ERIC Identifier: ED463659
Publication Date: 2002-04-00
Author: Anderson, Neil J.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
The Role of Metacognition in Second Language Teaching and
Learning. ERIC Digest.
During a National Public Radio broadcast in the United States in March 1999,
a sixth grader explained what she was learning from playing the Stock Market
Game, an activity designed to help children become familiar with how the stock
market functions. She said, "This game makes me think how to think" (Prakash,
1999). What this statement reveals is that this young learner was beginning to
understand the real key to learning; she was engaged in metacognition.
Metacognition can be defined simply as thinking about thinking. Learners who
are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don't know what to do; that
is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do.
The use of metacognitive strategies ignites one's thinking and can lead to more
profound learning and improved performance, especially among learners who are
struggling. Understanding and controlling cognitive processes may be one of the
most essential skills that classroom teachers can help second language learners
develop. It is important that they teach their students metacognitive skills in
addition to cognitive skills.
The distinctions between cognitive and metacognitive strategies are
important, partly because they give some indication of which strategies are the
most crucial in determining the effectiveness of learning. It seems that
metacognitive strategies, that allow students to plan, control, and evaluate
their learning, have the most central role to play in this respect, rather than
those that merely maximize interaction and input--thus the ability to choose and
evaluate one's strategies is of central importance. (Graham, 1997, pp. 42-43)
Rather than focus students' attention solely on learning the language, second
language teachers can help students learn to think about what happens during the
language learning process, which will lead them to develop stronger learning
A MODEL OF METACOGNITION
Metacognition combines various
attended thinking and reflective processes. It can be divided into five primary
components: (1) preparing and planning for learning, (2) selecting and using
learning strategies, (3) monitoring strategy use, (4) orchestrating various
strategies, and (5) evaluating strategy use and learning. Teachers should model
strategies for learners to follow in all five areas, which are discussed below.
and Planning for Learning"
Preparation and planning are important metacognitive skills that can improve
student learning. By engaging in preparation and planning in relation to a
learning goal, students are thinking about what they need or want to accomplish
and how they intend to go about accomplishing it. Teachers can promote this
reflection by being explicit about the particular learning goals they have set
for the class and guiding the students in setting their own learning goals. The
more clearly articulated the goal, the easier it will be for the learners to
measure their progress. The teacher might set a goal for the students of
mastering the vocabulary from a particular chapter in the textbook. A student
might set a goal for himself of being able to answer the comprehension questions
at the end of the chapter.
and Using Learning Strategies"
Researchers have suggested that teaching readers how to use specific reading
strategies is a prime consideration in the reading classroom (Anderson, 1999;
Cohen, 1998; Oxford, 1990). The metacognitive ability to select and use
particular strategies in a given context for a specific purpose means that the
learner can think and make conscious decisions about the learning process.
To be effective, metacognitive instruction should explicitly teach students a
variety of learning strategies and also when to use them. For example, second
language readers have a variety of strategies from which to choose when they
encounter vocabulary that they do not know and that they have determined they
need to know to understand the main idea of a text. One possible strategy is
word analysis: for example, dividing the word into its prefix and stem. Another
possible strategy is the use of context clues to help guess the meaning of a
word. But students must receive explicit instruction in how to use these
strategies, and they need to know that no single strategy will work in every
instance. Teachers need to show them how to choose the strategy that has the
best chance of success in a given situation. For example, unfamiliar words that
include prefixes or suffixes that the student knows (e.g., anti-, -ment) are
good candidates for the use of a word analysis strategy.
By monitoring their use of learning strategies, students are better able to
keep themselves on track to meet their learning goals. Once they have selected
and begun to implement specific strategies, they need to ask themselves
periodically whether or not they are still using those strategies as intended.
For example, students may be taught that an effective writing strategy involves
thinking about their audience and their purpose in writing (e.g., to explain, to
persuade). Students can be taught that to monitor their use of this strategy,
they should pause occasionally while writing to ask themselves questions about
what they are doing, such as whether or not they are providing the right amount
of background information for their intended audience and whether the examples
they are using are effective in supporting their purpose.
Knowing how to orchestrate the use of more than one strategy is an important
metacognitive skill. The ability to coordinate, organize, and make associations
among the various strategies available is a major distinction between strong and
weak second language learners. Teachers can assist students by making them aware
of multiple strategies available to them-for example, by teaching them how to
use both word analysis and context clues to determine the meaning of an
unfamiliar word. The teacher also needs to show students how to recognize when
one strategy isn't working and how to move on to another. For example, a student
may try to use word analysis to determine the meaning of the ord antimony,
having recognized anti as a prefix meaning against. But that strategy won't work
in this instance. Anti is not a prefix here; antimony is a metallic chemical
element that has nothing to do with being against or opposed to something. When
the student finds that word analysis does not help her figure out what this word
means, she needs to know how to turn to other strategies, such as context clues,
to help her understand the word.
Strategy Use and Learning"
Second language learners are actively involved in metacognition when they
attempt to evaluate whether what they are doing is effective. Teachers can help
students evaluate their strategy use by asking them to respond thoughtfully to
the following questions: (1) What am I trying to accomplish? (2) What strategies
am I using? (3) How well am I using them? (4) What else could I do? Responding
to these four questions integrates all of the previous aspects of metacognition,
allowing the second language learner to reflect through the cycle of learning.
Preparing and planning relates to identifying what is to be accomplished, while
selecting and using particular strategies relates to the question of which
strategies are being used. The third question corresponds to monitoring strategy
use, while the fourth relates to the orchestration of strategies. The whole
cycle is evaluated during this stage of metacognition.
For example, while teaching the specific reading skill of main idea
comprehension, the teacher can help students evaluate their strategy use by
using the four questions:
What am I trying to accomplish? The teacher wants students to be able to
articulate that they are trying to identify the main idea in the text they are
reading and that they are doing so because understanding the main idea is key to
understanding the rest of the text.
What strategies am I using? The teacher wants the readers to know which
strategies are available to them and to recognize which one(s) they are using to
identify the main idea.
How well am I using the strategies? The teacher wants the students to be able to
judge how well they are using the strategies they have chosen, that is, whether
they are implementing them as intended and whether the strategies are helping
them achieve their goal.
What else could I do? If the strategies that students are using are not helping
them to accomplish their goal (i.e., identifying the main idea), the teacher
wants them to be able to identify and use alternate strategies. Teachers need to
make students aware of the full range of strategies available to them.
Research shows that learners whose skills or knowledge bases are weak in a
particular area tend to overestimate their ability in that area (Kruger &
Dunning, 1999). In other words, they don't know enough to recognize that they
lack sufficient knowledge for accurate self-assessment. In contrast, learners
whose knowledge or skills are strong may underestimate their ability. These
high-ability learners don't recognize the extent of their knowledge or skills.
Kruger and Dunning's research also shows that it is possible to teach learners
at all ability levels to assess their own performance more accurately. In
addition, their research showed that for tasks involving logic and grammar,
improved self-assessment corresponded with improvement in the skills being
THE INTERACTION OF METACOGNITIVE SKILLS
Each of the five
metacognitive skills described in this digest interacts with the others.
Metacognition is not a linear process that moves from preparing and planning to
evaluating. More than one metacognitive process may be occurring at a time
during a second language learning task. This highlights once again how the
orchestration of various strategies is a vital component of second language
learning. Allowing learners opportunities to think about how they combine
various strategies facilitates the improvement of strategy use.
The teaching of metacognitive skills is a
valuable use of instructional time for a second language teacher. When learners
reflect upon their learning strategies, they become better prepared to make
conscious decisions about what they can do to improve their learning. Strong
metacognitive skills empower second language learners.
Anderson, N. J. (1999). Exploring second
language reading: Issues and strategies. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Cohen, A. D. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. New
Graham, S. (1997). Effective language learning. Clevedon, England:
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How
difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated
self-assessment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.
Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should
know. New York: Newbury.
Prakash, S. (Reporter). (1999, March 19). Market games [Radio series
episode]. All things considered. Washington: National Public Radio.