This article discusses the importance of metacognition in the second language-learning classroom. It starts by evidencing the significance of metacognitive strategies in the language-learning process, then explores research into the prominence of metacognitive knowledge in the most successful language learners, before exploring specific strategies that MFL and EFL teachers and educators can make use of.
Metacognition in Language Learning Teaching & Learning
Anderson (2003) classifies language learning strategies into seven major categories: cognitive strategies, metacognitive strategies, mnemonic or memory related strategies, compensatory strategies, affective strategies, social strategies, and self-motivating strategies. Metacognitive strategies are those learning strategies that oversee, direct and regulate the learning process. These kinds of strategies involve thinking about learning processes: planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating them.
Oxford (2003) advocates for increased learning autonomy in language learning classrooms whereby students are knowledgeable of a variety of different learning strategies and know how to utilise them for maximal learning. Oxford believes that “language learning styles and strategies are among the main factors that help determine how - and how well -our students learn a second or foreign language” (p. 1).
When chosen consciously, language learning strategies can act as a key to active, conscious, and purposeful self-regulation learning; accordingly, enhancing language-learning requires that learners reflect on how to learn more effectively and efficiently and make appropriate changes to their approach.
The goal of metacognitive strategy training is, therefore, self-diagnosis, awareness of how to learn target language most efficiently, developing problem solving skills, experimenting familiar and unfamiliar learning strategies, decision making about how to approach a task, monitoring and self-evaluation, transferring successful learning strategies to new learning context, and enabling students to become more independent, autonomous, and lifelong learners (Allwright, 1990; Little, 1991, cited in Oxford, 2003).
There is evidence that metacognitive strategies play more significant role than other learning strategies in this process because once a learner understands how to regulate his/her own learning through the use of strategies, language acquisition should proceed at a faster rate (Anderson, 2003). Metacognitive knowledge (e.g. knowledge of how one learns best) is seen as particularly important: strategic learners have metacognitive knowledge about their own thinking and learning approaches, a good understanding of what a task entails, and the ability to implement the strategies that best meet both the task demands and their own learning strengths.
Fostering metacognition brings learners an awareness of the learning process and strategies that lead to success. When learners are equipped with this knowledge, they will understand their own thinking and learning process and accordingly, they are more likely to oversee the choice and application of learning strategies, plan how to proceed with a learning task, monitor their own performance on an ongoing basis, find solutions to problems encountered, and evaluate themselves upon task completion (Zhang & Goh, 2006). Metacognitive knowledge is essential for learners selecting and activating strategies (Rubin, 1987) and it is vital that teachers strive to nurture students’ own metacognition and teach them how to use strategies that they find effective for the kinds of tasks they need to accomplish in the process of language learning (Goh, 2008).
According to an overview of research by Rahimi & Katal (2011) there is extensive evidence that learners’ metacognition can directly affect the process and the outcome of their learning; metacognitive awareness raising can improve the level of students’ performance and by implementing metacognitive teaching in educational process, desirable educational goals can be achieved. In language-learning education one string of studies has focused on finding the role metacognitive knowledge plays in determining the effectiveness of individuals’ attempts to learn another language.
According to Flavell (1979), the effective role of metacognitive knowledge in many cognitive activities related to language use is conspicuous, e.g., oral communication of information, oral persuasion, oral comprehension, reading comprehension, and writing, to language acquisition, and to various types of self-instruction. Research on metacognitive knowledge and language learning has acknowledged a mutual influence in terms of second language learning (Zhang & Goh, 2006) and highlights the fact that metacognitive knowledge should be incorporated in learner training programs to make their learning more efficient (Wenden, 1998).
What Makes a Good Language Learner?
Explicit metacognitive knowledge about task characteristics (e.g. what the task requires) and applying appropriate strategies for task solution (e.g. what the best strategy for solving the task) is a major determiner of language learning effectiveness (Mahmoudi et al., 2010). This is because metacognitive strategies enable learners to play active role in the process of learning, to manage and direct their own learning and eventually to find the best ways to practice and reinforce what they have learned (Chari et al., 2010). This gives them an advantage because they are in a position to process and store new information and leads to better test performance, learning outcome, and better achievement (Zimmerman et al., 2001).
Metacognitive knowledge is the hallmark of the approaches to learning used by of expert learners: it enhances learning outcomes, facilitates information processing, comprehension of written texts and the completion of new types of learning tasks and improves the rate of progress in learning and the quality and speed of learners’ cognitive engagement (Rahimi & Katal, 2011)
Some other studies have focused on what proficient and successful language learners do while reading, writing, speaking, and listening with regard to the type of strategies they use, and how and under what conditions they use those strategies. The findings of these studies support the fact that proficient language learners take conscious steps to understand what they are doing by using a wider range of strategies than less proficient learners do (Anderson, 2003). Further, there are also theories and research findings in the literature on the relationship between metacognitive knowledge and autonomy and their mutual influence on successful learning that are worthy of note. According to Wenden (1998) metacognitive knowledge influences the self-regulation of learning in planning, monitoring and evaluating skills and these skills can constitute self-directed language learning.
Metacognitive knowledge informs planning decisions taken at the outset of learning and the monitoring processes that regulate the completion of a learning task, e.g., self-observation, assessment of problems and progress, and decisions to remediate; it also provides the criteria for evaluation made once a learning task is completed. Metacognitive knowledge is considered as prerequisite to self-regulation (Butler & Winne 1995), it provides knowledge base for planning, monitoring and evaluation and it helps learners to play active role in the process of learning rather than being passive (Paris & Winograd, 1990).
It is also suggested that language learning strategies are the key factors in accomplishing autonomy (Wenden, 1991; Brown, 1994; Oxford, 1996; Skehan, 1998; Yang, 1998) and that metacognitive strategies increase learner autonomy and its direction toward more individualized instruction (Fewell, 2010).
Metacognitive Teaching Strategies & Activity Ideas for Language Learning Environments
1. Use of Lesson Wrappers and Virtual Lesson Wrappers Lesson wrappers are student reflection activities that occur at the start and end of your lessons; they are one of the most popular approaches to metacognition in general and can be utilised in second language teaching and learning. Lesson wrappers can be worksheet-based: like these ones; but you can save paper by using a virtual lesson wrapper like this one.
2. Using Metacognitive Bookmarks When Learning Through Literature When students are reading a book as a class you should provide them with metacognitive bookmarks: these bookmarks serve as a regular prompt to trigger metacognitive reflection in relation to reading comprehension. You can download a free printable metacognition bookmark here or download a selection of ten different metacognitive book mark designs here.
3. Lead Students to Metacognitive Knowledge With Debates & Discussions Students can gain metacognitive knowledge with reference to specific tasks, learning processes or how they, as individual learners, learn best! Metacognitive knowledge can only really be realised as a result of the students’ own metacognitive reflections and awareness: consider using a metacognitive debate generator or a metacognitive discussion generator in order to get your learners thinking, reflecting on, and discussing how they can learn effectively.
4. Bring The Metacognitive Cycle to All Learning Activities The metacognitive cycle involves planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating one’s approach to learning. It is applicable to (virtually) any learning activity that you may set your students. The general aim here is to help students to get more from a learning activity by reflecting on how they are approaching it and making adjustments to their approach accordingly. Mind-mapping activities can be a great way to explore each stage of the process; we’ve also created these simple 4-step mini-worksheets that can be given to students in order to neatly organise their metacognitive reflection. Each worksheet strip contains a section for planning, monitoring, evaluating and regulating the students approach to learning. Download them here: Learning Activity Booster Worksheets
5. Metacognition Games that Stimulate Metacognitive Reflection There are a number of fun games and learning activities that you might want to try with your students. Giving students extra time so that they can try to answer in the language that is being taught is an obvious way you might want to adapt such resources for the language-learning classroom. Two you might be interested in are ‘The Metacognition Sticky Note Challenge’ and ‘The Learning Power Quiz’ – the second will be particularly useful for English language learning classes as it will introduce new vocabulary relevant to metacognition and the maximisation of learning power.
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