“It is terribly important that in explicit and concerted ways we make students aware of themselves as learners. We must regularly ask, not only ‘What are you learning?’ but ‘How are you learning?’ We must confront them with the effectiveness (more often ineffectiveness) of their approaches. We must offer alternatives and then challenge students to test the efficacy of those approaches.” (Weimer, 2012)

Metacognition is an important yet sometimes underemphasized aspect of education, especially for English learners. In this two-part series, we will explore this topic in more depth, including strategies.

Metacognitions refer to thinking about our thought processes, monitoring those processes, and taking control of progress in learning. Educators know the importance of students taking charge of their learning, and expect that through the process of learning to read and write, and learning how school works, that students will become efficient and effective learners.

Yet metacognitive skills are not often taught in the curriculum, mainly because of a perceived lack of time given the sheer volume of skills and content knowledge in today’s rigorous standards. Because English learners are learning both content and language, an awareness of their learning processes will help them to manage the heavy cognitive load that they face in the classroom.

Developmental psychologist John Flavell coined the term to describe information processing. "Metacognition refers, among other things, to the active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration of these processes … usually in service of some concrete goal or objective" (1976, p. 232). Essentially, metacognition puts students in the driver’s seat in terms of their brain and learning. Research has found multiple benefits for students who are metacognitive, including helping to build lifelong learners and high academic achievers.

Teaching Metacognition

There are multiple ways to build metacognition in the classroom. To start, define metacognition for students in a way that students can understand. The use of student-friendly definitions is an important aspect of vocabulary development for English learners, and can be applied here.

There are many sources for student-friendly definitions, including online dictionaries. One such tool is the Collins Cobuild Dictionary, which defines metacognition as “thinking about one’s own mental processes.”

With English learners, it can be beneficial to utilize a metaphor such as being in the driver’s seat, or having their brain’s controller in hand, just as we do when playing a video game. A remote control or video game controller acts to control an aspect of something from the outside.

In video games we control the movement of a character in the game, for example. Showing students an example of this, using pictures or demonstrating an actual game, can help make the concept more concrete.

Share with students that metacognition allows us to control what is happening in our brain. Using a metaphor like this helps make the concept more concrete for students, and can motivate them to focus on and emphasize the skills they need to improve their learning.

After defining metacognition, share some of the benefits and examples of how students can utilize metacognition to improve their learning. For example, there are times when we are playing a video game where we need the character to slow down or to speed up, depending on what is happening in the game.

Metacognition works in the same way; we may realize we need to slow our reading of a complex passage in a text, or we may need to speed up our writing of notes during a video or discussion, or during planning in order to get as many ideas down as possible in preparation for a writing activity.

Have students brainstorm additional examples of when being aware of their thinking is beneficial for learning. Write these examples on a chart that can then be referred to and added to throughout the school year.

Throughout instruction, model the metacognitive process by sharing your thinking with students. Some teachers feel that they need to have all the answers or be confident at all times with the information and skills they are delivering as well as how they are delivering the instruction.

However, showing students how you work through having made a mistake by first recognizing and admitting a mistake, and then correcting it, benefits students as they see how metacognition works. Additionally, let students know that your decision-making process is dynamic, and that you both continue learning and may change directions at any time based on what is happening.

There are many strategies that can be incorporated into instruction and shared with students to help them be more metacognitive. Some of these strategies you are likely already using; as with all strategies, though, consider the level of purpose and consistency in your implementation.

To build deep metacognition with your students, purposefully build in both explicit modeling and teaching of metacognitive skills as well as student practice opportunities. The following strategies can be incorporated at any grade level, with some adaptations based on the grade level and subject area being taught.

Consider Prior Knowledge and Experiences

The practice of linking to English learners’ prior knowledge and background experiences to academic content and language is well known as an effective educational tool. Every human, throughout their life, has learned about the world around them. In an academic sense, background knowledge includes content knowledge, academic language and vocabulary necessary for comprehending content information.

Linking to students’ personal life experiences is beneficial for a number of reasons. It builds self-awareness by having students consider their own lives and experiences they have had.

It can help students find meaning in content learning, and linking to an experience can provide clarity and promote retention of the learning. Relating content to students’ personal lives and experiences also serves the purpose of validating students’ lives, culture, and experiences.

Strategies to Link to Prior Knowledge and Background Experiences


On the K-W-L chart, teachers discuss with students what they lnow, what they want to know or learn, and later on what they learned. There are a few things to keep in mind if you use this strategy with students. First off, it is best to begin by activating prior knowledge or building background knowledge of the topic.

In this way, when we ask students “what do you know about ______?,” they will have something to say. For example, have the students read a related story or article, watch a short video clip, or do an activity with picture files (described below).

After activating prior knowledge or building some background knowledge, begin with what students know, think they know, or their hypotheses. As students report, write verbatim what they say. This can be difficult for teachers, especially if students have misconceptions.

However, these can provide for authentic editing experiences in the future, and allows for open brainstorming of topics. Proceed with what students would like to learn or the questions they have about the topic so far. Throughout a unit of study, questions can be added to the chart as they are asked.

Teachers often neglect the third column, “What We Have Learned”. Be sure to build in time to add to this column at regular intervals, especially when you have answered questions or clarified misconceptions that arose while filling out the first column.

Direct and Indirect Experiences

One of the most effective ways to build background experience, of course, is through facilitating students actually having the experience. Experience is the best teacher, as they say, and field trips and other experiences provide rich learning opportunities for students.

However, in light of budget cuts and limited resources, indirect experiences can also be beneficial to students (Marzano, 2004). Websites, simulations, videos, and websites can be an alternative to actually experiencing an event.

Obviously, it is impractical or impossible for students to experience historical event, for example, and indirect experiences can be valuable in these cases as a way to build background and student interest.

Small, Flexible Group Instruction

Teachers employ small group instruction for a variety of purposes in the classroom. If you find that only a few students need additional instruction to build background knowledge, a small group can be a way to deliver it.

Using one or more of the techniques mentioned, such as reading books and articles about the topic, looking at pictures, watching a short video, etc., help fill in any knowledge gaps that students may have around the topic.

Background Knowledge Question Stems

Questioning is one way to get students thinking about what they already know or have experienced about a particular topic. These questions can be posed to students as a discussion prompt to be discussed with a partner, for example, as a whole class discussion, or as a written reflection opportunity.

Consider the sensitivity of the particular question when determining the best way to ask students these questions. The particular experiences that people have may be too sensitive or personal to share; consider the purpose and if sharing or discussing as a whole group will be helpful to the students.

Review the following questioning stems, and how you might incorporate them into your lesson. The stems can be used as a tool for the teacher to ask questions of the student, for the students to ask each other, or even for students to ask of characters in a story or person in history.

  • How do you feel about this topic? (excited, anxious, curious, nervous)
  • What happens when you ...?
  • What do you know about ...?
  • How do you think this works?
  • What would happen if ...?
  • What are the pros and cons of ...?
  • What information do you have about ...?
  • What would be the result if ...?
  • How would you demonstrate ...?
  • How would you explain ...?
  • What would be the procedure for ...?
  • How would you describe ...?
  • How is this different (or similar) to what we’ve learned so far about ... ?
  • How does this relate to (or compare with)...?
  • Based upon what we read (or learned) yesterday, what do you think happens next?
  • Tell me more about what you think happens when .... Why?
  • What did you mean when you said ...?
  • What happens next?
  • Why does that happen?
  • Tell me what you are thinking about that.
  • How can you explain what is going on?
  • Do you agree with what ___ said? Why or why not?
  • Can you explain _______ reasoning?
  • What is your opinion of ...? Why?
  • What have you observed (or heard) about ...?
  • Have you ever ...?
  • Can you describe a time when ...?
  • How many of you have ...?
  • What do you think of when I say ...?
  • Can you name something that is ...?

Anticipation Guides

An anticipation guide is an activity wherein students consider a list of questions in anticipation of an activity, a reading assignment, a video, etc. The purpose of the activity is for students to assess their own level of knowledge about the topic.

Having students think through their own level of knowledge is a key aspect of metacognition, as they search their knowledge and experiences to make a prediction or react to a particular statement.

To develop an anticipation guide, brainstorm questions that are thought provoking in nature. Traditionally anticipation guides include true/false questions that students answer before reading a text or learning about a topic.

Often, teachers will create an anticipation guide with three columns; a “before” section where the students will indicate their response before reading or learning about the topic, the question, and then an “after” section where students either confirm or refute their previous response based on their learning.


  • Teacher develops anticipation guide with interesting or thought provoking questions or statements.
  • Share the anticipation guide with students, having them mark their responses in the “before” column. Consider reading the statement or questions to the students as a scaffold; this is not a test of reading skills but rather a way to build metacognition and self-awareness.
  • Students can discuss responses and reasoning with a partner or as a whole group at this point if desired.
  • Teach the lesson(s).
  • Have students complete the last column of the anticipation guide after instruction, and reflect upon their previous and current responses.

These initial strategies to build metacognition will benefit English learners as they learn how to develop academic content and language. In the next article, additional strategies to build metacognition in English learners will be presented to continue the process of educating students to their fullest potential.