How Does Cognitive Load Theory Impact Reading Proficiency?

September 8, 2023

Cognitive Load Theory

Reading proficiency in the U.S. is not the norm. Only one out of three fourth graders reads at a proficient or advanced level. Pinpointing the origin of reading struggles requires educators and literacy experts to dig deeper into individual reading abilities and deficits. Some children lack exposure to reading materials at an early age, while others struggle because of underlying medical diagnoses (e.g. autism, dyslexia, ADHD, etc.).

One specific root cause of reading deficits also could be linked to another issue: cognitive load. The cognitive load theory asserts that the brain is capable of holding a finite amount of data at one time and different factors can overload the brain and impact short-term memory. If the brain stores a limited amount of information, each individual’s brain holds a unique data limitation and, thus, exacerbates struggles with retaining phonics knowledge, word recognition, etc.

About Cognitive Load

Cognitive load encompasses working memory. Working memory is a type of short-term memory that allows each individual to stay on task. Working memory is used when we brush our teeth, get dressed for the day, follow basic instructions, and handle all the activities that focus on executive functioning.

Long-term memory does not impact cognitive load. Instead, long-term memory focuses on the brain’s ability to retain information for an extended time. Personal memories are engrained in our brain and are part of long-term memory. Mathematical equations, history facts, and other data also are retained (for some) in long-term memory.

Reading skills are unique in that they require both working memory and long-term memory. Reading a book uses working memory, but the necessary skills to read that book rely on long-term memory. Phonics, phonetic, and phonemic skills must be mastered and stored in the brain.

Cognitive Load Theory

Understanding the Theory of Cognitive Load

Working memory is limited. The brain can only hold so much data in the short term; according to data from the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), researchers found that, on average, individuals could remember up to seven digits at a time and were only able to recall these digits for about 20 seconds. While some people could hold a few more data points during this same period, while others remembered fewer numbers than the average.

CLT posits that working memory falters if the brain becomes overloaded. Three load types impact the proper functioning of working memory:

  • Intrinsic
  • Extrinsic
  • Germane

Cognitive Load and Cognitive Burden

Cognitive load refers to how much data the brain can hold in the short term. A cognitive burden impacts the brain’s working memory and results in the brain becoming overloaded. Cognitive burdens can include outside noise and other factors. 

Types of Cognitive Load

The three types of cognitive load negatively impact working memory. The mind must process all types of information at once. If distractions overload the brain, information processing falters.

Intrinsic load denotes the difficulty of a new task. Learning any new skill or concept is challenging, but, for some, a specific skill is overwhelming and overloads them.

Extrinsic load refers to struggles with processing because of outside distractions. Background noise, room temperatures, etc. Each individual has unique extrinsic load struggles and load capacities.

Germane load is the individual’s ability to use their intelligence or tap into their cognitive abilities. An individual with a lower IQ will be overloaded more easily than an individual with a higher IQ as they learn new skills.

Cognitive Load Theory

The Role of Context Processor in Reading

In literacy education, the term “context processor” refers to the brain’s ability to process a particular word in a sentence or paragraph and infer meaning. The context processor immediately deciphers context for proficient readers. However, as children learn to read, the ‘context processor’ is developing, too.

This processor requires the brain to have mastery over other supporting information like the meaning of other words within a sentence or text block, the sounds of words to decode, and other skills. Readers must understand the context of what they read in order to decipher the overall meaning.

The Phonological Looping

Working memory requires yet another skill for reading proficiency–the phonological loop. This ‘loop’ is the information individuals hear and encode into memory. Memorizing song lyrics relies on the loop, and learning vocabulary words from daily interactions is also part of this loop. 

If individuals can store this information, they can access it as needed. The information becomes part of working memory and further aids the individual as they decode words. The brain learns that hearing the word “sand” aids in decoding the words in written form.

One study noted that children who read five books per day before they started kindergarten knew more than a million more words than a child whose parents never read to them prior to kindergarten. Hearing words and stories help children as they learn to decode those words.

Managing Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload happens when two or more load types simply become too much for a child and impact their learning. When learning to read, cognitive overload can impede a child’s ability to master new words, understand context, or remember sight words.

Intrinsic load refers to the difficulty of learning something new. Reading and the processes involved in learning to read can be overwhelming to a child. If they struggle with the basics of reading, other distractions become a burden on the mind. The background noise could complicate their ability to learn to decode.

In addition, individual intelligence also impacts cognitive load. If the reading is a struggle, and processing speed is lower (per an IQ test), the child could progress slower than peers.

When cognitive load deficits are understood, educators and parents can create plans to help aid the child’s struggle and decrease the weight of the load. If noise is a factor, the child might learn to read in a quieter setting. If the child struggles with processing speed, verbal reasoning, or other measures of intelligence, differential instruction methodologies could be utilized. More repetition, visual reminders, or other accommodations could aid the child’s struggle, and, again, decrease the cognitive load.

Cognitive Load and Reading Ability

Working memory and cognitive load struggles can impact reading proficiency. For children with underlying diagnoses like autism, ADHD, and dyslexia, cognitive overload could be a factor negatively impacting the reading journey.

Children with autism often struggle with sensory sensitivities. If they are distracted by textures, sounds, or even the temperature of the room, their working memory could become overloaded. Similarly, children with ADHD also could be distracted by sounds or even visual stimuli. A child with dyslexia already struggles with processing sounds and letters, which further complicates their reading journey.

While medical diagnoses combined with overload impact reading proficiency, any child could struggle with cognitive overload. Parents and educators who know that a child is struggling with reading skills might work to limit other distractions. Again, though, children with cognitive struggles related to IQ might require different modes of instruction to ensure they gain proficiency.

CLT and individualized load limitations impact reading readiness and proficiency. However, identifying the cause of the load burden allows parents and educators to map out a solution that can help the child gain proficiency and meet grade-level benchmarks.

In Part 2 of our Cognitive Load series, Readability will explore the implications of intrinsic load and how learning struggles and solutions differ for each child.