Re-thinking Dual Coding: Visuospatial Modelling in English

I think we’ve lost the way with dual coding. Something isn’t working. Lethal mutations have taken hold of our practice in many places and I think that we’ve lost sight of why and how it works because we are so set on the simple idea that: words + pictures = better learning, because SCIENCE. 

I’ve been feeling uneasy about this for a while but completely unable to fathom why. This changed a couple of weeks ago. I sat in a packed room at #ResearchEdBrum with my edu-partner-in-all-things, Anna Gillinder (@MissGillinder). As always, we were both wrestling with the same questions as part of our work at school, and we hoped that listening to Oliver Cavaglioli (@olicav) would give us some clarity. We weren’t disappointed.

Oliver talked without slides. It was probably the best conference talk I have ever seen. He outlined many really interesting ideas but this post will focus on my own understanding of dual coding, and how I’ve been using it as a ‘servant strategy’ for teaching writing.

Dual coding isn’t really about pictures

n.b. You might already know this, so please skip on if you are a visuospatial genius already. 

For my part, I have always had rather a rudimentary understanding of why dual coding works. I have always understood that it’s because your brain encodes visual information in a different way to verbal information and so, using both when teaching something means it’s ‘doubly strong’ learning. This isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s also not entirely right. It’s also not really helping me to understand why some of the things I’m doing in the classroom work and why some don’t work.

Oliver Caviglioli, 2019

So how has my understanding changed? Dual Coding is not about putting pictures next to information. It’s about the visuospatial relationships between things on a page. Students might begin to understand complex concepts when they see the components of that concept represented in a way which clearly denotes the relationships between different pieces of information: visually above, below, alongside, branching from, leading to, influencing, similar or different, for example. When we explain something in words (sequential, difficult to encode), and then transform that information into something visual (synchronous, easier to encode), students learn that information more easily. The processes of transforming information from verbal to visual, and of translating those images back into words in order to express something, are highly generative. Oliver Cavaglioli explains this far better than I on his website here.

For a long time I have recognised the power of live-modelling diagrams and maps in English. I have always used simple drawings – basic shapes and arrows – to denote writing structures and elements of exam essays, or created maps to show the relationships between characters in texts, for instance. Hearing Oliver speak that day helped me to understand why it is these strategies which have become mainstays of my practice, and why my use of pictures alongside information has mostly dropped off. Putting a picture of a crown next to Macbeth’s name isn’t necessarily going to help students remember details about this character better, and it won’t help them to see how the balance of power shifts. They will, however, benefit from seeing a diagram which shows Duncan at the top and his thanes beneath him, followed by a live description of how Macbeth takes power and moves from thane to king, while I put a line through Duncan’s name, write Macbeth’s next to it, and put brackets around Malcolm and Donaldbain to indicate the fact that they are removed from the action following Duncan’s death. It isn’t pictures which are powerful here, it’s the way in which we tie concepts to each other visually. Ideally, this would be done live under a visualiser, but the image here gives you an idea.

Dual coding as a ‘servant strategy’ for teaching writing

Characters in Macbeth are relatively straightforward as English knowledge goes. Teaching writing, however, is immensely complex. To be a great writer, a student must have knowledge of the components of writing (grammar, vocabulary, punctuation etc.) and knowledge of how to plan and structure writing for effect. To apply this knowledge, students need procedural understanding of writing in practice: choosing the right vocabulary, devices, content; deciding how to sequence information in the best way to meet the requirements of the task. For teachers, this means far more than simply showing some style models, teaching conventions and giving feedback on drafts. The way we teach writing must support students to understand how their knowledge translates into the actual skill of writing in the moment.

Oliver talked about how dual coding can work as a ‘servant strategy’ for teaching students how to write. If writing involves the expression of complex abstract ideas, then exploring sequences and structures using live visuospatial mapping might enable students to learn these things more easily. Before seeing Oliver’s session, I had started experimenting with some simple diagrams to support literature teaching in my classroom. Since seeing the session and doing some additional reading, I have developed these strategies further. Here are two ways I’m currently using word-mapping in the English classroom.

  1. Chronological mapping for essay plans

I’ve been experimenting with this strategy since I saw a tweet by @_codexterous. As usual, most of my best ideas are pinched from other people.

Andy was using this strategy as a way to get students to understand how extracts can be described as products of previous events, or instigators of new ideas. I really liked this and started playing with it to see how I might develop this using other verbs to describe the way moments in texts are related to each other. This visual approach might support students to use more precise language in their analysis. For instance, if students are talking about how an idea is introduced, they might use verbs such as: established, initiated, instigated.

Shakespeare establishes the theme of deceit and duality from the outset of the play.

A student might equally talk about how an idea builds over time: develops, grows, is explored, intensifies, repeats, gains momentum, etc.

Or about how something concludes: culminates, reaches a climax, results in, reaches a high point, resolves by, etc.

I played with Andy’s initial sketch and, after a while it began to evolve. I added other parts of the text, started to make links between them. The rectangle which represented a single extract, suddenly became three rectangles, or more. We were able to start talking about how multiple extracts show the development of a single theme or character over time, and how specific points in the text might influence the more dramatic changes which take place. Now, that seed of an idea has become a fully-fledged strategy for me during teaching, but also for students when considering exam questions independently.

I start with a blank page in my modelling book (just a blank student exercise book) and my visualiser. I draw a line from one side of the page to the other, and write a theme, character, question or scene at the top. I then use the line as a chronological timeline for the text and begin to draw little rectangles which represent individual scenes or moments which relate to that topic. We discuss how those moments relate to each other, how they lead to one another and how various ideas create patterns over the course of the text as a whole. The development of ideas is a highly abstract and often intangible concept for students – this visual makes it concrete. 

There are a number of ways I’ve used this basic idea:

  • Co-create one of these topic timelines with students – draw and annotate under the visualiser and use it as a bouncing point to target questions and probe understanding as we add ideas and links together. 
  • Give students a blank version of one we have done in a previous lesson and ask them to recreate it from memory. 
  • Draw a blank one and simply put questions on it to prompt independent creation.
  • Get students to create one of ALL the scenes they can remember for a particular character or theme, and then ask them to highlight the three or four moments they would choose to talk about in detail in an exam essay – they have to justify why these moments would be the best option.
  • Use this as a quick planning strategy for extract questions at GCSE – students draw a very quick line somewhere on their exam paper, then make a quick sketch with the set extract plotted on it first, then decide on two or three other moments in the text which will be used as links in the essay, plot them on, write down any key quotations, and some of the verbs as mentioned above.
  • Draw a timeline with three scenes on it which are seemingly not really linked to one another, and get students to find ways to connect them.

2. Text mapping for discourse markers

Discourse markers manage the flow of an argument. It is really important that students understand the critical role of discourse markers because they act as the supporting structure which gives their opinion shape. Look at this example of an argument with the discourse markers in bold. The task was about whether we should pay nurses a higher wage:

I have outlined the practical advantages to increasing salaries for nurses, but above all these, we have a moral imperative. Firstly, we have a moral duty to recognise the value of people working in areas which require acts of sacrifice and selflessness. Nurses give of themselves emotionally and physically every day, in contrast to some better paid professions where people are able to maintain a distance and more easily preserve their mental and physical health. In addition, our poor treatment of nurses has led to a drop in training numbers, and we will therefore be unable to care for the most vulnerable people in our society because hospitals simply will not be able to staff their wards.

Discourse markers help students to link ideas together. I use a really simple image to explain this under the visualiser. The lightbulb represents their main idea, and the line beneath is the ‘thread’ of their argument. The idea is that discourse markers enable them to stick to their main argument all the way through, whilst giving them the tools they need to plan. The little series of arrows represent different types of discourse marker. Broadly, these are: sequencing connectives, emphatic connectives, contrasting connectives, concluding connectives.

When my students are planning a piece of writing where they have to build an argument (such as Language Paper 2 Q5) I get them to first decide what their key points are going to be, then they write down a list of discourse markers for each of these four types – this is an explicit part of their exam strategy, and having the list there means that they remember to use the discourse markers, write a far more coherent argument. These also work as a set of words to use in literature essays.

What does this look like in practice?

I model the argument structure under the visualiser by drawing the lightbulb and line down one side of the page. We then co-create a really simple plan by writing down what our four(ish) main arguments will be – these will form the main paragraphs. Then alongside each paragraph we decide what types of discourse markers we will need as we move through the argument. Students might decide that they want to introduce the whole argument, and then start their first point with a sequencing connective. They might use another sequencing connective each time they introduce a new idea. For some of their key ideas, they might want to emphasise the most important idea or implication of something by saying, ‘significantly’ or ‘notably’ (emphatic connectives). They might want to use contrasting connectives when they compare ideas to each other, or concluding connectives in order to show their reasoning. I draw these symbols on the side of the visual plan and students decide what language they will use. The key benefit to working like this is that students learn how vocabulary choices affect the wider structure and building blocks of creating a successful argument. Drawing out an abstract representation of the argument overall and identifying where discourse markers would be useful, helps students to see the function which those words and phrases can perform, and the way they create links between different ideas.

I’ve also been using visuospatial modelling as a way to explicitly teach writing in a more granular way by mapping out sentence structure. I’m almost ready to blog about this, so if you’re interested in the relationship between grammar and visual structure, keep an eye out for that…

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.