About the Experts

C.C. Bates

Peter Afflerbach, Ph.D.

Peter Afflerbach, Ph.D., is Professor of Reading in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Maryland. His research includes focus on reading comprehension strategies and processes, verbal reporting, reading in Internet and hypertext environments, and mindfulness. Peter's work as an author or co-author includes Fostering Metacognitive and Independent Readers and Meaningful Reading Assessment. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY.

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Episode Transcript

Announcer: This podcast is produced by Benchmark Education.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode of Teacher's Talk Shop: Metacognition…

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Do you want to read this aloud and then talk about what you're doing metacognitively? I think that would be the best. 

Patty McGee: Okay. 

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: All right.

Patty McGee: Here we go. You know, I’m going to put on my reading glasses to give me a leg up here.

Kevin Carlson: You're about to hear Patty McGee read a text passage provided by author and reading expert Dr. Peter Afflerbach. She's seeing the text for the first time.

Patty McGee: “It is legitimate to further characterize the broad point appearance as a major archeological horizon marker for the Eastern seaboard.”

Kevin Carlson: Patty is an excellent reader, but this text is a challenge for her. 

Patty McGee: Okay, I know the words, but I don't know what any of that means. But I'm going to keep reading to see if anything helps.

Kevin Carlson: Patty is revealing her metacognition skills, her awareness and understanding of her reading, how well it's going, how well her attention and strategies are working to help her construct meaning.

Patty McGee: “In the terms of Wiley and Phillips, a horizon is a primarily spatial continuity represented by cultural traits and assemblages whose nature and mode of occurrence permit the assumption of a broad and rapid spread.”

Kevin Carlson: As Patty reads, Peter listens and asks her to demonstrate her metacognition skills.

Patty McGee: So we're talking about —

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Patty, how are you dealing with that? What sort of reading strategies are you using?

Patty McGee: Okay, well, I'm word solving as my first and I'm trying to think about how these words fit together, because they don't seem to be words that I normally see fitting together in a paragraph. I know the word “archeological,” but “archeological horizon marker”? So I'm trying to reread a little bit and I'm on the search for — I'm on the search for some things that are going to help me make sense of this.

Kevin Carlson: Metacognition plays an essential role in reading comprehension. As students develop metacognitive strategies and a metacognitive mindset, they become more self-aware, independent, and successful readers.

Patty McGee: The word “horizon” comes up again in the second sentence, so I'm going to try to reread that and hoping that definition will give me a little bit more information.

Kevin Carlson: If Peter were Patty's teacher, he would know which reading strategies she relies on when challenged. And as a reader with good self-awareness, Patty knows when her strategies are and aren't working.

Patty McGee: But I also know that “horizon” and “seaboard”—we know that the horizon is what we see when we look out. And I'm just noticing that this isn't making any sense to me. I don't know enough about this for this to make sense.

Kevin Carlson: In this episode, Patty McGee talks with Dr. Peter Afflerbach about metacognition, the missing link in reading instruction. I'm Kevin Carlson and this is Teacher's Talk Shop.

Patty McGee: So maybe I can just ask you a question, Peter: Why did you make me read that?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Okay. So, Patty, thank you for your courageous effort to try to make sense of just a few sentences of a very challenging text. I wanted to start off with this paragraph. I've used it for over 40 years in research on cognitive reading strategies, but also metacognitive reading strategies. And the point of having you read it in relation to metacognition is, metacognition is this wonderful gift that we have as it develops in turn with our reading, and we're often unaware of it because we're doing okay. But when reading starts slowing down, it gets really difficult, and the gears start grinding, metacognition rises itself up to the point where we're aware of it. And what you reported just in those couple of sentences that you were reading are pretty common metacognitive strategies that readers use. And I want to tell you what other expert readers like yourself have reported doing with this paragraph: They often slow down the rate of reading because they're figuring out that something's not working and they think that going slow might help. They regularly reread because that first take of the sentence just isn't leading to an understanding or comprehension.

They change reading strategies when the comprehension doesn't seem to be working and they evaluate near and far progress. So, “Am I understanding this word?” “Am I understanding this clause?” “Do I know what this sentence means?” And then, “Can I try to cobble together some understanding across sentences?” So my hope is, just in that brief experience that you had and that anybody reading this challenge paragraph will have, is getting reacquainted with these metacognitive strategies that we all use when we need them. One of the beauties of metacognition, in addition to it helping us get through the weeds of really difficult reading, is that it's always with us, but we only need it when we need it. And it only comes to the forefront when the going gets rough. The research on metacognition, which I believe is quite formidable and lengthy and broad and deep, and then the importance of keeping metacognition in focus as we help kids learn to become better readers—so the role of metacognitive strategies in reading development.

Patty McGee: Yes. Thinking about starting this off because we jumped right into trying out the metacognitive strategies and we were able to name them, is there a broader definition you'd like to work with, in terms of educators thinking about this concept of metacognition so they could wrap their heads around it?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Metacognition is really our understanding of ourselves, but in particular for us of our reading, how well it's going, how well our attention and strategies are working to help us construct meaning, how close we are to attaining our reading goals. And metacognition is really at the heart of our students’ independent and successful reading. If you think about it, if we haven't helped kids become metacognitive across any school year, when they walk out the door the last day of the year, what probability do they have of being successful in summer reading, for example, if they haven't become metacognitive? If they haven’t, they tend to be relentlessly dependent on someone else to tell them how they're doing. And if we're not around as the teacher to tell them how they're doing, who will be doing that for them? So I like to think about metacognition as something that usually operates behind the scenes and it helps us set goals and it helps us plan our reading, it helps us call up relevant prior knowledge, as you mentioned when you focused on “archaeological” and “horizon,” it helps us choose and use strategies, and it helps us regulate our work. It tells us when things are off course, so when a difficulty is encountered, it tells us that that's happening and it alerts us to the need to do something different from what we're doing. 

And we know from research that it's most often our struggling readers who are not metacognitive. And so they have, I would say, sometimes the double burden of needing to learn the cognitive strategies that we all know are important, ranging from decoding to developing fluency to understanding new vocabulary and comprehending text, but the whole regulation of that is what metacognition is about. And as I've said, I think really difficult tasks like the few sentences you just read, help us appreciate and better understand the essential nature of metacognition.

Kevin Carlson: After the break, metacognition research over the years. Stay with us.

Announcer: Metacognition operates in all successful reading. It is essential that we understand how it works and how best to teach it. With his new book, Fostering Metacognitive and independent readers, author Peter Afflerbach delivers an essential guide to metacognition and effective instruction. This book helps teachers explore the research, examine strategies, and improve students’ reading achievement. Students learn to set their own reading goals, monitor their own comprehension, identify and fix challenges to their understanding, and determine that their reading goals are being met. They become metacognitive and independent readers. Learn more at PD essentials dot com. Go teach brilliantly.

Patty McGee: What other research has been pivotal for your work?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: I want to make a note here that we really started labeling metacognition as such back in the late 70s and early 80s, and we've known about the power of metacognition before it got labeled “metacognition.” We know that across the history of reading, very talented readers must have been able to realize that there was a mistake and go about trying to fix a problem and then get back on track. But some of the most essential, I would say foundational, metacognition research occurred in the 1980s. The researchers that I associate with that are Scott Paris, who demonstrated that metacognition has a positive influence on students’ reading comprehension; Ruth Garner and her colleagues, who determined that when they measured metacognitive awareness, the students who had high metacognitive awareness were better readers and the ones who had low metacognitive awareness, as you might imagine, were less able readers. They were the readers who would sort of merrily go along through reading a text, and if asked by the teacher, “How's it going?” they'd say, “Oh, it's fine.” But it wasn't. And at the core of that is a lack of metacognitive awareness which prompts the use of metacognitive strategies. And we knew all of that back in the 1980s. 

I want to point out that metacognition was not included in the National Reading Panel's report, and I'd like to think the reason for that is because the research that had been done on metacognition didn't meet the standard for the National Reading Panel having randomized controlled trials. Nevertheless, it's important to know that we've known about the power of metacognition for over four decades now. And more recently, Boulware-Gooden and colleagues demonstrated that learning metacognitive strategies in third grade increased students’ reading comprehension. And Carol Connor as recently as 2018 demonstrated that students who are trained in metacognition exhibited superior reading comprehension scores. So there's very strong research to back the claim that metacognition is not only important for reading, but it's essential for reading comprehension.

Patty McGee: That is absolutely compelling. Thank you for that. I always like to talk about the research, just to be nerdy a little bit, but also, it just really gives us a strong foundation—we know this in our hearts and our teacher instincts that this is important, but when we have research to back it up, it's especially helpful.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Part of what I like to do is try to help people consider expanding the notion of Science of Reading. And the fact that metacognition is hardly ever raised as an essential aspect of the Science of Reading is troubling to me, because the research is there. But I read about Science of Reading stuff, metacognition is hardly ever talked about. So I think that's an unfortunate situation. 

Patty McGee: Yes. If we could come back now to some of the practical things that you started talking about earlier, when I was trying to read that sample paragraph—you started to highlight some of the metacognitive strategies that expert readers use. I'm wondering if you could rename some of those and then also think about, what does it help do for students?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Yeah. To me, the goal is, at whatever relative level of reading development and reading achievement, that we have students in our classrooms who are capable of beginning working through and successfully completing an act of reading. And it might be really simple text, it might be more complex text for the more advanced readers. But under the umbrella of metacognition, I would include strategies like, “Can our students set realistic goals for their reading?” Often the teacher does that through an assignment and says, “Read this chapter, read these paragraphs, and get ready to create a skit about the characters you read about, or answer comprehension questions.” But we want students to eventually be able to set goals for themselves. So setting a goal for reading is not only giving kids a target, but it also prompts their metacognitive awareness along the path to the target. 

I also think that two of the most essential metacognitive reading strategies, when the going gets rough, are slowing down our rate of reading and rereading. In the two university reading clinics that I've directed, I have always had readers that I call the “racehorse readers.” And they have this idea that the first one done is the best reader. But it turns out—and I think your experience with this paragraph would stand in favor of this comment—that sometimes our best reading is the most laborious reading because we have to slow down, we have to reread, and we really have to devote almost all of our cognitive resources to trying to construct meaning, even if it's between phrases in a sentence or understanding how two sentences relate to one another.

Changing our strategies turns out to be really important. I think we generally do a good job of teaching reading comprehension strategies, but teaching kids that it's okay, and then teaching them the means to be able to change reading strategies is also, I would say, an essential, and it's a hallmark of an accomplished student reader, an adult reader—and then working along the way, being able to evaluate near and far progress. We might say that the evaluation points are really trigger-related metacognitive strategies. So when you were reading—and I don't know how far you were into the first sentence, this is usually not too far for most expert readers where they realize, “Whoa, things are not going smoothly already, and I'm not to the end of the first sentence.” So that's that beauty of metacognition—it shows up when we need it, if it's working and if it's there, and then it triggers these other related metacognitive strategies. 

My goal, if I'm teaching in the university reading clinic or elementary or middle school or high school, is to try to help kids develop this metacognitive strategy toolkit, in addition to a metacognitive mindset, which is, “How do you become mindful, how do you become self-aware, and how do you help situate your reading in relation to your goals and the strategies and tools that you bring to bear on an active reading?”

Kevin Carlson: After the break: Bringing metacognition into the classroom and keeping it simple. Stay with us.

Announcer: Important learning happens as children find their own answers and resources. In their book, WIRE for Agency, educators Jenn Hayhurst and Jill DeRosa present four moves that educators can make to support student agency. Those four moves comprise WIRE, which stands for: Watch your students to understand them; Intentionally instruct and learn about your students; Reflect to refine focus; and Engage your students for long term learning.

Jill DeRosa (in mid-roll): The stories from the classrooms really help teachers to identify in their own classroom and to see those small little tweaks that they can make.

Jenn Hayhurst (in mid-roll): Even though agency is a very big concept, it's really not a difficult one to put into your practice.

Announcer: Find out more about this and other titles at PD essentials dot com. Go teach brilliantly.

Patty McGee: Let me recap some of the things that you said, because as we think about some of the metacognitive strategies that are used by expert readers that we want all readers to be able to use—first, let me recap some of the things that you mentioned, but then let's also dig into how can we make this really practical in a classroom setting. 

So first, just a few things that you mentioned: Setting goals for reading; slowing down that in many cases your racehorse readers, as you said, are not really understanding what they're reading and slowing that down; and sometimes laborious reading is the reading that is making the most meaning, and making new goals so we're setting goals, but then we're adjusting those goals and we're often rereading based on that and we're switching out strategies as needed and really noticing what we've done so far. So how can we help build this knowhow in students at the classroom level?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Yeah, well, that's, of course, the key question. How do we get a student who is seemingly unaware of what's going on and not metacognitive to go out that door the last day of class and be independent and successful? I like to start really small and simple with metacognition, because, as I mentioned earlier, students who struggle with developing metacognition often are also struggling, learning to decode, learning to read fluently, learning to figure out a vocabulary word, and learning to construct meaning. And often, those cognitive tasks and cognitive challenges are enough to fully involve a struggling student reader's cognitive resources. So how do we even think about dropping another task on top of things? 

I like to always go back to two questions that I learned in the reading clinic at the University of Albany back in the late 70s, and that was: “Do I understand—does that make sense?” and “How am I doing?” Because once we get into the habit of asking those questions, we're opening the door for metacognitive development. And I'm not saying that you use those questions, Patty, as you were getting through the first half of that first sentence. But you have a mental routine that has been practiced and mastered at some point in your reading development, and that's what we want to aim for for all our students.

Let's think about an elementary school student already struggling to achieve and develop as an independent reader. What's a question they could ask? And I love the question, “Does that make sense?” Because we know that the point of reading is to construct meaning, and “Does that make sense?” does two things: It continually reminds students that the point of reading is to make sense, first and foremost, but it can also prompt a response to the question, which is “yes” or “no.” And if the question is “no,” then we can start asking additional questions. 

So, once in a reading clinic, or, I would say, with first, second and third graders, typically, it takes a while for students to get their heads around why that question is important—“Does that make sense?”—and to get into the routine of asking it and then, to be able to truthfully and accurately answer it. And if the answer is “No, it doesn't make sense,” then the next set of questions could be, “Is there a problem?” and “Can you figure out what the problem is?” We do this all the time when the reading is difficult and at an expert level, but we want to gradually have kids ease into these questions and then start applying these strategies. So if we were asking, “Does that make sense?” and a student gets comfortable with that question and then starts attempting to answer it, “No,” okay, so it doesn't make sense. What can you do? Then we can start introducing strategies like reread, slow down your rate of reading, think about what you know about this topic.

One of the ways that I really like to introduce and then reinforce and then be this voice on the side for students is through checklists. In a clinic, eventually we figured out laminating these checklists would be good so they don't get soda stains on them or potato chip stains from lunch or anything like that. But a series of increasingly complex questions, always starting with, “Does that make sense?” And a student can then have that card on the side and over time—I think this really reflects the idea of the gradual release of responsibility, which we know is really successful in helping us teach cognitive reading strategies, like reading comprehension strategies, that we want students not only to take more and more responsibility that the teacher initially takes, but we want students to internalize the stuff that we give them. And a checklist can be internalized by students. I'm not saying that you or I has [sic] a verbatim, exact checklist like, “Does that make sense?” “Do you understand it?” “Am I comprehending?” “Is there a problem?” But those sorts of mindsets and approaches to reading, where students kind of turn into little detectives and figure out, “Yeah, there's a problem. Where is it?”— then we can elaborate the checklist and we can introduce strategies like rereading, slowing the rate of reading, and then problem solving, which is, “Okay, you found a word that you think is important based on the context, but you don't understand it. You think you can sound it out, you still don't understand it, what can you do?” That leads the students into, “Well, what are the resources that I have? Do I have prior knowledge related to it? Do I need to Google it? Do I need to go to a dictionary?”—that sort of thing. So I think of “Does that make sense? Do I understand?” as the acorn that starts the big metacognition tree growing. I don't want to sound too simplistic about it, because for teachers and students, there's a lot of hard work involved to go from “Does that make sense?” to being a fluent, independent and successful metacognitive reader. But we have to start somewhere, and that, to me is simple, simply stated, and practiced questions on something like a checklist.

Patty McGee: Yes, I think there's quite a lot of power in that simplicity, that if we add a little too much, too many layers, too many bells and whistles, it becomes so muddied that it's really hard to focus on the things we most want kids to focus on. 

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Yeah. 

Patty McGee: So I appreciate the simplicity of those questions and how, when used as a checklist, they become more and more sophisticated and it leads kids to be able to become even more and more metacognitive in their reading thinking, while also building that independence. Because they are so simple, they don't need to rely on somebody else to constantly ask them the questions once they're internalized. Very practical, right?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Right. It’s sort of learning how to swim—you don't want to jump into the pool without knowledge of any strokes. But even a short little doggy paddle starts you out. 

Patty, if we have time, I just wanted to make two more points. 

Patty McGee: Sure. 

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Okay. So point one is, metacognitive strategies have a lot in common with cognitive strategies, in terms of instruction. And we know that successful reading teachers use thinking aloud and modeling and explanation when they introduce and then have students practice and assume responsibility for strategies like summarization and prediction and determining the meaning of an unknown vocabulary word. Those same strategies work for metacognition. So if you could think about, in an elementary school classroom, reading a story out loud and saying, “I don't think I know what that word is, I'm going to reread”—that's point A: Think about the strategy instruction you already use in your classroom, and then just think about doing that for metacognitive strategies. And then point B is—metacognition to me is not only a gift from a cognitive perspective, but it turns out that students that are metacognitive are very often more self-aware and more reflective. And that self-awareness and reflection helps them put reading together in bigger phases of their life. For example, a student who is metacognitive may also notice that the effort that they applied in a really difficult task led to their success, and that feeds students’ motivation and engagement going forward, because they've had an experience that they can think of themselves as successful. That also boosts students’ self-efficacy, which we know is really important. If we don't believe in ourselves in any task, our tendency to want to do it and our tendency to give effort and sustain when the going gets tough is greatly reduced. 

So metacognition has a really broad set of possible outcomes that are all positive. And while we focused on metacognitive strategies and skills, focused on comprehending text and getting to the end of a text and meeting one's goals, it's also broad and it helps students, I think, ultimately appreciate what reading can do for them, and appreciate what they've done as readers to be successful.

Patty McGee: It's a win-win all around, in so many ways. And it may even be one of those parts that hopefully those listening are reflecting on. Is this present in the opportunities for learning for students? And if it's not, it might very well be the missing piece that's that pulls it all together.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Yeah, it's generalizable. I mean, metacognition might not only develop in reading—you can have students also become metacognitive in math and science and music, where what we end up with is students who can self-improve when we're not there.

Patty McGee: That’s the ultimate goal, isn't it?

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Yeah.

Patty McGee: So, Peter, this has been such an important and useful conversation. I just admire the way that you're able to take something so practical, like a paragraph that's tricky for me to read, and show us just how using metacognitive strategies is in all of us as expert readers and the research that's there to support this work, but also to get really specific about what are these metacognitive strategies and how can we make them useful for students through the simple act of questions, a checklist, and a progression of those questions within a checklist. 

Well, thanks for taking the time, Peter, to talk to us about metacognition.

Dr. Peter Afflerbach: Always a pleasure. Well, have a great rest of your day.

Kevin Carlson: Thank you. Dr. Peter Afflerbach, thank you, Patty McGee, and thank you for listening to Teachers Talk Shop. If you enjoyed learning from this conversation with Peter Afflerbach, please visit Benchmark Education dot com slash webinars to check out his new PD webinar. It's titled, “Metacognition in Action: Classroom Environments and Practices that Promote Self-Regulation and Comprehension of Complex Text.” Again, that's at Benchmarkeducation.com/webinars. 

Throughout this season of Teachers Talk Shop, we are talking with leading literacy experts like Peter Afflerbach to explore current understandings and nuances of teaching and learning literacy. Our aim is to present a 360-degree view of literacy that positions us to address the needs of all students in today's classrooms. Thanks for listening. For Benchmark Education, I'm Kevin Carlson.