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Dual Coding & Word Diagrams in the Drama Classroom

By Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd (@leftylloyd) is currently Lead Practitioner and Progress Coordinator for Drama & Theatre at The Polesworth School, North Warwickshire. She is in her 23rd year of teaching. This article was recently published in Spring 2023 issue of Drama Magazine

Introduction - My Journey

I have been using ‘dual coding’ in my teaching for many years; I knew that images and diagrams added clarity when I was teaching, that they helped students to learn concepts and specific information more quickly. I found that diagrammatic representations of processes (or the relationship between concepts) enabled them to follow and replicate these processes with greater ease and success. I did not, however, fully understand why.

Three years ago, I attended a session by Oliver Caviglioli at ResearchED and was introduced to his work explaining the science behind these concepts and presenting potential tools for teachers to improve their use of dual coding. I purchased his book ‘Dual Coding with Teachers’ and, guided by clearly explained principles supported by research, I have significantly developed how I create and use teaching presentations and educational resources. This article aims to give a glimpse into how the theory can be brought into the Drama classroom.

What is Dual Coding?

In its simplest form, dual coding is using images and / or graphical representation alongside text or verbal instruction to make information clearer and therefore more accessible. Linking images to key theories, concepts and ideas enables students to quickly recognise and connect material. Images summarising key messages in text can draw attention to central meaning more successfully than headings and skimming. Using dual coding theory to create and design the layout of worksheets, Powerpoints and displays makes them easier to access, read, understand and learn from.

A (very short) Summary of the Research – Learning and Dual Coding

We learn by building schemas in our mind: models which organise our learning in a logical way. Think about the way that books are arranged in a library – within their genre, then alphabetically; within the book there are chapters which follow on, then sentences and words. The contents of our long term memory are “sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems,” (John Sweller in Exploring your mind, 2020) rather than a group of rote learned facts. If, for example, I asked you to name as many animals as you could, it is likely that you would think of one and then list related animals (farm, zoo, pet, safari etc) before going on to another category. This is because the information is arranged logically in your mind. Our schemas are dynamic - they are constantly shifting to accommodate and assimilate new information. Teachers need to understand this to ensure that we build these structures in a logical sequence and that we activate prior knowledge when presenting new learning.

In his book, Caviglioli (2019) explains Allan Paivio’s theory from the 1970s that people process visual and verbal information separately and simultaneously therefore providing both together can boost learning and retention. Caviglioli explains how the two inputs trigger different parts of the brain meaning that, “people learn better from graphics and words than from words alone.” (Richard Mayer in Caviglioli, 2022). It is this concept which we can then use to support and ease learning.

Caviglioli states the benefits:

  • Direct attention

  • Trigger prior knowledge

  • Manage cognitive load

  • Build schema

  • Transfer to working memory

  • Motivate (2019:40).

Practical Applications for Drama

Many years ago, I created a framework called ‘The Drama Sixes’, it is six key elements for each area of drama: acting, set, costume, props, puppets, lighting and sound. I then discovered the website which is invaluable for quickly finding black and white icons, (the examples below all use this resource). The repetition of the grid structure and similarities between some of the design elements, support students in creating a mental framework to think through when planning practical application or answering examination questions. I always use the same icons to reduce cognitive load and regularly present ‘icon only’ grids to support retrieval exercises. Here is my costume drama six:

I use this framework to add additional information for specific tasks. For example, to support detailed description for the live theatre review, I created the grid below. I use the icons and layout which students are already familiar with to reduce their cognitive load but added three prompts for each element instructing students to use it as a frame to construct their sentences. This one is for acting:

I utilise icons to teach key skills like analysis and evaluation which are used as command words in examination questions. For example, when I teach how to evaluate I ask students to focus on three key elements:

1. Technical merit

2. Achievement of aims

3. Audience / personal response

Therefore, evaluate equals:

We practise the recall and linking of the word ‘evaluate’ to these three images to create a mental model of what the word means. Students create their own version in their exercise book which they elaborate and then reduce. Over time, this becomes automatic and their evaluations, in turn, improve.

Another way that I use icons is when teaching plot and theme. At GCSE, I created a booklet representing the whole set play as a series of icons. Whilst this was initially time consuming, the huge range of uses made the time investment worthwhile. I use this booklet for multiple purposes:

  • Before reading a scene: we look at the icons and explore what we expect to happen / links to previous events (icons they have seen before) and any patterns.

  • Retrieval: after reading a scene, I ask students to use the icons to:

  1. tell the story to their partner (sounding a buzzer every 30 seconds so that they swop);

  2. individually annotate the story beneath;

  3. shuffle the icons and ask students to put them in the correct order.

  • Analysis: when preparing to answer a question on a particular scene, I ask them to revisit the graphical representation to enable them to quickly skim the plot.

Here is an example from Laura Eason’s ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (AQA GCSE Drama set text). This representation makes Fogg’s strict, repeated routine in the opening scene exceptionally clear:

I use single icons from the full plot to develop students’ ability to make connections in retrieval activities. At the start of a lesson, I display three icons on the board and give a set amount of time to make as many associations and connections as possible. For example (again from ‘Around the World in 80 days’):

These three images are critical to the play and can therefore act as a trigger to activate their knowledge but then to make links which they hadn’t seen before.

For example:

  • Passport – Fogg is travelling; he has to have his passport stamped in every country to win the wager; it is because he is having his passport stamped that Fix sees his money and then follows him …

When teaching Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ (AQA A level set text), students need to develop a strong directorial interpretation of the play. I use icons to track themes which offer students a useful frame to explore the text:

We might create a hierarchy of the themes in a given scene or use them as a focus during a rehearsal. We create paths through the play by exploring phrases like: ‘if the whole play was about love then …’.

I always use icons when teaching new words alongside simplified definitions and contextualisation in a sentence across all key stages. The icon quickly activates prior knowledge and gives a sense of the word which helps students to assimilate the word into their schema before exploring it in the lesson. Here is an example from year 9:

Dual Coding Top Tips

My top tips for utilising icons are:

  1. Reuse the same icons each time you revisit the material to help students to make direct associations.

  2. Place icons near large paragraphs of text or new words to help students to focus on the main point.

  3. Add icons to Powerpoints, worksheets and displays to reduce the ‘clutter’ and enable students to quickly understand the focus and find information.

A (very short) Summary of the Research – Word Diagrams

I have been using graphic organisers to reduce chunks of text and make material easier to understand and /or to create revision summaries for many years. Following my engagement with the work of Caviglioli, I have used them more and more. Examples of word diagram formats are:

  • Fishbone

  • Flow spray

  • Flow Chart

  • Tree diagram

  • Concept map

We find a photograph or drawing easier to remember than a written description; a timeline easier to understand than a paragraph of text explaining the order of things; a hierarchical representation is clearer than an extensive explanation. Caviglioli’s second book (2021) written in collaboration with David Goodwin explains this though the concept of “spatial metaphors” (Caviglioli & Goodwin, 2021:24-25). The book draws on the research of Lakoff and Johnson who state, “we typically conceptualise the nonphysical in terms of the physical” either creating “containers” in which concepts can be placed within others or “paths” in which we “move towards an intended goal” (Caviglioli & Goodwin, 2021:25). Both of these are embedded within us and this “can help us better understand why visual structures enable us to think clearly.” (Caviglioli & Goodwin, 2021:24).

The concept of “cognitive maps” is also explored, “neuroscience is revealing surprising aspects of how our cognitive maps mirror the mechanisms of how we navigate physical space” (Caviglioli & Goodwin, 2021:26). We naturally create a layout on a page and use space to plan our thoughts and actions. Word diagrams work on this very concept that laying ideas and concepts in carefully considered spatial formations aids our ability to engage with and think about ideas.

Practical Applications for Drama

I have seen a growth in the number of students opting for non-acting pathways in GCSE Drama over the last 6-7 years. Having a multitude of foci in the practical classroom became quite stressful for a time so I wrote booklets which gave students clear processes to follow and provided carefully sequenced tasks to complete during the devising process. On the front cover, alongside the appropriate ‘drama 6’ icons, I provide students with a simple flow chart to follow / annotate / tick off as they progress through their work. These have increased student independence and ensure that no critical steps are missed. Here is an example from the set design booklet:

Hierarchical relationships are critical in many texts, not least in Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’. Providing a graphic visual of the officer characters made a huge difference to students’ understanding which was instant upon seeing this tree diagram representation:

We experiment with this clear, accessible structure throughout our study of the text providing graphic representations of the more fluid convict hierarchies in key scenes for discussion and debate.

I also use the Ishikawa or fishbone diagram to help students to develop their directorial vision for ‘Our Country’s good’. The example below is adapted from the work of Karen Knight (@KKNTeachLearn) who has kindly given her permission for me to share my version:

Students complete this diagram after studying the whole play, often changing their minds before arriving at their finalised version which they then place beside them when writing ‘director’ questions to reduce their cognitive load, guide their thinking and develop and link their ideas.

I am an advocate of reducing cognitive load as much as possible when in the early stages of learning the skill of answering examination questions, I have therefore created flow spray diagrams for both GCSE and A level to support students in the early stages. I make links to key knowledge which is needed alongside giving them some support with writing structures, which they can use if they need to. These are used as scaffolding, so versions with less and less information are provided, before they are removed completely. Here is an example for the AQA GCSE 8 mark question:

Word diagram Top Tips

My top tips for utilising word diagrams are:

  1. Use them when there is a clear relationship between elements which could easily be represented in a diagram.

  2. Use them to support students when studying a play or text with key relationships.

  3. Use them to scaffold complex tasks and then gradually remove.


Caviglioli, O (2022) Olicav [available online] (accessed, 15/10/22)

Caviglioli, O (2019) Dual Coding with Teachers, John Catt

Caviglioli, O & Goodwin, D (2021) Organise Ideas, John Catt

Eason, L (2015) Around the World in 80 Days, NHB

Exploring your mind (2020) John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory [available online] (accessed 15/10/22)

Noun Project (2022) The Noun Project [available online] (accessed, 15/10/22)

Wertenbaker, T (1995) Our Country’s Good, Bloomsbury

Sharon Leftwich-Lloyd (@leftylloyd) is Lead Practitioner and Drama Lead at The Polesworth School, Warwickshire and also leader of the Community Academies Trust Expert Group for Secondary Literacy, Reading and Numeracy. She favours a research / evidence led approach to teaching and is a Fellow of The Chartered College of Teaching.

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