Dual Coding Part 1 – Origins and Theory

spotlight graphic illustrates teaglo spotlight series for teacher CPD on Dual Coding

In this blog, Elliot Morgan gets to grips the origins and theory behind Dual Coding. This blog is Part 1 of a 3 part series on Dual Coding, and its implications for the classroom..  A video explanation of this blog can be found at the bottom of the page too.


Dual Coding Theory (DCT) was formulated by Allan Paivio in 1971. It was influenced by various studies in the 50s and 60s, which proved that free recall of images was higher than the recall of their word labels.

This led Paivio to suggest that pictures were “more effectively stored in or retrieved from long-term memory” and “better retrieved from short-term memory” than words (Paivio et al, 1968, p.138).

Paivio had previously won a ‘Mr Canada’ bodybuilder competition, so it is rather fitting that he would later formulate a theory that focused heavily on image.

The theory intended to explain the effects that mental imagery could have on our memory. Traditionally, theories on memory suggested that the speed through which we were presented stimuli, or how we connected them together, would determine our ability to later retrieve them from our memory. DCT challenged this notion, instead suggesting that the modality (how the stimuli is presented) is what affects our memory.

Over time, DCT became applied to cognition instead of memory, seeking to explain how we acquire knowledge through the process of thought, experience, and our senses.


Where does Dual Coding get its name from? Well, ‘dual’ means consisting of two parts and ‘coding’ means moving to memory – so essentially, the theory concerns two ways of moving information to memory (through verbal and nonverbal representations).

Verbal representations include written or spoken word. Nonverbal representations usually pertain to images or physical objects (visual stimuli).

Paivio believed that our brain’s ability to code information both verbally and visually would increase our chances of remembering it, compared to if it were coded in only one way (just verbally or just visually).

Let us consider this theory of Dual Coding with relation to traffic signs and the driving theory test.

When revising for the theory test, you learn what individual road signs mean. Your brain dually codes the information; you combine verbal information (what the sign means) to specific visual information (what the sign looks like) and vice versa.

When it eventually comes to the test, and you are presented with a picture of the road sign, you are more likely to recall the verbal representation than if you did not dually code, because the memory trace is stronger – you coded the picture and its meaning together.

The theory implies that if our brain cannot make associations between a verbal stimulus and a visual stimulus, the information will be harder to ‘code’ and consequently harder to recall at a later point in time. 

Therefore, the underlying principle of DCT is that our memory of something is enhanced if it is presented to us as a combination of verbal and visual representations.

Dual coding can only occur if verbal information is presented alongside a relevant visual stimulus, or if the recipient of the information can imagine a visual image that is relevant. Likewise, visual information will be enhanced only when paired with relevant verbal information (watch the attached video below for an example of this). 

If the accompanying verbal or visual representation is not relevant, it will mean the information is not understood together and therefore cannot be dually coded successfully. Moreover, the more apposite the visual representation is, the stronger the coding of the information will be together.

Paivio also argued that if you code information together in these two modes, it allows you to access more capacity in your working memory. By coding information in two ways, it is easier to retrieve from our long-term memory as there is a double trace (a verbal representation and a visual representation). 

Being able to retrieve information from our long-term memory will allow us to free up space in the working memory and allow us to focus our cognitive efforts on other information instead.

The Two Systems: Verbal and Nonverbal

The Three Types of Processing

1. Representational processing

2. Referential processing

3. Associative processing


What key points should we reflect on so far?

  • Dual Coding concerns two ways of moving information to long-term memory (verbal and nonverbal).
  • For something to be dually coded, it must form two representations in our mind (most commonly a word and an image or object is used).
  • Something is more likely to be remembered if it is dually coded than single coded, as it creates a double memory trace.
  • When presenting verbal and visual stimuli together, they must be relevant to each other. If not, the recipient will not comprehend the link and therefore not dually code the information together.
  • Dual coding can help to free up space in the working memory.
  • There are two subsystems that process information – the verbal system and the visual system.
  • The two systems can represent information independently and link to similar information within their system or they can trigger each other to form representations.

In part 2, we will consider how Dual Coding Theory has influenced other cognitive theories and how it has developed itself. The third part will discuss how we can use what we have learnt from part 1 and part 2 in our classroom practice.

Dual Coding – Theory and Origins Video


  • Bousfield, W.A., Esterson, J. and Whitmarsh, G.A., 1957. The effects of concomitant colored and uncolored pictorial representations on the learning of stimulus words. Journal of applied psychology41(3), p.165.
  • Clark, J.M. and Paivio, A., 1991. Dual coding theory and education. Educational psychology review3(3), pp.149-210.
  • Ducharme, R. and Fraisse, P., 1965. Genetic study of the memorization of words and images. Canadian Journal of Psychology / Revue canadienne de psychologie , 19 (3), p.253.
  • Lieberman, L.R. and Culpepper, J.T., 1965. Words versus objects: Comparison of free verbal recall. Psychological Reports17(3), pp.983-988.
  • Paivio, A., Rogers, T.B. and Smythe, P.C., 1968. Why are pictures easier to recall than words?. Psychonomic Science11(4), pp.137-138.
  • Paivio, A., 1975. Perceptual comparisons through the mind’s eye. Memory & Cognition3(6), pp.635-647.
  • Paivio, A., 2014. Intelligence, dual coding theory, and the brain. Intelligence47, pp.141-158.
  • Paivio, A. and Clark, J.M., 2006, September. Dual coding theory and education. In Draft chapter presented at the conference on Pathways to Literacy Achievement for High Poverty Children at The University of Michigan School of Education.
  • Paivio, A. and Walsh, M., 1993. Psychological processes in metaphor comprehension and memory.
  • Sadoski, M., Goetz, E.T., Stricker, A.G. and Burdenski, T.K., 2003. New findings for concreteness and imagery effects in written composition. Reading and Writing, 16(5), pp.443-453.

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