What Is Metacognition?

Metacognition Overview

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

Learn About Best Practices in Metacognitive Strategies

Introduction

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By practicing and applying metacognitive strategies, students will become good readers, capable of handling any text across a curriculum.

Because metacognitive strategies appear obvious, some teachers might believe that students in intermediate grades begin the school year cognizant of these strategies and experienced in using them. The truth is, most students are unaware of the metacognitive process. Yet only through “thinking about thinking” and using metacognitive strategies do students truly learn. With that in mind, consider the following three main reasons to teach metacognitive strategies.

(Fogarty 1994):

1. To develop in students a deeper understanding of text

Good readers know how to use cognitive and metacognitive strategies together to develop a deeper understanding of a book’s theme or topic. They learn or “construct knowledge” (using cognitive strategies) through a variety of methods, and then recognize (using metacognitive strategies) when they lack understanding and, consequently, choose the right tools to correct the problem.

2. To take students' thinking to a higher level

For many students, explaining their thought process is a daunting task. They may think, "How do I explain what I think? I don’t know what to say. My teacher usually helps me out." These students need opportunities to take their thinking to a higher level and express themselves clearly. Small-group activities, especially those with a teacher's guidance, provide them with the right opportunities.

3. To steer students into adulthood

Once metacognitive strategies are grasped, students will transfer use of these skills from their school lives to their personal lives and will continue to apply them as they mature.

Metacognition is a three-part process (Fogarty 1994). To be successful thinkers, students must:

  1. Develop a plan before reading.
  2. Monitor their understanding of text; use “fix-up” strategies when meaning breaks down.
  3. Evaluate their thinking after reading.

 

Planning

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Good readers plan before reading, and K–2 students must learn the steps needed to accomplish this task. Through modeling and practice, teach them to:

  • Think about the text’s topic.
  • Think about how text features can help in understanding the topic.
    • Read the title and author, front and back cover blurbs, and table of contents.
    • Study illustrations, photos, and graphics, including labels and captions.
    • Skim for boldfaced words, headings and subheadings, and summaries.
  • Think about what they know, what connections they can make, and what questions they might want answered.
  • Think about the way the text might be organized, such as:
    • cause and effect
    • compare and contrast
    • sequence of events
    • problem and solution
    • description
    • a combination of these text structures

 

Monitoring During Reading

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Good readers take charge of their reading by monitoring their own comprehension, and K–2 students need direct instruction on how and why to do this. The first step is recognizing whether or not confusion exists by asking "Do I understand what I just read? or What does the author really want me to know about this text?" Readers who take responsibility for their own comprehension constantly question the text and their reactions to it.

Other ways that readers monitor comprehension during reading are to:

  • make connections
  • make predictions
  • make inferences
  • use context clues
  • use text features
  • identify text structures
  • use graphic organizers to pinpoint particular types of text information
  • write comments or questions on self-stick notes or in the margins

Readers become confused during reading for a variety of reasons (Tovani 2000):

  1. The voice inside the reader’s head is not talking to him any longer about the text. It may simply be reciting the text.
  2. The reader’s mind begins to wander; he is no longer reminding himself to “pay attention.”
  3. The reader can’t remember what has been read.
  4. The reader can’t answer his own questions.
  5. The reader re-encounters a character but does not remember how or when the character was introduced in the story.

 

Evaluating

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When good readers finish reading, they reflect on the strategies they used to determine whether their plan worked or whether they should try something else next time. Because this evaluative component of the metacognitive process is so valuable, model and practice it with your K–2 students at every opportunity.

 

Purposes for Teaching Metacogntive Strategies

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At first glance, teachers might think that students automatically use metacognitive strategies. However, when one child was asked what she was thinking about while reading, she replied, “I’m not thinking. I’m reading.” Unfortunately, that simple, honest statement is true for students in all content areas who see reading, writing, math, science, and social studies as “subjects” rather than opportunities to think and reflect. Yet only through using metacognitive strategies can they truly learn. With this thought in mind, let’s look at two compelling reasons to teach metacognitive strategies in the primary years (Fogarty 1994):

  1. Good readers learn how to use cognitive and metacognitive strategies in conjunction to develop a deeper understanding of a content-area topic, a character’s motives, a book’s theme, and the like. They construct knowledge through a variety of different venues (cognition), and they identify when they no longer understand and what they can do about it (metacognition). Therefore, constructing understanding requires both cognitive and metacogntive elements.
  2. The ultimate goal of strategy instruction is transfer — to be able to use any strategy at any time and for any purpose. Teaching for metacognitive strategies assures that students will be able to successfully use these strategies well into adulthood.

 

Teaching

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Modeling through think-alouds is the best way to teach all comprehension strategies. By thinking aloud, teachers show students what good readers do. Think-alouds can be used during read-alouds and shared reading. They can also be used during small-group reading to review or reteach a previously modeled strategy.

Wilhelm (2001) describes a think-aloud as a way of:

  • creating a record of the strategic decision-making process of going through a text
  • reporting everything the reader is aware of noticing, doing, seeing, feeling, asking, and understanding as he or she reads
  • talking about the reading strategies being used within the content of the piece being read

There are multiple ways to conduct think-alouds:

  • The teacher models the think-aloud while reading aloud, and the students listen.
  • The teacher thinks aloud during shared reading and the students help out.
  • Students think aloud during shared reading and the teacher and other students monitor and help.
  • The teacher or students do think-alouds in writing on an overhead, with self-stick notes, or in a journal during shared reading.
  • Students think aloud in small-group reading and the teacher monitors and helps.
  • Students do think-alouds individually during independent reading using self-stick notes or a journal and then compare their thoughts with others.

When introducing a new comprehension strategy, model during read-aloud and shared reading by following these steps:

  1. Decide on a strategy to model.
  2. Choose a short text or section of text.
  3. Read the text ahead of time and mark locations where you will stop and model the strategy.
  4. State your purpose by naming the strategy and explaining what the focus of your think-alouds will be.
  5. Read the text aloud to students and think aloud at the designated points.
  6. If you are utilizing a read-aloud, continue in the same way. If you are conducting a shared reading experience, have students help pinpoint the words and phrases that help you identify your thinking by underlining or using self-stick notes.
  7. Reinforce the think-alouds with follow-up lessons in the same text or with others. (Wilhelm 2001)

 

The following are a variety of language prompts to use during think-alouds:

Planning

  • I’m going to read a book about a nonfiction topic, and I really don’t know much about it. I think I should read slowly. If I still don’t understand, I may need to reread or skim the text.
  • I wonder why...
  • I already know something about this topic. It is...
  • I know the word __________, but I don’t know what ________ and ____________ mean.
  • I’ve seen this before when I went to...
  • I see lots of graphics and charts. I’ll need to use those to help me understand what I’m reading.
  • Are there any clue words and phrases that might help figure out what text structure I’m reading?
  • Before I continue reading, I need to stop and think about what I just read and make sure I understand it. If I don’t, I need to stop and plan.

Monitoring

  • The author gives me a picture in my mind when he describes...
  • What might happen next? Why do I think that?
  • What was this page about?
  • Maybe I should reread this part again and look for specific information.
  • How does the graphic on this page help me understand the text?
  • Since I don’t understand this word, I may need to...
  • This wasn’t what I expected. I expected _______ because ___________.
  • What can I write or draw that might help me remember and understand what I just read?

Evaluating

  • How well did I read and understand?
  • What strategies worked well for me?
  • What strategies did not work for me?
  • What should I do next time?
  • Do I need some help for next time?
  • How will I remember what I read?

 

Sample Lesson

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Part 1

Model the metacognitive strategy.

Say: "Have you ever been reading a book and found yourself staring off into space? Whether you knew it or not, you were probably wondering about what you read. Often, when you pause in your reading, you find yourself thinking about a character in the story or an amazing fact about a topic. You’re revisiting some of the ideas in your reading and asking yourself what they mean.

"When I get to the end of a book, or even to the end of an important page, I pause and consider what I’ve just read. Putting the author’s ideas in my own words helps to fix them in my head. I am monitoring my own comprehension."

Read aloud a few pages of a big book while students follow along. Try to anticipate ideas and words in the text that indicate good places to pause. Stop and think aloud about what the author might be saying.

Part 2

Have students try the strategy in the same text.

Continue reading the big book, and ask students to think about the topic as you read. After you are finished, ask students to write or draw in their reader-response journals, expressing ideas or questions that they have about what the author was trying to say. After students are finished, ask them to share their responses and to discuss why these ideas were important to them as they read.

Part 3

Have students apply the strategy to another text.

The goal of the lesson is for students to be able to apply what they have learned to future readings. Ask: "What are we going to do as we read the next book?" (Think about what we are reading so that we can record our ideas in our journals.) Have students listen carefully as you read aloud or conduct another shared reading session. Ask them to record at least one major idea in their journals and then share their responses in a small group or with a partner. If students have questions about the text, encourage other students to suggest answers.



Use high-interest content, stunning photography, and explicit teacher prompts to teach key metacognitive strategies!

Teach students to:
  • Make inferences
  • Draw conclusions
  • Visualize
  • Identify cause and effect & more..

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Accelerate Achievement

Resources to Help Teach Metacognitive and Comprehension Strategies


Early Explorers leveled text sets for primary students

Science, Social Studies, and Math texts, including fiction and nonfiction, integrate information with the development of metacognitive strategies, such as asking questions and making connections.

To see sample pages and ordering information, click here.

Scroll down to use the sampler request form for educators.


Bridges and Navigators leveled text sets for intermediate students

Science and Social Studies texts continue the development of content knowledge and metacognitive strategies, such as monitoring text and clarifying understanding.

To see sample pages and ordering information, click here.

Scroll down to use the sampler request form for educators.


PRIME leveled text sets for middle and high school students

These Science and Social Studies texts make middle and high school content accessible and interesting, and their Teacher's Guides explicitly support metacognitive strategy instruction.

To see sample pages and ordering information, click here.

Scroll down to use the sampler request form for educators.


Anchor Comprehension Workshop sets for Grades K-6

Whole-class and small-group resources help students learn comprehension and metacognitive strategies together.

To see sample pages and ordering information, click here.

Scroll down to use the sampler request form for educators.

 

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