Dual Coding

The theory for Dual Coding was developed in the 1960’s by Allan Paivio. The theory states that people learn via separate systems but related systems (verbal and non-verbal). For example, your brain stores the image for pie in a different place than it stores the word pie. But the systems can work together, that is why you will visualize a pie when someone is talking about pies. And seeing an image of pie will often cause you to think of the word pie.

In order to utilize the dual coding strategy in your classroom, you need to use both verbal and nonverbal (visual) materials together. This is helpful because it gives your and your students’ brains two pathways to remember the information, one visual (with the image) and one “verbal” (with the written words).

In science, a great way to incorporate dual coding is to use diagrams. Diagrams contain both a written and a visual component. Giving your students multiple pathways to remembering, while also being streamlined. They are streamlined because they only hold the most relevant information. You can do this by having diagrams be part of your class notes.

This will allow students to have guided practice in making and organizing diagrams. Then, you can model how to read and interpret the diagram. After students are comfortable with making and reading basic diagrams you can have students use the diagrams to answer extension questions. This will have your students practicing the elaboration learning strategy along with the dual coding learning strategy, which should compound their effectiveness.

I have applied this strategy in my 5th grade science courses. We are studying the water cycle and climate (2 units that lend themselves perfectly to dual coding). I have had them create diagrams explaining the water cycle, transpiration, rainshadow, low pressure systems, and high pressure systems. Then we have added information that shows how to increase the rates of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, transpiration, and sublimation. The goal, by adding these details are to help students see how each step is affected by its environment, and to give greater understanding in how each step works.

I have also had students use their diagrams to write a paragraph explain the process of the water cycle or rain shadow. The goal here, is that they understand the diagrams enough to express what they show.

How do you use dual coding in your classroom?








Concrete Examples


The basic idea of concrete examples is simple enough. You take a new concept that is complex for a student and you relate it to something that is simple for that student. For example, if you are teaching about soil conservation you would need to communicate a variety of complex vocabulary to students such as humus, topsoil, erosion, contour plowing, etc. In order for all of these abstract concepts and terms to make sense, it helps for students to relate them to what they already know.

You can compare the humus and topsoil to plant food because students understand the concept of food already. As you do this, it is important to then relate how the plants ‘eat’ their food. As you do this you can talk about how the plant roots help to hold the soil in place, like how a paper clip helps to hold papers together. From here, you can talk about how contour plowing slows erosion by plowing with the curves of the land. You can then go back to your paper clip example and put more paper clips along the edges of the paper. Your students will see that instead of being close in only one part, the paper will be close everywhere because there are many paper clips spread out along the papers’ edges all working together to hold it tight.

Paper clips holding paper together is the concrete example, while contour plowing helping reduce erosion is the abstract example. By explicitly linking the concrete example to the abstract one, you can help your students know and understand complex concepts.

However, this is not enough. It is also important to practice concreteness fading in your classroom. Concreteness fading is exactly what it sounds like. You begin to use more abstract examples over time.

For our above example, the concrete example is how a paper clip can hold a packet of paper together and a group of paper clips can hold a packet of paper together more effectively, similar to how contour plowing helps hold the soil in place. In order to start the concrete fading the teacher can use the same or a similar example, but this time there is no physical example, just a drawing. Then, after that, the teacher can simply refer to how contour plowing can reduce erosion.

This is, of course, a vast simplification of the process. But the pattern is essentially true. It is helpful to start with a concrete example that is already understood by your students. Then make it slightly more abstract. And move towards only having the abstract concept, because the abstract concept is often the goal of the lesson.






Blocking is how skills are traditionally developed. For example, this means mastering ‘A’ before moving on to ‘B’. For example, a teacher using a blocking technique might have students master basic addition facts (‘A’) before introducing the concept of subtraction (‘B’). While a teacher using an interleaving technique might teach addition one day, subtraction the next, and then on the third day, combine both skills.

There is promising research behind interleaving when it is compared with blocking. There have been numerous studies on the benefits of interleaving in sports (badminton, baseball, basketball, see the Scientific American article for more details). In 2003, a study found that medical students were able to produce more accurate electrocardiogram diagnosis when taught with interleaving than those taught with blocking.

Research has also shown that, in order for interleaving to be effective, students must be familiar with the topics first. For example, when learning a new language, students do not tend to benefit from interleaving until they reach a point of proficiency. My best guess is that when the starting level of background knowledge is so low, interleaving gives too many new concepts too fast and, as a result, confuses the learner.

When it comes to learning in schools, studies on interleaving have been promising. A 3-month study done on seventh graders learning about slope and graphing found substantial results. About half of the seventh graders were taught with a blocking technique, while about half were taught with an interleaving technique. At the conclusion of the 3-month training, students were given a pop-quiz. Those taught with an interleaving technique score 25% better than those taught with a blocking technique. The results grow even more profound when students were given another pop-quiz one month later. Those taught with interleaving scored 76% better. In short, one reason that interleaving is more effective than blocking is that it leads to less forgetting over time.

Interleaving involves studying multiple topics in one study session. For example, if the subject is science and you are studying the rock cycle, you should cycle between each type of rock and how they change within one study session.

An example would be to spend 5 minutes going over igneous rocks and how they form. Then spending the next 5 minutes going over metamorphic rocks and how an igneous rock can become metamorphic. Then spend 5 more minutes going over sedimentary rocks and how a metamorphic rock can become one.

  1. Properties of igneous rocks and how they form
  2. Properties of metamorphic rocks and how they form from igneous rocks
  3. Properties of sedimentary rocks and how they form from metamorphic rocks

It is important to make connections between one topic and another. This is why you need to make connections between each type of rock (knowing how they change). Doing this helps make connections and knowledge more permanent. Then, after you have finished one round of studying, go over the topics in a different order.

  1. Properties of metamorphic rocks and how they can become igneous rocks
  2. Properties of sedimentary rocks and how they can become metamorphic rocks
  3. Properties of igneous rocks and how they can become sedimentary rocks

This is the step that will be most difficult to achieve for teachers because many students will feel that they have studied everything, why do it again?

I think that one way we can help students to practice interleaving is in how we design our homework and or study guides. To continue with the rock cycle example.

The first part of the assignment could be matching keywords to their definition. Then the students may look at a series of photos and label the type of rock underneath the picture. After that, students could be asked to draw a rock cycle diagram with key terms included. Finally, students could explain how a sedimentary rock could become a metamorphic and igneous rock.

This style of assignment would have students cycling through each stage of the rock cycle throughout the assignment. Teachers can also structure their lessons in similar ways in order to maximize the effect of interleaving. Finally, interleaving is most effective when combined with other learning strategies such as spaced practice, elaboration, and retrieval practice.