The Language Teacher
July 2003

Metacognitive Reading Strategies Increase L2 Performance

Neil J. Anderson

Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA

Perceptive second/foreign language (L2) learners are those who are aware of and use appropriate strategies for learning and communicating in a second language. The purpose of strategy use is to improve performance in the learning and use of one's second language. Strategies are the conscious actions that learners take to improve their language learning. Rather than focus students' attention solely on learning the language, L2 teachers can help students learn to think about what happens during the language learning process, which will lead them to develop stronger learning skills.

Metacognition can be defined simply as thinking about thinking. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they encounter difficulties in learning; that is, they have strategies for 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 L2 learners develop. 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.

One specific area in which teachers can develop the metacognitive awareness of students is related to teaching reading. What do good readers do to facilitate mastery of reading? What can teachers do to facilitate the development of reading skills among the learners in their classes? Understanding what metacognition is will help the classroom teacher develop students who are better able to accomplish their learning goals.

Metacognition can be divided into five primary components: (a) preparing and planning for effective reading, (b) deciding when to use particular reading strategies, (c) knowing how to monitor strategy use, (d) learning how to orchestrate various strategies, and (e) evaluating reading strategy use. Figure 1 illustrates these five components. Metacognition is at the heart of this illustration, where all five circles intersect.

Figure 1

Metacognition is not any one of the five elements in isolation. It is the blending of all five into an integrated view that may be the most accurate representation of metacognition. Each of these five metacognitive skills interacts with each other. Metacognition is not a linear process moving from preparing and planning to evaluating. More than one metacognitive process may be happening at a time during a learning task.

Classroom Application of the Five Components of Metacognition

Let's consider specifically what the classroom teacher can do to develop strong metacognitive awareness in an L2 reading classroom.

Preparing and planning for effective reading

As students take time to focus their attention on reading, they can make improvements in their learning. Taking time to prepare the learning environment and plan what needs to be accomplished makes a significant difference in learning.

One classroom teacher recently invited students to brainstorm prior to a reading activity. The students were about to read a text entitled, "Models to Follow." The teacher asked the students to brainstorm a list of individuals who would be appropriate models to follow. The discussion then moved into identifying why the individuals would be good role models. Before reading the text, the teacher explicitly made the link between the prereading activity and what they were about to read. The students were told to check how many of the individuals and characteristics they had identified were included in the passage. The value of the metacognitive component comes by the teacher explicitly pointing out to the class that this activity will facilitate their reading comprehension. Reading performance increases as teachers take time to prepare and plan learners for effective learning.

Selecting and using particular strategies

Knowing when to use particular reading strategies is an important aspect of metacognition. Many unmotivated students do not recognize when to incorporate the use of reading strategies. The metacognitive ability of deciding when to use particular strategies indicates that the learner is thinking and making conscious decisions about the learning process.

I have found the use of think-aloud protocols an effective pedagogical tool to help readers select and use particular reading strategies. As learners verbalize their strategies teachers can ask how they decided to select and incorporate a particular strategy. The entire class can be invited to use a strategy identified by a member of the class while reading the next section of the text. L2 reading performance increases when teachers help learners to select and use reading strategies.

Monitoring strategy use

As a student develops the skill of selecting strategies, another aspect of metacognition is to develop the ability to monitor strategy use. Good students are able to recognize when they do not understand, and will stop and decide what to do about it. Less motivated students typically do not stop to monitor themselves this way.

One important monitoring strategy that I teach students in my reading classes is focusing on their comprehension as they read. They need to monitor their comprehension as they are reading and recognize when comprehension breaks down. The breakdown cannot simply be a lack of vocabulary knowledge. Students need to focus on comprehension of ideas as they read. Monitoring strategy use while reading is a clear metacognitive activity. If comprehension breaks down, students are encouraged to select and use another strategy to accomplish their reading task.

Orchestrating various strategies

During the learning process good students do not use one strategy at a time, but will use multiple strategies simultaneously. Knowing how to orchestrate the use of more than one strategy is an important metacognitive skill.

One classroom teacher I recently observed provided multiple opportunities during class for students to practice the aspect of metacognition for handling reading strategies. Students specifically focused on making predictions of text content. The students made a prediction, read a portion of the text, and then paused to confirm or reject their prediction. They then continued the cycle of predicting followed by confirming or rejecting their guesses multiple times during the reading passage. The students practiced orchestrating strategies to increase their reading performance.

Evaluating strategy use and learning

Thomas Jefferson once said, "He who knows best knows how little he knows." Students must be able to evaluate whether what they are doing is effective. Poor learners rarely evaluate the success or failure of strategy use. They may not recognize that they lack the ability to self-evaluate.

In another recent classroom observation, I listened to two students give their rationale for the grade they should receive in the class. I was impressed with the healthy yet critical self-assessment that the two students provided. They did not automatically say that they deserved an A in the course. Nor did they beat themselves up for the imperfections they were still experiencing. They gave rational reasons why they should receive a specific grade. These students had been taught to appropriately self-evaluate their performance. L2 readers' performance increases as they are able to critically self-evaluate their ability in English.


The teaching of metacognitive skills may be the most valuable use of instructional time for a teacher. When students engage in reflecting upon their reading strategies they become better prepared to make conscious decisions about what they can do to improve their learning. Strong metacognitive skills empower learners. This empowerment not only improves learning but also transfers to other aspects of the students' lives.

Neil J. Anderson is a teacher educator in the MA TESOL program at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA. He has worked in Intensive English programs at Brigham Young University, The University of Texas at Austin and Ohio University. He worked as the Program Associate for Measurement and Evaluation for the Overseas Refugee Training Program in Southeast Asia for the Center for Applied Linguistics. He has presented papers and workshops at various conferences internationally, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Namibia, Panama, The Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, and Venezuela. His research interests include second language reading, teaching and learning styles, language learning strategies, and second language evaluation and testing. He has a teacher training text in the TeacherSource series entitled Exploring Second Language Reading: Issues and Strategies, published by Heinle & Heinle.

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