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Connie Allred

The Cognitive Learning Theory


In 1920, dissatisfied with the focus of learning theorists of the time on observable

behavior, Jean Piaget developed a learning theory that devoted more attention to the learning

processes occurring within the mind (Berkeley Graduate Division, 2016). He christened this

new approach to learning the cognitive learning theory. The cognitive learning theory refers to

the processes that occur in the brain that allow a person to perceive, organize, retrieve and store

information (Yilmaz, 2011). Piagets theory was very broad and included the linguistic,

scientific, moral and memory developments of a child from birth to adolescence. Based on his

observations, Piaget claimed that children construct their own knowledge and are intrinsically

motivated to learn.

Piaget believed that nature and nurture worked together to produce a development

process that involved the maturation of the brain as well as the ability to adapt and organize

information (Gauvain, 1997). He created four stages that children must sequentially progress

through in order to develop successfully. Piaget stated that these stages were influenced by both

internal and external factors. When these processes worked normally, then acquisition and

storage of knowledge were the result. When the processes were interrupted, learning difficulties

could occur. Teaching within the confines of the cognitive learning theory calls for teachers to

help students assimilate new information and modify their current intellectual framework.

Students are asked to monitor their own understanding by completing comprehension tasks such

as explaining concepts in their own words, making connections to previous material, or using

graphic organizers to make sense of main events and supporting details (Berkeley Graduate

Division, 2016).

When children are attempting to learn a new language, it is incredibly difficult for them

to use metacognitive strategies to think about their own thinking. Because of this, reading

comprehension becomes an almost impossible task. Piagets theory claims that children can be

intrinsically motivated to learn (Eberhardt, 2014). Intrinsic motivation seems to falter more and

more as a reading task becomes increasingly difficult. Children who are not fluent in their L2 do

not have the necessary skills to assimilate new information and modify their current framework.

Passages of text carry little meaning when a child is barely able to decode a word. Without

sufficient comprehension strategies, techniques and accommodations, reading comprehension

can seem like a near impossible feat to an English Language Learner.



For many decades, reading comprehension was believed to consist of the mastery of such

skills as word identification, finding main ideas, identifying cause and effect relationships,

sequencing, and comparing and contrasting. In the 1970s, researchers began to look beyond

reading skills and focused more on what was taking place within a readers mind as they read.

Studies were devoted to a new concept of reading comprehension, one that investigated how

good readers found meaning in what they read (Texas Educational Agency, 2002). Researchers

and specialists found that the act of constructing meaning was interactive, strategic and

adaptable. Students with metacognitive awareness were able to actively engage in text and

implement fix-it strategies when comprehension failed. Proficient readers demonstrated an

automaticity when it came to adapting strategies and techniques to different types of text. It was

obvious that reading comprehension went far beyond a set of skills that were practiced and

memorized and implemented across disciplines. Children were really thinking about what they

were reading and interacting with text and applying it to their own experience. Researchers also

discovered that children who were not able to do this fell farther and farther behind and became

increasingly frustrated with and disillusioned by their abilities as a reader.

ELLs and Reading Comprehension

In recent decades, elementary and secondary classrooms have begun to fill with an

increasing number of linguistically and culturally diverse students. Many of these students come

from homes where English is not spoken and may enter school without the ability to read, write

and/or speak English (Pang, 2013). While bilingual learning improves cognitive development,

learning more than one language can put a child at risk of struggling in both. This is especially

true if the native language has a different phonological system than English (Pang, 2013). If a

child is endeavoring to master two languages at once, their reading comprehension may be

negatively affected.

There are many differing opinions on what it means to comprehend a text. Educational

theorist Jay Lemke argued that comprehending text means interpreting it in ways that make

sense to some other members of a discourse community (Toohey, 2007). If a reader has a

different sociocultural perspective than the dominant culture, it may be difficult for them to

comprehend in the way that is deemed correct unless given the correct instruction and


Specific Strategies for ELLs

In order for English Language Learners to become proficient readers, they must be taught

the skills necessary to think about their thinking and comprehend what it is that they are

reading. Researchers have developed a myriad of strategies that can be implemented within the

classroom in order to help ELLs become successful readers.

Activating Prior Knowledge

The Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition states that building

background is not only about activating pre-existing knowledge, its also about developing

knowledge and background to serve as a bridge to new concepts (CARLA, 2016). Building

background is an essential component of designing effective curriculum. According to the SIOP

model, there is a three-step approach that should be followed (CARLA, 2016). Step one is to

include a pre-instructional stage where students are exposed to terms and concepts essential to

the lesson that may be unfamiliar to them. An effective way for ELLs with very limited English

to go about this is to have them take part in a picture-walk. Show students pictures and

illustrations of topics and ask them data based questions about the pictures. This gives an

opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the topic if they do not yet have the

language skills required to understand the text (Pang, 2013). Step two is to expose students to

new experiences in order to give them a foundation for foreign and potentially difficult concepts.

Some students may have had interrupted schooling or come from diverse cultural backgrounds.

They may not have the same cultural and historical knowledge as their peers. They will need

exposure to new concepts in order to gain comprehension. Step three is to allow students to

develop background knowledge for themselves through first-hand experience (CARLA, 2016).

Like native English speakers, English Language Learners have varying levels of

intellectual ability but teachers should be aware that some perceived lacks in ability may be due

to a lack of background knowledge (Toohey, 2007). For example, a child from mainland China

may be able to write an entire paper about the rice paddy farms so common in their home

country but struggle to write even a sentence about NASA. Students may also have a vast

amount of content knowledge that they simply just cannot demonstrate in English.

Graphic Organizers and Other Visual Strategies

Graphic organizers are visual displays that help students make sense of a text through

analysis, comparison, classification, summarization and organization (Pang, 2013). According to

Enisa Mede of Yelitepe University, there are three reasons for teachers to utilize graphic

organizers. First, students learn to pick out important details in a text and as a result, have an

easier time remembering the content. Second, teachers can use more complex ways to address

the content since the semantic processing demands are lessened. Third, the creation and use of a

graphic organizer will help students learn about patterns of thinking (2010). Since most English

learners are not yet aware of effective techniques that can aide in reading and comprehending a

text, graphic organizers can help them learn to organize and understand text (Mede, 2010).

Graphic organizers can provide a framework with which ELLs can relate their existing

knowledge to the text (Mede, 2010).

In the 21st classroom, technology is commonplace. In her article on using technology in

the classroom, Cherie Hess mentions an instructional technique called CALL or computer

assisted language learning which integrates the use of computer programs into lessons in order to

make learning more engaging (2012). Hess states that the use of computers increases a students

motivation and increases risk-taking and spontaneity (2012). To give ELLs further exposure to a

text, students use the internet to look up materials on a topic or play educational games relevant

to the topic or text (Pang, 2013). Another effective visual strategy to involve ELLs in reading is

to show a relevant movie after completing a book. After the viewing, the teacher can lead a

discussion about the similarities and differences between the book and the movie (Pang, 2013).

Teach Vocabulary Explicitly

In her study on storybook read alouds for Boston University, Molly Collins found that

young ELLs learned 33% of new vocabulary words when heard in the context of a story. When

read alouds were accompanied by rich explanations of vocabulary words however, preschool

ELLs learned almost 50% of the new vocabulary presented (2010). Neither the story nor the

target words changed. The only aspect of the two studies that was different was the explicit

nature of the vocabulary instruction.

Vocabulary supports the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Successful vocabulary teaching and learning requires intentional and incidental learning,

retention and diverse learning through a variety of tasks and activities (Nam, 2010). During the

pre-instruction stage as mentioned in the SIOP model, teachers should include vocabulary

essential to the lesson and teach it in a way that can be easily understood by students of all levels.

Using pictures, illustrations or other graphic elements may enhance this strategy and make the

words more accessible for the ELLs with very limited English language knowledge (Pang,

2013). Remember that signal or directional words like because or explain may need just as

much explicit instruction as onomatopoeia or metamorphosis. Teachers should instruct

students how to engage with the text by highlighting or underlining unfamiliar or newly learned

words. Use new vocabulary in other lessons or discussions in order to solidify it in students

repertoire. Students should be able to define a word, use it in context, decode and spell it and

know of its possible multiple meanings. While teaching vocabulary intentionally and explicitly,

the main focus should be ways in which vocabulary can be learned incidentally through tasks

and activities as well as group and class discussions (Nam, 2010).

In regards to retention, research has found that words and their meanings are more

successfully retained when the word itself is defined instead of being explained using its

synonyms (Nam, 2010). Having a student read and retell a passage of text using specific

vocabulary can also help them in retaining unfamiliar words by using them in context.

Incorporating the teaching of these skills into lessons is crucial. Students understanding and the

ability to remember and use a vast number of words is essential to successful reading


Check Comprehension Frequently

Checking comprehension throughout a reading task is essential in making sure that

students are engaged and following along as well as understanding what they are reading. There

are a variety of ways that reading comprehension can be checked both formally and informally.

In addition to the typical summative tests, teachers can incorporate formative assessments

throughout reading instruction. One strategy to assess comprehension is to put together a

timeline of events or sentence strips from a passage and have the students arrange them in the

correct order (Mede, 2010). Students can also engage in a Think-Pair-Share activity where they

share thoughts or answer a question based on what they just read with partner. It is also useful

for the teacher to stop periodically during the reading and ask questions about the text to gauge

understanding. These questions can range from a literal to an applied level to engage students of

varying reading levels.

It is important regardless of reading level to ask questions that require higher thinking.

Students need to be able to analyze, interpret and explain what they have read to be considered

truly proficient readers. Teachers should ask questions like What ideas can you add to?,

Do you agree? Why or why not?, or What might happen if? (Boyd, 2016). Teachers may

want to help students organize and visualize information in a text by using tools such as a KWL

chart, Venn diagram, story maps or graphic organizers. These tools not only require an

understanding of the events or facts in a reading but also help students organize information

sequentially and by importance.

Since there may be some students including ELLs that struggle to express their

knowledge of a concept through writing, it is important to allow for some flexibility in the ways

in which a student can demonstrate understanding. Drawings, posters, oral interviews, graphs

etc. can be used as ways for students to demonstrate understanding when they do not have a

mastery of the language (Mede, 2010). Asking students to summarize what they have read is

also an effective way to test comprehension for both native English speakers and ELLs.

Summarizing requires students to retell events in their own words using key terms and requires

them to be able to pick out important information while eliminating insignificant details (Pang,



Being able to differentiate instruction and accommodate the needs of ELLs is a skill that

all teachers must have in todays schools. Teachers need to remember however that making

reading accommodations for ELLs does not merely consist of teaching them a set of decoding or

identification skills. In order to become successful readers, students must be able to tap into their

metacognitive awareness and take the overall meaning away from text instead of just the

meanings of a few words. Reading comprehension is essential to educational success because

proficiency in this affects all academic disciplines. English Language Learners will not succeed

in school or become masters of their L2 if they are not first taught how to be masters of reading.


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