Student Writing English Teachers 2020-01-18 00:00

How Does Dual Coding Improve Learning?


Have you heard of dual coding? It is one of the six key strategies identified by cognitive psychologists for improving long-term learning.

Dual coding means giving your students verbal and visual representations at the same time. This lets them process the knowledge in two different ways.

Using it in your classroom can boost students’ learning and help them retain information over time.

  1. What Is Dual Coding?
  2. What Isn’t Dual Coding?
  3. Why Use Dual Coding?
  4. How to Use Dual Coding in Your Classroom
  5. The Problem with Text
  6. Creating the Perfect Visual Representation
  7. Getting Started with Dual Coding
  8. Final Thoughts about Dual Coding

What Is Dual Coding?

In the 1970s, Allan Paivio theorised that people process verbal and visual information separately and at the same time. This theory became known as ‘dual coding’.

In the classroom, this could mean displaying a visual image whilst explaining a concept to your class. Your students see and hear the same information presented in two different ways. This helps them to remember it.

If you share verbal explanations (or written text) and visual images simultaneously, your students will process the information more easily. They are more likely to retain knowledge.

What Isn’t Dual Coding?

Dual coding is not the same as ‘learning styles’ although they can seem similar.

The idea of teaching to a student’s particular learning style (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) was very popular in schools. Children were encouraged to find out what ‘type’ of learner they were. Teachers tailored lessons to suit their preferred learning style.

Teaching to particular learning styles has been repeatedly tested and there is no evidence to suggest it helps improve learning.

Dual coding is different. It is based on scientific evidence. It looks at how the brain processes information rather than students deciding how they think they learn best.

Why Use Dual Coding?

It is common to teach by talking to your class or asking them to read pieces of text. By adding visuals, you can present the information more clearly.

For example, imagine I said the word ‘house’ to you. When you hear the word, you will also have a mental image of what a house looks like. Both your visual image and the word can be used to recall the information stored in your brain.

When you talk to your class, your students try to remember everything you have said. But our brains can only hold a small amount of information at one time. Much of what is said is immediately forgotten. Dual coding helps increase the amount of information remembered.

Types of visuals you can use include:

  • Diagrams
  • Graphic organisers
  • Timelines
  • Cartoon strips
  • Graphs and tables of information
  • Infographics
  • Pictures
  • Posters
  • Sketch noting
  • Icons and symbols

How to Use Dual Coding in Your Classroom

Dual coding works with all ages and across the curriculum. The trick is to allow time for your students to process the visual image before you start talking.

Explain the idea slowly so they understand and make sure they can see how your visual fits together with your verbal explanation.

The visuals you use must be carefully planned and useful to your learners. They are not just decorations. They should help students understand, not confuse them.

The Problem with Text

Are you in the habit of displaying text on a whiteboard whilst you speak to your class? You’re not alone. It is common to see teachers sharing chunks of written information whilst they speak.

The problem comes when the students try to listen and read information at the same time. They can’t do both and so they become overloaded.

Treat written words and spoken words as the same thing. Your brain treats them both as verbal communication. Only use one at a time with your students. Don’t try to use written text as a visual representation.


Creating the Perfect Visual Representation

It’s tempting to stick any image onto a PowerPoint slide and call it dual coding. Sadly, it’s not that easy.

Dual coding only works when the visual representation is meaningful. It must directly relate to the verbal information.

Videos and photographs do not work well for dual coding because they present too much background information. This will leave your students feeling overwhelmed. If you use a photo, make sure it is extremely clear with little background detail.

The perfect visual:

  • Is simple to understand
  • Directly links to the verbal information
  • Has white space around it
  • Uses simple colours and patterns
  • Is more than just decoration

Don’t worry about your artistic abilities. Dual coding is about presenting information clearly, not beautifully.

Encourage your students to draw their own visual representations. Let them compare examples with each other.

If you have written text, keep the visual as close as possible to the writing. Any distance between them will add mental workload to your students.


  • Putting text and visuals on separate pages
  • Using a separate key with graphs
  • Sharing lots of different visuals – stick to one at a time

Getting Started with Dual Coding

You are probably already using dual coding in your classroom. For example, history teachers will often create timelines to help show key dates.

Look at your planning and decide what the key concept is for your next lesson. Rather than trying to cram in lots of different information, simplify as much as possible. Ask yourself what your children must have learned by the time they finish the lesson.

Choose a visual representation that will support this concept. Keep it as simple as possible. Allow your students time to look at it before you start speaking. Reduce any unnecessary background distractions.

Final Thoughts about Dual Coding

Dual coding is not new, but it can have a significant impact on the way you teach. Thinking about the visual representations you present to your students will help you maximise learning.

Used well, dual coding improves students’ retention of information and reduces the cognitive load when learning new concepts.

Creating or finding the perfect visual takes time, but it is well worth your efforts. Embrace dual coding and enjoy the benefits in your classroom.

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.