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Putting Dual Coding in the Hands of Students

The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words has stood the test of time. Scientists agree and there is also a wealth of evidence to back up this expression. Put simply, visuals matter – a lot. One picture can capture a lot of information at the same time. When we pair pictures with words, we create a powerful duo for learning. Below, I’ll take you through a step-by-step strategy I created for Key Stage 2, but it works with all ages beyond that. Before we hit the classroom, let’s explore the cognitive science.


When humans process information, it is essentially done through two separate systems – one for processing verbal information and the other for processing visual (or non-verbal) information (Paivio, 1971). Verbal refers to language, either written text or spoken language that is organised sequentially (one word comes after the next to make sense). Visual is what we see, which includes pictures or objects on a page. Although verbal and visual information are processed separately, words and images work together, with connections forming between them. As a result, they leave more memory traces (physical changes in the brain) and make information easier to recall. For example, if two forms (words and images) of the same information (let’s say a picture of a flower and the word ‘flower’) are presented together, when we recall the word ‘flower’ later, an image comes to mind as well — and vice versa.

A simple diagram to explain Allan Paivio's Dual Coding Theory, based partly on a graphic by Kirschner and Neelan from source below.

This dual processing power of the brain is referred to as dual coding theory (Paivio, 1971) and it also reduces the load on working memory (Kirschner and Neelen, 2017). In short, when we use dual coding, we help the information go in better (to long-term memory) and come out more easily (to use in working memory), as has been shown in numerous studies (Weinstein et al., 2018).


Tailoredpractice dual coding
An excerpt from a letter a Year 6 student at Julian's Primary School in London wrote to a younger peer, explaining learning strategies introduced at school. This was part of a school-wide initiative to teach students more about the science of how we learn.

Dual coding has recently gained popularity (especially in the Twittersphere) through the beautiful illustrations and infectious teaching of Oliver Cavigliolio, author of Dual Coding for Teachers, as a high impact strategy for both teachers and students. It is also one of the Learning Scientists’ top recommended learning strategies for students. So not only is dual coding a teaching strategy, it’s a learning technique students can use independently once taught. One way of taking advantage of dual coding is to use it to teach vocabulary, but the different applications are endless.

As for all learning strategies based on cognitive science, I recommend explaining the concept to students. Use the simple diagram below or the one above (for older students) to make the point that our brains remember information better when we combine pictures and words. Then introduce the strategy, Question, Draw, Explain, Label.


This is a step-by-step process that students can follow to use dual coding when learning new vocabulary. It incorporates other learning strategies that we want to model for our students, such as tapping into prior knowledge, elaboration and retrieval practise. It also takes advantage of the benefit of drawing. The whole process reinforces metacognition, because students are thinking more about their learning. (For more on elaboration, see an excerpt from my book Connect the Dots.)

Prepare a list of words and definitions on a handout.

Ask students: 'What do you already know?' If this is a whole-class activity with a set group of words, I may use a form like this one below, to see how familiar students are with the words by rating them according to how much they already know:

1 – Never heard (about) it

2 – Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure what it means

3 – I know this! Here’s the definition…

Tell students to pick one of the level 1 or 2 words to start with and hand out the definitions.

Start Question, Draw, Explain, Label

  1. Draw. Once students understand the definition, they can start to illustrate that word. You may choose to prepare a few Google image search screen grabs for them to help them visualise the definition, but the challenge for them is to make a simple drawing, not an intricate one!

  2. Explain. Students pair up and explain their drawings to a peer and then give a concrete example of the definition. Teachers can use this time to give examples of how the word can be used differently in different contexts. For example, in wartime, ‘trenches’ were dug for protection. 'In the trenches' can also mean to be involved in something that's onerous or difficult.

  3. Label. Students label the picture using the word and definition.

  4. Retrieval. Students can use retrieval practice by trying to reproduce the image or the definition without looking at the answer.

dual coding tailoredpractice


There are plenty of ways you can put dual coding into the hands of students so that they have more independence.

  • Picture it: Create dual coding classwork and homework assignments. For example, have students come up with different ways to represent information from the lesson through simple drawings or graphic organisation.

  • Recall it: Students recall visuals as a retrieval practice strategy. For example, ask students to recall the diagram used to explain a concept and recreate it without looking at the original.

  • Quick Draw exit tickets: Ask students to quickly create an image that represents a key element they learned in the lesson – or several key elements. Use a visualiser or photograph the next day to display clear examples or dispel misconceptions.

  • Encourage students to visualise concepts and procedures that they have learned. This may take modelling at first: 'I am going to visualise how to multiply 10 by 20 in my head' or 'Let’s visualise how to (give a speech).'

Keep in mind

  • Dual coding does not work with all content. Concepts that are too complex may be better suited to other strategies. Likewise, information that is too simple may not require dual coding.

  • Dual coding for comprehension may work best for beginners when teachers provide the images. Novices may lack knowledge about a topic and are therefore not able to form images as they read, whereas experts can (Mayer, 2019).

  • This will take practice. Students, especially the artists in the group, will want to create elaborate drawings. As mentioned above, have them keep it simple or you lose the educational benefits – students will have a pretty picture but won’t remember the information. Likewise, those who feel less competent in art may be hesitant to draw.

  • Also, teachers: keep visuals simple. If the image doesn’t pop into your head as a good illustration, it won’t pop into theirs.

  • Share your images with your colleagues so that your students see the same images (used to refer to the same concept) in multiple classes or year to year.

Recommended reading: Here is an excellent blog that offers more dual coding ideas with examples: The Learning Scientists’ 'Learn How to Study Using…Dual Coding' (Smith and Weinstein, 2016). For an even deeper dive, read Dual Coding with Teachers by Oliver Caviglioli (2019). It’s an informative and beautifully illustrated gem. Psst: I’m featured on page 194.


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