Throughout the history of teaching languages, several different teaching approaches and methodologies have been tried and tested with some being more popular and effective than others. There are so many different approaches to teaching English as a Second Language: the Communicative Approach, the Lexical Approach, TBL, the Natural Approach, the Audio Lingual Method, the Grammar Translation Method, the Suggestopedia method, TPR, and others. It’s up to the teacher to use the proper one to the given unique classroom and assortment of students. In this article, we will tell you more about the cognitive approach. 

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What is the cognitive approach?

Initially, cognition (thought processes) was studied in psychology back in the 1950s.  Jerome Bruner put up a learning theory based on categorization and David Ausubel focused more on the phenomenon of consciousness in the process of verbal learning. So step by step, the cognitive approach to learning and teaching was developed. 

The approach focuses on the understanding of information and concepts. If we can understand the connections between concepts, break down information, and rebuild with logical connections, then our retention of material and understanding will increase. So, cognitive learning is not about memorization or retention. It is about developing a true understanding of how learning occurs. 

When we apply the cognitive approach to learning a second language we take it as a conscious and reasoned thinking process, involving the deliberate use of learning strategies. Learning strategies are special ways of processing information that enhance comprehension, learning or retention of information. If a teacher applies cognitive strategies, he/she tries to find the best channel the learner perceives the information through. Some students are auditory learners, others are visual or kinesthetic ones (read more here). Through the cognitive approach strategies, the learners retain and apply new concepts more successfully and develop a deeper insight into the learning process itself.

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Cognitive strategy activities

Cognitive strategies involve deliberate manipulation of language to improve learning, e.g. reviewing, recycling, repetition, organising new language, summarising meaning, guessing meaning from context, using imagery for memorisation. 

Here are some cognitive strategy activities which can be effectively used.  

  1. Use different types of visualizations to improve students’ understanding and recalling skills. 

Visualization activities are essential while dealing with cognitive teaching strategies. Students transform target information by creating meaningful visual, auditory, or kinesthetic images of the information. For example, they may act out a scene from a reading passage, prepare poster presentations on a certain topic or while analyzing a business report,  make mind maps, create association, use mnemonics, underline key words, use colour-coding while learning new vocabulary and so on. 

2. Ask students to recall previously learned information. 

This might be a great review for the beginning of class to see if students are comprehending previous lessons. You might ask to create a timeline of events from a reading passage from memory, write a paragraph or 10 words they remember from last class, etc. 

3. Ask students to reflect on their experience while covering any grammar topic or vocabulary set. 

The teacher prepares a set of personal questions that generally deal with the covered topic but are connected with the learners’ own experience. For example, if the students have read a text about traveling, the teacher may prepare peer or group discussion questions, like “What was your best/worst traveling experience? What is your dream destination to travel to? Have you ever helped a foreigner in your country? How? What should a traveler know before visiting a certain country?”.

4. Arrange debate sessions about what is being taught. 

If the topic is Marketing, the teacher may prepare the following debate statement “The best marketing strategy is word-of-the mouth strategy.” The class is divided into two teams. The first team supports the statement by justifying their arguments and the second team disagrees with the given statement. Both groups are given time to prepare their arguments. See some examples of debate sessions here.

5. Assign students problem-solving activities.  

This helps them explore and understand how ideas are connected. Part of problem-solving has to do with applying specific skills and knowledge to produce the proper result. Push your students to rely on what they’ve learned and figure out ways to succeed through fun activities. Read more here

6. While doing reading activities students can be asked to generate questions for their peers. 

This leads to better understanding since students search the text and combine information to form those questions and as a result better comprehension occurs. 

7. Students practice vocabulary material through different games (define words to each other, create stories with target vocabulary, hot seat), and activities.

During these games, they repeat the target material orally and thus reinforce it. Another great vocabulary activity is when they are given a text together with a set of words and are asked to replace the synonymic words in the text with the given list.  When students classify the vocabulary items into different categories, make up questions with them, use them in sentences, they  transform the words into long-term memory and  build better cognitive connections.

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8. When it comes to writing, the teacher can assign the students to change informal letters to formal ones, decide on the type of the essay (descriptive, narrative etc), assess their peers’ written works. In this way students need to analyze the material which fosters the overall learning and retention process.

The use of cognitive strategies can increase the efficiency and confidence with which the learners approach a learning task, as well as their ability to retain essential information or perform a skill. While teaching cognitive strategies requires a high degree of commitment from both the teacher and learner, the results are well worth the effort.

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