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How dual coding theory improves learning

Dual coding theory children talking and learning

As teachers, our goal is for our students to remember what we have taught…… all of it! Quite often, however, we end up repeating ourselves, again and again, and ask ourselves, “why isn’t it sticking?”

The good news is that there are some straightforward learning theories that utilise the power of the mind. These theories help to optimise teaching methods to make learning accessible for all and to increase retention. 

Dual coding theory is one of these. It is straightforward but holds what seems like magical powers. Unfortunately, over time, the term dual coding has become something of a buzzword and one that can be overlooked in the classroom, but that certainly doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Dual coding, if used correctly, leverages the power of the human mind and helps students learn much more efficiently.


What is dual coding theory?

Paivio first proposed dual coding theory in 1971 and it is now a widely recognised model for effective teaching. Allan Pavio discovered that our memory has two codes (or channels) that deal with visual and verbal stimuli. Whilst our memory stores them independently, they are linked, meaning that words and images are connected.

Simply speaking, the dual coding theory is a theory that informs the way we should teach.  It suggests that information should be presented in two ways; verbally and visually. The theory outlines that for classroom teaching, the human mind has two primary channels for information to enter the working memory;

  1. The visual channel: includes things that the learner will see, such as images, pictures, diagrams and stories
  2. The verbal channel: contains spoken language and written text.

Although the two channels, visual and verbal, are separate, when teaching, if you combine the two representations, the learner will effectively double the chances of remembering the information taught. 

Mayer and Anderson (1991) also support the dual coding theory. Their studies suggest that when presenting verbal language alongside relevant images, it becomes much more memorable.

This is all well and good in theory, but what does it look like in a classroom?


In a classroom setting, a practical application of dual coding theory could be in a science lesson that involves learning new vocabulary. Very few children will likely understand if the teacher introduces the new terms and then uses spoken words alone to explain.  If, however, the teacher introduces the new vocabulary with a picture or diagram simultaneously, the class is much more likely to understand and retain the information. Once information is processed successfully, it can then be recalled in future lessons and built upon. Children who don’t understand the building blocks will struggle with subsequent tasks.

Visual and Verbal

Let’s take a look in more detail at the difference between visual and verbal information.

Verbal information is information that is shared through spoken word to the class. This most often comes in the form of spoken language from the teacher. 

According to Rosenshine and his principles of instruction, effective teachers talk a lot during lessons. They explain, ask questions and clarify. However, the cognitive load theory suggests the human mind can only hold so much information in the working memory before it is forgotten. Teachers must be mindful of this so they don’t cause cognitive overload. Dual coding helps here, as introducing images would then support the spoken word.

Visual images can be presented in many ways and used depending on the learner’s stage of development. They include pictures, drawings,  diagrams and charts.

Visuals are a fantastic way of communicating complex ideas. Visual representations help a learner to understand with more clarity. 

However, as with verbal input, it is essential to include only relevant images. Using elaborate design and pictures for fun can detract from what you are teaching and what you want them to learn. 


Dual coding theory explained visually

An example of dual coding theory in the classroom.

An effective teacher will use dual coding in every lesson and the Chatta approach provides a simple framework. It is at the heart of our approach and is one of the reasons Chatta is so quick to take effect. 

The underlying principle of dual coding, and one that the Chatta approach will always use for young learners, is to “say what you see”, combining the simple visual representations they see, with words they hear, at that time. 

In 1953, the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was instrumental in identifying the links between pictures and language. He, however, could not have foreseen how easy it would become for images to be taken, uploaded and used in the classroom.  Today it is so easy to capture children’s everyday experiences. Taking photos can then reinforce sensations and emotions. Parents and carers can also use images to look back at significant family events, which can evoke powerful feelings and provide more connections to support language processes. 

Teachers using the Chatta approach also develop students’ oral narrative skills by carefully modelling language associated with specific experiences, such as taking pictures and using them sequentially.  By sequencing images and talking about them, children will begin to learn how to build a story. One of the reasons so many teachers love the Chatta approach is because it is designed with this fundamental  theory of learning in mind and delivers immediate impact in the classroom


It is clear from the work of psychologists such as Paivio that dual coding should be at the heart of every classroom, no matter what age or stage. All children can gain from the  Chatta approach. For younger learners it assists with language acquisition, oral narrative, and much more, creating lifelong benefits.  For older learners, it will help them understand more complex learning material and help move them forward to higher levels of thinking. 

Teachers who use dual coding effectively in the classroom will undoubtedly see the results of their hard work quickly and create a learning environment that is accessible to all. Taking the time to think about the careful delivery of verbal information combined with visual images will help every class to reach its potential. 

Learn more about dual coding with our founder webinar Simple classroom ideas with big impact: Dual coding

To learn more about the Chatta approach and see the difference for yourself, book a free meeting with one of our team.

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