Cognitive Confusion

Several years ago a mentor colleague used the term Cognitive Confusion when describing some of our intervention readers. Too many adults working with a child, too much confusing academic language and too many varying (and sometime conflicting) instructional approaches. Her words have stayed with me for many years, and certainly became obvious when I first started working alongside students in my literacy support program (reading intervention).

As I was one of those extra adults working with the students, I realized quickly that my program must somehow align with the classroom teacher’s. Hard to do when my small group was composed from five different classrooms. Too much instructional time was spent clarifying terminology and purpose with the children: “What does your teacher call this?” “Does your teacher use the word fluency?” “How do you share what you understand about your reading?” and so on. I was also confused.

At the same time I was an Instructional Coach and part of the school’s professional learning team. Together as a staff we worked on development of common reading goals, built knowledge of the parts of reading, examined the curriculum and applied common assessment practices. Student’s began talking the same language and understood expectations- much less cognitive confusion by all.

As a grade team, RTI/classroom teacher team, school team and even district level team, teachers can collectively determine what matters for our developing readers (see previous blogs for suggested ideas).  And even more importantly, ensuring that our students understand the learning intentions can then lead to self-determination of their own reading paths. Which leads to engagement and ownership  (motivation and agency), essential for today’s readers. Volunteers, paraprofessionals and parents working with our children also need this direction. All adults being on the “same page” while guiding our young readers is a positive move towards reducing “cognitive confusion”.

Knowledge and use of common language is critical for our students. As teachers we have our favourite ways of describing reading skills and behaviours. But kids can get confused – are we “Reading to Self” or “Silent Reading” or having “DEAR time” or “By Yourself Reading” or “SSR”?  Are we “Working with Words” or doing “Word Work”,  perhaps practicing “Sounding Out” or “Letters and Sounds” or “Playing with Words”.  Am I looking for “Juicy Words” or “Interesting Vocabulary” or “Descriptive Words”?  Do these mean the same thing to a child, or are they different activities with different expectations? I have often referenced Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan from Choice  as they describe the need for “Relentless Consistency”.  It is sometimes hard to give up our favourite teaching ways, but ultimately we must do what is best for our learners.

Developing effective instructional approaches and techniques, based on research and teacher expertise, experience and evidence is an ongoing professional conversation and learning quest. Having attended  John Hattie’s Visible Learning seminar, and recently reading Visible Learning for Literacy  by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie, has helped clarify when the best instructional approaches are used in the literacy learning process. There is much to be gained by collectively reading and discussing this work- again for the sake of our learners.

Recognizing and reducing “cognitive confusion” for our young readers is essential. Ongoing clarifying conversations with students about the goals, the terminology, the expectations and the confusions are part of learning to read. Co-creating anchor cards or charts to explicitly describe the reading skill or behaviour keeps readers on the same page. The example below shows a grade one intervention group’s ongoing understanding of Read to Self stamina building:


We created this chart over time (different colours). We also created a video of what read-to-self does not look/sound like, along with images of what our success criteria does look/sound like. Many giggles occurred watching the intentional  “not” section, and students became very clear of the terminology and the expectations.

Ensuring our young learners are not “cognitively confused” as they learn to read is our professional responsibility. It is easy to make many assumptions about the thinking and understandings of our readers, however taking time to observe, talk and reflect about our practice is what is best for our learners.


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