Managing Cognitive Load with Authentic Language Materials

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by Angela Inkster

Authentic language materials are linguistic resources created by native speakers, for native speakers, and not originally intended for second language teaching purposes (Adams, 1995). Authentic materials offer learning benefits, which foster language acquisition. However, an analysis of these materials through the lens of cognitive load theory indicates that authentic language places high demands on working memory resources, thus reducing the potential for learning. One approach to maximize the benefits of authentic language, and reduce cognitive load, is make use of digital tools. Research suggests certain instructional design strategies have the potential to manage cognitive load while learners interact with authentic language material.

Theory and Evidence

The Argument for Authenticity


Support for the use of authentic language materials appears in the literature as early as 1899, when phonetician and early language teaching expert Henry Sweet promoted the linguistic advantages of acquiring language through authentic texts, in comparison to simplified materials (Gilmore, 2007). Despite Sweet’s early theorizing, it was not until the 1970’s, with the growing popularity of communication based language pedagogy, that authentic materials started to appear in classrooms. Decades later, the merits of using authentic versus simplified resources with second language learners continues to be an issue of debate (Akbari & Razavi, 2016).


Experts have also yet to reach a unanimous agreement on what constitutes authentic language material. A commonly accepted definition by Adams (1995) states, “materials are authentic if they are unaltered language data and are produced by and for native speakers of a common language and not for second language learners of that language” (p.1). This means authentic materials reflect the grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and pragmatics unique to a specific language group. The resources are commonly in text, audio, or audio-visual format, and include examples such as news reports, movies, signs, advertisements, songs, novels, weather reports, restaurant menus, prescription labels, and podcasts. Authentic materials can even include the use of interactive media such as video games, social networking websites, or virtual reality systems. The range of authentic material easily available to teachers and students continues to grow with advancements in technology.

Benefits for Language Learning

Research suggests that learners benefit from authentic language materials for four key reasons. First, these materials have been shown to improve student motivation (Erbaggio et al., 2016). Gilmore (2007) reasons that authentic materials are fundamentally more interesting for students because the primary goal of these resources is to communicate a message, rather than manipulate or highlight specific linguistic features (as can be seen in simplified texts that are created specifically for language learning purposes). In studies of authentic material use with language students, increased motivation has been connected to higher levels of on task behavior, concentration (Peacock, 1997), and improved attitudes towards language learning (Otte, 2006). Second, authentic resources offer students greater cultural awareness than most simplified materials (Beresova, 2015). Current, relevant and accurate insights into the target language culture improve a learner’s ability to comprehend semantic nuances and cultural references embedded in a second language. Third, although some argue that simplified materials are easier for students to comprehend, contrived texts and dialogues do not prepare students for the type of language they will encounter in the real-world (Tomlinson, 2012). In one study, learners themselves reported authentic language material to be useful because it “gave them a chance to rehearse what they would have to face in the future” (Lee,1995, p. 328). Lastly, some researchers claim that authentic resources better meet the specific language needs of learners. These teaching materials are often more up-to-date than textbooks and inform students about current issues and everyday activities (ibid.). Effective communication requires more than the acquisition of linguistic knowledge; students must learn how and when to use socio-culturally relevant language. Authentic materials can be selected to cater to the language requirements of a targeted student population, thus providing inherently more context-specific learning than is immediately available from textbooks or generic grammar exercises. Despite the numerous learning advantages possible with authentic material use, it remains necessary to examine the critiques of this pedagogical approach before considering instructional design principles for authentic language learning.

Authentic Language Materials Pose Cognitive Processing Challenges

Linguistic Complexity

On the other side of the authentic materials debate are those who claim authentic language resources do not promote language acquisition for the majority of learners. One argument in support of this position is that authentic materials assume a great deal of prior cultural knowledge, which language learners may not possess (Widdowson, 1998). The other prominent contention is that authentic language is too linguistically complex for most learners. This argument stems from the theory that language input must be comprehensible in order for acquisition to occur (Krashen, 1985). In comparison to texts that have been simplified for language learning purposes, authentic materials contain complicated grammatical structures, “high lexical density, idiomatic language, [and] low frequency vocabulary” (Gilmore, 2007, p.710). For all but the most advanced learners, these materials present a complex array of novel linguistic features.

Limits of Working Memory

Language learning is similar to all other forms of learning (Saville-Troike & Barto, 2016) in that each new item of information attended to by the learner must be individually processed in working memory. With repeated exposure and practice, this knowledge is gradually transferred to long-term memory and assimilated into new or existing “chunks” of related information called '''schemas'''. Because working memory is limited in its processing capacity, the average learner is only able to attend to seven (plus or minus two)cognitive overload variables at one time (Miller, 1956). Whether these are chunks retrieved from long-term memory, or individual pieces of new information, or a combination of the two, the total number of items that can be effectively attended to and manipulated in working memory is limited. It is only when a schema becomes fully automated, as the result of extensive practice, that the information can be used without placing demands on working memory resources (Sweller, 1994).

cognitive load theory

Processing restrictions in working memory have important implications for language learning. When students encounter authentic language, with its inevitable combination of unfamiliar vocabulary, grammatical structures, idiomatic phrases, and cultural references, learners may experience cognitive overload. In other words, the number of novel language items to be processed will exceed the limits of working memory. In addition, unlike some more basic learning tasks such as memorizing a list of new vocabulary, authentic language acquisition involves at high degree of “element interactivity or connectedness” (i.e. the interaction between syntax, vocabulary, semantics, and pragmatics is critical to overall meaning) (Sweller, 1994, p. 304). Thus, authentic language, with its novel linguistic features and high degree of connectivity, can result in an extremely large cognitive load for learners. The consequences of cognitive over load can be detrimental to language acquisition, as excess processing demands reduce students’ ability to meet learning outcomes (Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2003).

Because the linguistic complexity of authentic language material places a high demand on working memory, carefully managing cognitive load is of critical importance when presenting information and designing learning tasks for language acquisition. The previously discussed benefits of authentic materials can be maximized when instructional design strategies accommodate the high cognitive load of complex learning. Before highlighting a few examples of how learning with authentic language materials can be managed through the use of technology, it is important to differentiate the three types of cognitive load, and to understand how each load impacts working memory and the learning process.

Cognitive Load Theory: Three Types of Cognitive Load

Cognitive load describes the amount of processing imposed on working memory. As was previously mentioned, working memory is limited. Learning is said to have occurred when information is consolidated into schemas in long-term memory, or when these schemas become automated (Van Merriënboer, & Sweller, 2010). According to cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1988), there are three types of cognitive load, and each is influenced by different variables in a learning environment. Van Merriënboer, & Sweller (2010) differentiate between the three loads as follows:

Intrinsic load is a direct function of the complexity of the performed task and the expertise of the learner; extraneous load is a result of superfluous processes that do not directly contribute to learning, and germane load is caused by learning processes that deal with intrinsic cognitive load. (p. 85)

For optimal learning, decrease extraneous load, increase intrinsic load, and maximize germane load.

For example, when language materials are linguistically simplified for learners, intrinsic cognitive load is reduced, but so is the total amount of learning (germane load); if gratuitous background music distracts from the instructional content in a video, extraneous load is increased; and when a learning activity triggers a connection between new vocabulary and a student’s prior experience, germane cognitive load is induced. Intrinsic cognitive load and extraneous cognitive load are additive (Paas, Renkl, & Sweller, 2003), and consequently, learning tasks that involve high levels of both processes can result in cognitive overload. Therefore, when designing technology-based authentic language learning, instructional strategies should aim to maximize germane cognitive load by reducing extraneous load and managing intrinsic load. The next section highlights a few of these instructional strategies along with research examples to support the use of these methods with language learners.

Applying Cognitive Load Theory: Design Strategies for Authentic Language Materials

Thus far it has been established that authentic materials have the potential to be advantageous for language acquisition, increasing student motivation, building cultural awareness, providing exposure to “real-world” language, and better meeting students’ needs than simplified resources, written specifically for learning purposes. However, authentic material is complex and can result in a high cognitive load. The following examples are given to illustrate how principles of instructional design can be applied to manage the cognitive load of students while they engage with digital forms of authentic language.

Strategies to Reduce Extraneous Load


Current technology now offers a range of tools that have been incorporated into digital learning, including “popup windows that give further explanations, underlined or distinctively coloured words, hyperlinks to other pages or sites such as online dictionaries or glossaries, illustrative figures and images, video and audio files” (Akbulut, 2007, p. 357). Before becoming overly enamoured with the many digital enhancements that can be added to authentic language material, it is critical to consult the research on any one strategy. Consider that some multimedia features may actually constitute seductive details (Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992), which increase the demands on working memory and interfere with the learning process (Sanchez & Wiley, 2006). If the extraneous load of a learning task is too great, students will struggle to achieve the learning outcomes. For example, Kuwada (2010) discovered that language students recalled more vocabulary from an interactive video game if they simply watched the game, as opposed to playing it. The study concluded that interacting with the video game created extraneous cognitive load that did not contribute to vocabulary acquisition. This example does not imply that all authentic language video games are ineffective for learning new vocabulary, but the study does illustrate how cognitive load can be consumed by tasks and external stimuli that are unrelated to learning objectives. When presenting authentic materials, instructional designers should avoid all unnecessary distractors, to free up working memory resources for the already demanding intrinsic load of authentic language.

Split Attention

Unfamiliar words present a significant challenge to students who engage with authentic material. A high cognitive load is imposed when learners are required to search for a meaning in their dictionary, or their memory, if the term has been learned but not yet automated. “Looking-up” unknown words while attempting to comprehend a text can be described as split attention. The extraneous processing “occurs when multiple sources of information must be mentally integrated” (Sweller, 2017, p. 8). One way to alleviate the high cognitive load imposed by new vocabulary is to provide the needed information (i.e. definition / example) precisely when and where it is required in the task (Kester et al., 2001). This can be accomplished in digital learning through hypertext or hypermedia glosses, read by clicking or hovering over the unknown words or phrases. Findings from a meta-analysis on second language reading indicate that in general, students who have access to computer-mediated text glosses demonstrate higher levels of reading comprehension and incidental vocabulary learning than those who do not have access to such scaffolding (Abraham, 2008). While this meta-analysis did not exclusively target studies using authentic language resources, the addition of hypertext glosses to authentic materials appears to be a promising strategy to reduce learners’ cognitive load and certainly warrants more research.

Strategies to Manage Intrinsic Load


Mayer recommends “pretraining in the name, location, and characteristics of key components” (p.765) of an upcoming learning task to manage essential processing during the target learning activity. If technology is the intended means for managing cognitive load with authentic language materials, pretraining in the use of any digital devices, programs or websites should be conducted prior to focusing on the language learning itself. Researchers suggest that two significant problems people face when using new software is “disorientation and cognitive loading” (Saadé & Otrakji, 2007, p.526). If students attempt to operate a new device or navigate an unfamilar interface, while simultaneously attending to complex language material, cognitive load will increase (Zhang, 2013). Both skills are necessary to successfully complete the learning activity, but the non-linguistic knowledge can be pretaught, preventing cognitive overload and allotting more resources to the processing of authentic language.


Authentic audio and video can provide a rich source of linguistic and cultural input, while developing key listening skills. Considering the high cognitive load required for such activities, it is unsurprising to find students report the speed of oral language to be particularly challenging (Kavaliauskienė, 2012). Subtitles and captions are often provided in these situations, but does this attempt at scaffolding actually manage intrinsic cognitive load during authentic listening tasks? According to cognitive load theory, adding text to oral information constitutes redundancy, creating unnecessary processing and extraneous cognitive load (Van Merriënboer, & Sweller, 2010). The same principle, however, does not appear to hold for the use of captions with second language learners. Studies show that L1 captions do improve overall comprehension (Hayati & Mohmedi, 2011), and aide in the recognition of novel vocabulary (Gass, Sydorenko, & Winke, 2010). When deciding whether to add captions or subtitles to authentic material, research suggests L1 captions are more effective for second language learners than L2 subtitles (Guichon & McLornan, 2008). Guichon & McLornan conclude that L2 subtitles cause “lexical interference” (p.1), which increases cognitive load during listening tasks. Consequently, instructional design using authentic video and audio for language learning purposes may consider the addition of L1 captions to manage students’ essential processing during listening tasks. One possible tool for material without captions is the use of automatic video and transcript synchronization systems, which have also shown positive results for increasing student comprehension of authentic videos (Chen, 2011).

Strategies to Maximize Germane Load


Germane cognitive load promotes schema formation and automation, and can be maximized with instructional strategies that foster student motivation and learning-focused effort (Paas, Renkl & Sweller, 2003). Incorporating design features based on the generation effect (Wittrock, 1989) is one such strategy that could be used to increase the germane cognitive load of students using authentic language materials. Following this principle, students who actively produce answers, rather than passively receiving information, show increased levels of learning (Slamecka & Graf, 1978). One example of this can be seen in Shadiev et al.’s (2015) study, where students who created their own text-annotations to support their language acquisition in an authentic environment (i.e. outside the classroom), demonstrated higher achievement levels. When real-world interactions function as the authentic learning material, mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, provide opportunities to boost germane cognitive load with strategies such as self-generated language scaffolding.


The multimedia principle is a well-established method for optimizing germane cognitive load, and should be considered when developing digital language learning with authentic materials. According to the multimedia principle “people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone” (Mayer, 2008, p. 766). The combination of verbal and visual information leads to stronger schema formation and thus enhances learning (Paivio,1991). The benefits of pairing pictures with text or audio have implications for both the selection and presentation of authentic language materials. As is illustrated by Yang (2014), greater language comprehension results from audio-visual content (e.g. TV news broadcast) than from audio content alone (e.g. just audio of news broadcast). Language instructors and program designers can use authentic audio-visual materials for all but the most proficient learners, to help students understand new language and transfer this knowledge to long-term memory. In terms of enhancing existing authentic language for improved understanding, pairing an audio text with a video, depicting scenes and objects described in the narration, can also boost language acquisition (Mayer, Lee, & Peebles, 2014). Thus, designers of digital language learning resources should pair authentic audio recordings with relevant images, to optimize the germane load of listening activities. With the technology of intelligent tutoring systems, these images could gradually be faded as the target language is acquired and scaffolding is not longer necessary for audio comprehension.

Language acquisition is a complex process and authentic materials can easily overload a learner’s working memory resources. Examples provided above demonstrate that the cognitive load of authentic language tasks can be controlled to some degree using the principles of cognitive load theory. Digital language program designers and online course developers should be made aware of research based cognitive strategies that can be incorporate into authentic material. Language instructors will also benefit from an understanding of which programs and design strategies reduce cognitive load and enhance meaningful learning, so that they are able to identify these features when selecting resources for their students. Although not discussed in reference to language learning, if readers are looking for a more complete list of strategies to manage cognitive load, please refer to Van Merriënboer, & Sweller (2010).


generation effect- “a phenomenon where information is better remembered if it is generated from one's own mind rather than simply read” (Wikipedia).

multimedia principle- refers to the principle of learning whereby “people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone” (Mayer, 2008, p. 766).

seductive details- “seductive details can take the form of text, photos, illustrations, sounds or music and are by definition: (1) interesting and (2) not directed toward the learning objectives of a lesson” (Wikipedia).

schema- “a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them” (Wikipedia).

split attention- “occurs when multiple sources of information must be mentally integrated” resulting in greater extraneous cognitive load (Sweller, 2017, p. 8).

redundancy- “refers to the phenomenon in instruction where learning is hindered when additional information is presented to learners compared to the presentation of less information” (Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning, p. 2787-2788).

Resources/Useful Links

Language Learning Resources Using the Multimedia Principle of Learning:

Authentic Conversation Videos with Captions

Hello Talk, Language Exchange Learning App- communicate with native speakers or language learners

FluentU- language learning software with authentic annotated videos (pay to use)

Areas of Further Study

The ultimate accomplishment for most language learners is the ability to successfully use their classroom language knowledge in a real life context. To meet this goal, some teachers are now sending their students into “authentic learning environments” (i.e. outside the classroom), with the support of mobile devices. Authentic environments are inherently complex and can carry a high cognitive load for language learners (Chu, 2014). Thus, language instructors and students require research-based information on how best to manage cognitive load with mobile technology in an authentic language context.

A recent meta-analysis of mobile language learning suggests that most learning activities carried out in authentic environments have been teacher-centred (Shadiev, Hwang, & Huang, 2017). Consequently, more research is needed to identify mobile design strategies to manage cognitive load with student-centred pedagogy, such as problem-based learning. Student-driven learning, in authentic environments, has the potential to increase learner motivation and foster real world language acquisition, in much the same way that authentic materials have been shown to do. Thus, learners could greatly benefit from research-based mobile applications that are shown to reduce extraneous cognitive load, maximize germane load, and optimize schema acquisition during language interactions outside the classroom.


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