Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 5: Combining the Alternation Strategy and The Problem Completion Effect-English Language GCSE

This is the fifth post looking at the application of Cognitive Load Theory to teaching English. The first three posts can be found here: one, two, three, four.

This post will explore how I have applied ‘backwards fading’ to teaching GCSE Language reading questions.

Taken from ‘Efficiency in Learning’ by Clark et al, this diagram explains the idea of ‘backwards fading’.

backwards fade

GCSE English Language has unseen extracts, meaning that it is easy to claim that there is no fixed or defined domain of content knowledge to be taught. Extracts can vary widely and students who are successful are often those who read widely outside of class, have developed vocabularies and possess good general knowledge. So how can we prepare students for this exam? There is no quick fix here. Students need a knowledge-rich five year curriculum that teaches vocabulary explicitly and unlocks challenging and canonical works of literature. Lessons should involve lots and lots and lots of reading to develop fluency, accuracy and promote the building of background knowledge. Students also need to be taught accurate and sophisticated writing beginning at the sentence level.

Despite it being utterly tedious, the one thing that we can teach about this exam is the procedural knowledge for approaching the questions. Like the directions to an important job interview, being able to recall and apply this knowledge is of vital importance….for a few hours….on one day. After that, it is largely useless.

When we begin teaching the language exam in year 11, we give them a procedural knowledge sheet that explains exactly how to answer each question, complete with timings, and often including diagrams to help the lowest attainers understand what they need in their answer. We ask them to memorise this information and regularly test them on it in the hope that if they know the recipe for a good answer, they are more likely to produce what is required. I want them to instantly know what approach to take in the exam: automatic and precise recall of this procedural knowledge is crucial for success and ensuring they answer the question correctly.

We use exactly the same backwards fading and instructional approach for all of the GCSE Language questions, the aim being to minimize unnecessary extraneous cognitive load so that students are able to focus completely on practicing and learning the required approach for each question. We use the ‘Alex Cold’ extract from the AQA sample assessment materials and the exemplar scripts that come with it. When introducing a new question type, we look at these models. When we introduce question 3, students have already read the extract several times and have practiced question 2. By this point, they are already familiar with the extract, meaning that they can direct their full attention on the specific requirements of the question. Although students can groan when presented with the same reading extract, complaining that it is boring or that they have done it already, if they were to be presented with a new extract each time they attempted a new question, there is a greater chance that they will reach the limits of their working memory capacity, experience cognitive overload and become confused as they try to juggle far too much new information at once.

Here is how I have combined the alternation strategy with backwards fading to teach AQA GCSE English Language Paper 1, Question 3 to a low attaining class:

Lesson 1: Present and Label Examples and Non-examples

The teacher reads the question and explains the important parts that are underlined here in red:

question 3 annotated question

The teacher reads the entire model answer. They can then draw a rough answer structure underneath the model:

q3 answer chain

These answer diagrams can be really useful. Not only do they tell student what they should include, but they can also be used for retrieval practice, allowing students to test themselves on the procedural knowledge for each question.

As this is the first time students have encountered this answer, the teacher will then annotate the entire model answer, using the diagram above as a key and narrating their thought process throughout. The purpose of this lesson is for students to develop a conception of what a typical question 3 answer looks like. Explicitly telling them what is required is probably far more efficient than letting them discover what is required for themselves, the latter approach potentially resulting in confusion and the embedding of misconceptions. Later on in the instructional sequence, when students have a firmer conception of what is required and a more developed ‘question 3 schema’, they will be asked to do more of the steps for themselves, eventually resulting in independent problem completion.

Here is an annotated Alex Cold model. The answer is a typed up version from the sample assessment materials:

q3 model

After they have annotated the exemplar of quality, they would then look at a substandard model answer, a ‘non-example’ that contains common errors and features that you would associate with poor responses. Like the previous model, we have taken this from the sample assessment materials. It contains rubbish like ‘In my opinion, this is a really good way to get the reader’s attention because it makes me stop and think about what is going on’ and ‘The writer uses language techniques such as verbs, adjectives, similes’ and ‘It made me understand the text more’.

Students then open their books and draw the same answer diagram from before at the top of a new page, this time from memory. The teacher then writes down some ineffectual phrases (taken from the poor quality model) as well as any others that are relevant (They have done this to make it sound interesting/This makes me want to read on etc), ensuring that students know what not to include. Students are provided with some structure sentence stems to use:

structure phrases.png

Students then write an answer of their own while the teacher writes another example answer under the camera, providing a further model for the weaker students to read and use for inspiration. This is the application of the alternation strategy: students have studied a worked example and can use it as an analogy or a support when attempting their own response.

One of the criticisms directed at model answers is that they are often plagiarized by students, preventing them from thinking for themselves and coming up with their own ideas. Because students have seen a model answer in this first lesson, it is inevitable that their answer will look very similar to the example that they studied. In this case, I don’t think that this is a problem: the aim of this initial lesson is for students to gain a solid understanding of the structure of the answer and what is required in their response. I want them to have a high initial success rate and the models and sentence stems allow this to happen.

LESSON 2, 3 and 4: Completion Problems:

Like many lessons, these would begin with a retrieval quiz, asking questions about Literature texts, vocabulary, quotations and anything else that we have covered. I would include a number of questions about the preceding language paper lessons:


  • How long should you spend on Q2?
  • Draw an answer diagram for a Q2 answer
  • How long should you spend on Q3?
  • Draw an answer diagram for a Q3 answer
  • Write down four ‘structure phrases’ that you could use
  • Write down four banned phrases.

All of this information is crucial for student success. I want them to have automatic and flawless recall of what is required and constant (the procedural knowledge for the exam) so they can focus on what we cannot predict or teach directly: the extract itself.

Ideally, before this lesson, the teacher would have checked the books and listed some misconceptions from the student responses. These can be dealt with at the start of the lesson through explicit teaching. Here are some examples from recent lessons that I taught:

  • A student has mistakenly written about the effect of language in their question 3 response.

The teacher presents the problematic response:

At the beginning of the extract, Alex dreamt about ‘an enormous black bird’ which has connotations of death and suffering.

The teacher then rewrites it under the visualizer, narrating their thought process and making it clear why this is an improvement:

At the beginning of the extract, Alex dreamt about ‘an enormous black bird’, allowing the reader an insight into Alex’s emotional trauma. When he snaps at his sister at the breakfast table, we can understand the reasons for his irritable and aggressive behaviour.

The teacher then presents a further problematic response:

When Alex gets up, the writer focusses on his thoughts as he thinks that it will be a ‘terrible’ day, making it sound pessimistic, negative and despondent

The student can then rewrite this, using the first worked example as an analogy. If needed, several more of these worked example-problem pairs can be presented and attempted.

Engelmann believes that teachers should look at ‘mistakes for qualitative information about what you need to change in your instruction to teach it right.’ Following Engelmann’s approach, these errors are a fault of the instruction not the student and next time I teach this, I will include this task in the initial teaching sequence, hopefully ensuring that less students make these mistakes. This is why the curriculum is never entirely complete: we should be constantly taking evidence from student responses and using it to inform changes and adaptations in our teaching sequences.

For each of the ‘Completion Problem’ lessons, we look at a different extract. By this point, students should already have a firm understanding of the structure of an answer and as a result, can apply this knowledge to a new extract. We read the extract and then the teacher explicitly tells them which parts of the extract to underline and why, again, narrating their thought process throughout. Instead of studying an entire worked example like the previous lesson, students are presented with half of a model answer.

half model q3

In this half model, a teacher might start to annotate the specific parts of the answer (the Number 1 bracket) and then ask the student to do the rest. The student is able to use the teachers annotated part as a worked example, helping them with their own annotations.

This ‘half-model’ is a completion problem and students are asked to complete the answer themselves. They can use the annotated ‘half-model’ as a guide that demonstrates the structure of their answer as well as exemplifying the level of quality and depth that is required.

Lesson 5: Problem

After beginning the lesson with whole class feedback, retrieval practice or both, I would then ask students to attempt a question 3 independently, initially splitting the task into logical, sequential steps. Breaking the task into smaller steps allows the teacher to give more precise feedback and to pinpoint misconceptions. If the task was not split up like this, it would be harder to diagnose why a student is struggling.

  1. Read the extract and question 3: underline relevant parts in the text that you plan to write about.
  • Getting feedback here prevents students from making poor choices regarding their textual references.
  • You can ensure that students have broadly included something from the beginning, middle and end, or at least a reasonable section of the source.

2. Ask students to draw answer diagram from memory at the top of the page

  • If students cannot do this, it is clear that they have not retained the procedural knowledge needed for the question
  • After they have finished writing, you can ask them to self-assess their answer, checking that it contains all aspects in the answer diagram.

3. Students then complete their answer in silence, allowing the teacher to circulate and give live feedback.

Later Lessons: Building up stamina and combining with other questions

After massed practice on question 3, we combine it with other questions, slowly building up towards an entire paper.


  • Teach and Practice Q2
  • Teach and Practice Q3
  • Cumulative Practice: Q2 and Q3
  • Teach and Practice Q4
  • Cumulative Practice: Q2, 3 and 4
  • Teach and Practice Q5
  • Cumulative Practice Q2, 3, 4, and 5

General Points:

The sequence of lessons above uses ‘backwards fading’ to slowly move students from studying worked examples to completion problems to independent practice. The speed in which a class progresses through this continuum is determined by the level of success experienced at each stage. As a rule of thumb, I would not change stages-thereby reducing the scaffolding and support-until students have achieved a very high success rate. Often, we rush through the worked example and completion stages, enthralled by the promise of independence and keen to allow our students autonomy and agency. We should not confuse methods with goals: independence is a goal and is best achieved through the methods of explicit instruction, scaffolding and support, not through repeated independent practice.

Every year, when I teach students how to approach the language questions, I know that even if they are able to master what is required for each question and successfully apply the procedural knowledge, the unseen nature of the exam means that they still might not do very well. If a student doesn’t read and has a limited knowledge of the world outside their immediate existence, then the probability of them fully understanding an extract is low. Although I earlier claimed that GCSE English Language has no fixed domain of knowledge, perhaps it is more accurate to claim that it does: the domain is reality itself (or at least the parts of reality that a literate teenager with a reading age of fifteen would be expected to understand).

Next Post: Applying Cognitive Load Theory to English Part 6