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Meta-cognition as a tool to improve reading and writing

Metacognition is one’s ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed. It helps learners choose the right cognitive tool for the specific task at hand. It refers to awareness of one’s own knowledge—what one does and doesn’t know—and one’s ability to understand, control, and manipulate one’s cognitive processes (Meichenbaum, 1985). It includes knowing when and where to use particular strategies for learning and problem solving as well as how and why to use specific strategies.

Metacognition literally means "big thinking." You are thinking about thinking. During this process you are examining your brain's processing. Teachers work to guide students to become more strategic thinkers by helping them understand the way they are processing information. Questioning, visualizing, and synthesizing information are all ways that readers can examine their thinking process. Through scaffolding and reciprocal teaching, students are able to practice the skills that lead to these overt acts becoming automatic. — Fountas and Pinnell, 2000 - See more at:

Research shows that metacognitive skills can be taught to students to improve their learning (Nietfeld & Shraw, 2002; Thiede, Anderson, & Therriault, 2003). Individuals with well-developed metacognitive skills can think through a problem or approach a learning task, select appropriate strategies, and make decisions about a course of action to resolve the problem or successfully perform the task. They often think about their own thinking processes, taking time to think about and learn from mistakes or inaccuracies (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995).

Cognitive strategies are the basic mental abilities we use to think, study, and learn (e.g., recalling information from memory, analyzing images, making associations or text connections (t-self, t-text, t-world) between or comparing/contrasting different pieces of information, and making inferences or interpreting text). They help an individual achieve a particular goal, such as comprehending text.

Researchers distinguish between metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive regulation (Flavell, 1979, 1987; Schraw & Dennison, 1994). Metacognitive knowledge refers to what individuals know about themselves as cognitive processors, about different approaches that can be used for learning and problem solving, and about the demands of a particular learning task. Metacognitive regulation refers to adjustments individuals make to their processes to help control their learning, such as planning, information management strategies, comprehension monitoring, de-bugging strategies, and evaluation of progress and goals.

Flavell (1979) further divides meta-cognitive knowledge into three categories:

Person variables: What one recognizes about his or her strengths and weaknesses in learning and processing information.

Task variables: What one knows or can figure out about the nature of a task and the processing demands required to complete the task—for example, knowledge that it will take more time to read, comprehend, and remember a technical article than it will a similar-length passage from a novel.

Strategy variables: The strategies a person has “at the ready” to apply in a flexible way to successfully accomplish a task; for example, knowing how to activate prior knowledge before reading a technical article, using a glossary to look up unfamiliar words, or recognizing that sometimes one has to reread a paragraph several times before it makes sense.

There are questions that students should ask themselves at each step in the reading/writing process that facilitates their understanding and reinforces good thinking.

Planning phase: What am I supposed to learn? What prior knowledge will help me with this task? What should I do first? What should I look for in this reading? How much time do I have to complete this? In what direction do I want my thinking to take me?

Monitoring phase: How am I doing? Am I on the right track? How should I proceed? What information is important to remember? Should I move in a different direction? Should I adjust the pace because of the difficulty? What can I do if I do not understand?

Evaluation phase: How well did I do? What did I learn? Did I get the results I expected? What could I have done differently? Can I apply this way of thinking to other problems or situations? Is there anything I don’t understand—any gaps in my knowledge? Do I need to go back through the task to fill in any gaps in understanding? How might I apply this line of thinking to other problems?

There are ten reading comprehension strategies from Ellin Keene’s book Assessing Comprehension Thinking Strategies to consider. Students at the elementary and middle school levels can and should be developing these skills before they reach high school.

1. Think out loud. Good readers monitor their thinking while reading.
2. Use schema. Consciously connect the text to preexisting knowledge and experiences (text connections) and consider how it helps their understanding of the text.
3. Inferring. Use experience and information from the text to draw conclusions, make connections, predictions, and form opinions.
4. Ask questions about the text before, during, and after reading.
5. Make decisions about what is important in the text (elements and themes). Be able to summarize the main points.
6. Set a purpose for reading to make it meaningful. Determine author’s purpose and audience.
7. Monitor comprehension. Make sure students have strategies in place if they find the text difficult.
8. Visualize what is being read. Make brain movies! Tune into the sensory and emotional images of the text to enhance the visualization. Use this information to help make inferences and draw conclusions.
9. Synthesizing, retelling, and paraphrasing. Keeping track of their impressions while reading and identifying the underlying meaning of the text. Connect the text to information from other sources. Extending that information beyond the text to form opinions and read critically.
10. Text structure. Understanding the elements of a story and how stories are put together helps students analyze and think critically about meaning.

Learning just one or two of these meta-cognitive strategies in the lower grades has been shown to make a difference in reading performance.

Students in high school have skill sets that have been scaffolded since pre-K. These building blocks create the foundation that allows them to craft higher level analysis of prose, poetry, and non-fiction. In AP courses, students must do extensive critical reading with a variety of close reading strategies such as annotations, dialectical journaling, or even Cornell notes. This interaction with the text provides the framework for deep understanding that is a pre-requisite to writing meaningful and insightful essays which remain the cornerstone of secondary and higher education.

After critical reading strategies are in place, the writing process can unfold. When writing is approached as a multi-step process, not some magical creation that spontaneously flows from their fingertips or inkwells, they begin to think about what they are thinking and why they are thinking it.

Careful examination of the reading followed by methodical planning for the writing allows the student to think about the ideas they want to articulate. All of the details such as rhetorical strategies and literary devices must be bound to an overarching concept or big picture idea. It is easy for students to get lost in the details and forget the author’s purpose and intention or the overall meaning of the piece. Thinking about how to dissect a piece and then put it back together for some holistic unity that allows for a seamless essay is no easy task. But when students reflect on their writing, do self- assessments and peer assessments, they develop an inner voice that guides them.

The hallmark quality of any effective teacher is not to tell students what to think but to teach them how to think.Meta-cognition helps students move in that direction.

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