example, each of our EAL learners is equipped with an Academic Vocabulary Tracker (the idea came from Peter Clements, definitely look him up!) which they can use in every lesson to quickly find the L1 equivalent of key words. Equally important is to train these learners to ask for help as they might not automatically do it!
  4. Translanguaging: the support sessions run parallel to the main session, which means what goes on in these sessions doesn’t disturb the main lesson. So it gives EAL learners the chance to use translanguaging strategies. This can take the simples forms – if you have more than one student who speaks the same L1, let them discuss the task in their L1 before you help them with the language for the answer in English.

This start of the school year has proven to be quite challenging and we aren’t sure when we will be allowed back in the classrooms and what form that’ll take. Designing a course based on in-class support and being forced to implement it under these circumstances hasn’t been easy but I’m positive that we will all learn from this experience and that’ll help us in the long run!

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