Cognitive profiling for English literacy learning

City Lit

The aim of this project was to understand whether it was possible to use our knowledge of the cognitive profiles of English for Life learners to help us improve our teaching and learning strategies.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK].


We wanted specifically to understand how the neurodiversities of the learners changed from pre-course assessment and into classroom practice. We felt that, by designing an initial diagnostic assessment to reveal distinct neurodiversities as well as English levels, tutors could see the cognitive profile of learners from an early stage and develop appropriate learning practices to support better progress.

The project focused on learners in three non-accredited English classes within the Centre for Universal Skills at City Lit, an adult education college in Central London. These English for Life classes (Entry Level 1 – Entry Level 2, Entry Level 3 and Level 1) take a holistic approach to English literacy and communication development through a dedicated curriculum, distinct from Functional Skills.

The learner journeys of two adults from these courses (students AB, CD) were tracked. Four tutors were involved: two from the above courses (both experienced teachers of English literacy to adults); a Learning Support tutor, working one-to-one with learners; and an educational neuroscientist with expertise in SpLD. Other participants included the English coordinator-assessor and the Head of Centre.


The rationale, broadly stated, was the need to get to know our English students better.

In 2017-18, it was decided that the Functional Skills curriculum was not suited to all our adult learners, especially those with specific learning difficulties. Progress was often limited with frequent repetition of levels. Therefore, new non-accredited English classes were created to address the specific needs of these learners.

Also, initial research and screening by an educational neuroscientist intimated that some learning difficulties had been mis-identified as dyslexia, either by learners themselves or others: these difficulties could have stemmed from general learning difficulty or other related factors, including speech and language impairment, poor working memory, auditory processing difficulties, short and long-term memory deficits, comprehension difficulties, acute and generalised anxiety, or poor phonological awareness, whether developmental or acquired.

The OTLA project provided an opportunity to develop such a more appropriate learner-oriented curriculum. Also, it was felt that a more specific pre-course assessment that incorporated a screening of the cognitive profiles of our English learners would give us more information about their neurodiversity. Combining these assessment findings with advice from a neuroscientist could inform tutors about what practices might work best for different learners.

We also wondered whether advice from a neuroscientist might help students in literacy classes become more aware of appropriate strategies and practices for improving literacy, providing a language and analytical framework to help learners, tutors, support workers and managers learn more effectively.


STEP 1 – Develop a screening tool and marking scheme from Entry Level 1 to Level 1
1. Create new assessment materials to provide initial information about a learner’s English level and cognitive profile, including:
o Whole word and phonological spelling/awareness differentiation in reading and writing
o Word finding ability
o Working memory
o Specific language impairment (SLI)
o Inhibitory control
o Capacity to comprehend theory of mind
o Error monitoring

2. Use an on-line marking scheme using colour-coding and comments to enable tutors not expert in screening for SpLD or understanding cognitive profiling to identify levels and learning difficulties.

STEP 2 – Assessment and screening of individual learners
Over 30 learners undertook initial assessment and screening: other marking schemes were also shared with tutors via Google Docs. Seventeen learners diagnosed with specific difficulties in reading and/or writing were considered as project participants.

STEP 3 – Identifying specific case studies
Although we were interested in whole class profiling, we chose to focus on 3 -4 students in each class, 2 as specific case studies.

STEP 4 – Consultation and training with tutors
Tutors and the neuroscientist discussed findings from the initial assessment and potential new approaches and strategies to address specific learner difficulties. Training in key aspects of neurodiversity and in recognising the implications of different learner responses to activities was offered, and tutors recorded and used findings to refine the learner profiles.

STEP 5 – Learners interviewed on film
Learners discussed their experiences of learning English on film: viewing the films helped us better understand why they were doing the course, what they found helpful or difficult and why.

STEP 6 – Gathering qualitative data through observation and participation with learners
Our neuroscientist visited classes over two months and recorded learner ‘behaviour’ with special reference to strategies matched to specific difficulties.

STEP 7 – Gathering qualitative data from tutors
This was collated and distilled into Learner Journey Case Studies

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The most significant changes in practice related to information provided to teachers about learners’ pre-course assessment and placement. A more precise identification of learners and their needs emerged, enabling a more realistic placement in the classes being studied and also other non-accredited courses. The marking scheme provided a framework and common language by which to discuss students’ English and to differentiate aspects of their writing and reading. This proved particularly beneficial with learners whose level and competency initially seemed spikey and inconsistent. Prior to this project, the pre-course assessment had been limited mainly to identifying different linguistic features such as punctuation difficulties. Now, we have developed a means of discussing why the learner might have been making these errors consistently despite having been ‘taught’ how to avoid them.

The early identification of neurodiversities and the chance to work with our neuroscientist did lead to some significant, albeit micro-changes in teaching and learning practices, with potential for further development. For example, one tutor more self-consciously differentiated her questioning strategies and sentence-writing exercises with a learner with Asperger’s so that activities were less abstract, requiring direct, specific answers drawing on the learner’s direct experience. Although having done this before, she was now more confident using the strategy.

Another tutor learned why scaffolding writing exercises were not as effective with one learner as with others. He became aware of cognitive overload and, along with the learner’s support tutor, recognised that giving the learner free time before writing to discuss the content and structure of a text can be more effective.

In one class a new technique has been adopted successfully whereby learners read and stop whenever they lose the sense of the text in order for cognition to ‘catch up’. Teachers have also experimented with students writing in flow and then making corrections as a strategy to encourage reluctant writers. The one-to-one tutor explained why the input about neurodiversities had helped her change her teaching practices:

“It gave me a nudge into going back into thinking about using metacognition in the sessions and making small changes to make the learning really work for AB. Even when a task didn’t quite work or make sense to AB we were able to talk about why this didn’t work for him and how we could make it work.”

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The main organisational change arising from this project was to the pre-course assessment both in terms of its aim and content and also by conducting on-line marking schemes, thus enabling immediate sharing with tutors.

However, perhaps equally significant is the establishment of a shared discourse that has enabled more specific conversations and collaboration to take place between different parties. The assessor, class and support tutors and Head of Centre/curriculum manager now have a common language to frame their discussions and analyses of learners’ learning, whilst also anticipating disagreement. The effect has been to open up issues and raise questions which had previously struggled for a voice. For example, from collaborating with the neuroscientist and with information about the initial assessment, a learning support tutor said:

“It felt like it was breathing new air into the sessions. Her analogy about ‘AB having to have his ducks lined up’ stayed with me and helped me to really think about what was useful to him … her input generally made the work with AB more purposeful.”

This one-to-one tutor is now able to coordinate her work more effectively with the class tutor because of a shared framework. The two class tutors have also been able to collaborate more effectively about learners’ progress between levels.

This shared discourse and the qualitative nature of the research has enabled findings to be shared with the Head of Centre and thereby feed into institutional curriculum development. The recording of students’ experiences of learning with questions framed by cognitive profiling has enabled him to understand their needs and those of the tutors more effectively. Students have been able to articulate, for example, their anxieties when faced with a blank piece of paper or at job interviews.

The framework provided by this project has created a means to approach curriculum development and content as well as appreciate the type of space needed by these learners in order to succeed and feel at ease.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Retention within these classes remains good. The main strategy to show the effectiveness of the project was to focus on the quality of each student’s learning and reading and writing output. There have been some notable successes following changes in practices including what a tutor described as a ‘first’ regarding a learner.

The story was that learner AB had previously struggled with writing whole texts. He lacked confidence and seemed anxious about written tasks and expressing himself orally. He took longer than peers to start a written task so did not produce extended written pieces in a ‘reasonable’ length of time. Effective strategies were developed to give him time to discuss the content of his writing and structure, not overload his cognition via excessive scaffolding, and encourage more flow to his writing. His one-to-one tutor wrote after implementing some of these practices:

“I noticed a change in AB when I started implementing the feedback; he began smiling and also seemed to view the tasks as an adventure.
The real turning point came when he was able to write a complete letter in about 15 minutes. He was clearly pleased and was able to acknowledge that he had done well.”

The neuroscientist also noted an increase in AB’s confidence, with increased participation in in-class discussions and more activity in writing during class time. By midway through the term, AB no longer needed coaxing or visible ‘scaffolding’ to start and complete written tasks. Using the strategies suggested he was able start an extended writing task with less lead time and with confidence about what and how to write. A number of learners in the class reported that they found the stop and recap reading strategy helpful. One learner, AB, commented on the usefulness of stopping when the meaning of a word was difficult and changing the word to a phrase that explained it better.

The tutor reported:

“Reminding him to stop and recap what he was reading, in much shorter bursts was very successful. He read some quite ‘advanced’ texts with excellent comprehension and recall.”

Learner CD benefitted from writing from experience and being asked questions with specific answers. He showed he could achieve more than anticipated using these strategies and enjoyed them. His written responses showed that he was more capable of writing independently than previously thought and was also able to read with more understanding once questions were adjusted.

Learning from this project

We have learned the following:

  1. Creating pre-course assessments to generate data about learners’ neurodiversity and cognitive profiling is possible and can support accurate placement.
  2. This knowledge can be communicated to tutors and inform strategies and approaches.
  3. These strategies, based on cognitive profiling, can be successful.
    We have learnt that a more detailed understanding of and specific emphasis on neurodiversities can be a means of effecting progress in students’ literacy skills. There was certainly evidence that some strategies that took learners’ cognitive profiles into consideration benefited their learning.

As our one-to-one tutor said:

“The project emphasised for me the importance of understanding exactly how someone learns so that as their tutor I can adapt tasks to their learning strengths and not their deficit.”

Our work with the neuroscientist has provided a different perspective on learning issues within our English classes and we have learned a new discourse which has opened up debates within our Centre.

However, we realise we are only at the very beginning of developing our knowledge and understanding of our learners. The small-scale nature of the project, the limited time for the development of strategies and the lack of quantitative data means any conclusions are tentative.

We made a lot of changes to our practices very quickly and our experience has shown we need to refine our initial assessments and process to help us become more efficient.

Our original project would have been better suited to a more longitudinal study. We did not anticipate the extent of ill-health and absence of teachers and students during the project so were not able to observe as much experimentation and change as we would have liked. Nor were we able to observe as many learners as originally intended. Consequently, while we could document progress and confidently make some claims, this may have been because of having chosen the ‘ideal’ participants. We would also have liked to track our learner voice more thoroughly.

However, we hope to continue our investigations in the future, and extend the learning from this project into new practices to enhance the quality of teaching and learning for ourselves and our learners.