What is a cognitive approach to teaching adult literacy and numeracy?

A cognitive approach to adult literacy and numeracy is simply one with a focus on the internal processes and connections that take place in someone’s mind when they are learning.

Cognitive approaches to learning are sometimes contrasted with behaviourism which focuses on observable physical behaviours.

A cognitive approach to adult literacy and numeracy is one in which the learner is an active agent remembering, thinking, reflecting, abstracting and actually making meaning about literacy and numeracy concepts for themselves.

The focus is on the understanding of information and concepts. When learners are aware of the learning processes going on inside their heads, and can monitor and control them then we have metacognition. This is a kind of thinking about learning.

Here are some of the basic assumptions of a cognitive approach to learning that apply to adult literacy and numeracy:

  1. It’s easier for our learners to pick up new information if they can relate it to something they already know
  2. It’s easier for our learners to pick up several pieces of new information if they can relate them to the bigger picture – some kind of overall organisational structure.
  3. Our learners are selective about what they process and learn.
  4. Learners construct meaning for themselves, rather than getting it directly from you or the environment.
  5. Learners’ prior knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about literacy and numeracy play a major role in the meanings that they construct in your class or training.
  6. Learners are actively involved in their own learning.

Here are some of processes that a cognitive approach will employ with learners:

  • Recognising
  • Recollecting
  • Analyzing
  • Reflecting
  • Applying
  • Creating
  • Understanding
  • Evaluating

The cognitive approach underpins modern approaches to adult learning and teaching as well as the explicit approach to embedding literacy and numeracy that we have in Aotearoa New Zealand.

With the educator as a guide and facilitator, the process of making literacy and numeracy skills development explicit encourages learners to organise what they know, find relationships between different things that they are learning, and link new information to existing knowledge.

Understanding how memory works is also a key part of a cognitive approach. Watch this video from the Khan Academy for short summary on the Information Processing Model of memory.

Journal Task

Write at least 250 words on how a cognitive approach to adult literacy and numeracy teaching underpins your teaching.

If you need a prompt to get started, answer one or more of these questions:

  • What do you do to help learners work out what they already know about key aspects of literacy and numeracy?
  • How do you work to build conceptual understandings of key literacy and numeracy skills?
  • What kinds of literacy and numeracy strategies to you teaching your learners to use?
  • How do you encourage your learners to reflect and think critically about what they are reading or calculating?
  • What’s an example of an important literacy or numeracy skill where you made an explicit link between the skill area and your vocational training?
  • How do you know your literacy and numeracy activities are meaningful and relevant to your learners?
  • Are you able to clearly articulate key ideas or strategies for literacy and numeracy and organise teaching and learning around these?
  • Can you illustrate how you support your learners to reflect on their own learning in order to gain increased control over their own thinking processes?
  • What kinds of independent learning or study skills do you teach and how effective are they?


Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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