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January 12, 2019

Metacognition – Think About It!

My school had one of the highest reading achievement levels in the district. However, for seven straight years, our reading scores didn’t move up an inch. Most of our students could read at or above grade level. They had mastered all the important who, what, where, when, and why questions. They could answer setting and main character questions. So what was the problem? Why weren’t our reading scores rising?

Our students weren’t thinking!

Reading instruction consisted of students reading passages and answering a set of questions posed by either the teacher or a multiple-choice quiz. (Sound familiar?) Questions were geared toward one specific answer, mostly based on recall and some light inference.

What made our reading scores improve? Metacognition: thinking about thinking.

In this article, we’ll review strategies for helping students deepen their thinking and improve their reading skills through metacognition.

Step 1: Listening to Your Inner Voice

The first step in strengthening reading instruction is to teach students to listen to their inner voices as they read. As a teacher, you can model what it looks like to read metacognitively. For example, during read alouds, you can stop, “think aloud” for a moment, and then continue reading. You might ask questions to yourself or wonder aloud about what the characters might do next or how they might solve the problems arising in the story.

After you model what listening to your inner voice looks like, you can then encourage your students to share their thinking as you read stories aloud. As students share, it’s important that you acknowledge their thinking, but never indicate if they are right or wrong. After all, thinking is never wrong.

Step 2: Speaking and Listening to Others

The next step in teaching metacognition is to help students learn how to listen and speak to each other as they share their thinking. To do this, place students in a circle and coach them on how to make eye contact, listen, and respond to each other. As one student shares his or her thinking, the other students should make connections with the speaker by looking at him or her and nodding to show they are listening. Students should respond in complete sentences and support their thinking and responses by citing evidence from the text.

You will have to do a lot of modeling and coaching to help students understand these concepts, but over time, students will be able to have independent discussions about reading. You will be able to move into the role of discussion facilitator rather than leading with predetermined questions that require specific answers. As facilitator, you can pose open-ended prompts to initiate dialogue. A prompt can be as simple as, “Who would like to share their thinking about the characters’ actions?” Then you can follow up with “What evidence from the story supports your thinking?” and “Who would like to add to this student’s thinking?”

Step 3: Synthesizing

One of the highest levels of critical thinking is synthesizing: taking in information and making new information out of it. Synthesizing is where students bring together their own and others’ thoughts and make greater meaning of them. For example, when students read Horton Hears a Who, they might synthesize the message of the book by discussing why it’s important to treat people the same no matter what they look like, or by thinking about a time they made a judgment based on someone’s appearance.

Below are some prompts you can use to help students synthesize what they’re reading:

  • “I think this text is about…”
  • “Before reading, I thought… Now I think…”
  • “I changed my opinion when I read…”
  • “Now that I’ve read this text, I understand that…”
  • “After thinking about it, I conclude that…”

When you teach students how to synthesize, they will see that solutions and answers can vary and learn how to use evidence from text and life to formulate their thinking. Rather than merely reading to answer recall questions, they’ll be able to ask their own questions, formulate possible answers, and dialogue with others to verify, challenge, and possibly change their thinking.

Start Now—It’s Worth It!

Teaching metacognition isn’t a one-time thing; it takes months of intensive focus and practice to help students think critically about texts and take ownership of their reading discussions. However, the payoff is more than worth your time.

After my school started focusing on metacognition, it was common to walk into any classroom (even kindergarten) and observe students sitting in a circle, asking each other questions about their thinking, giving specific examples from the text, and the teacher remaining a silent observer. Students were in charge of their own metacognition and demonstrated deeper levels of comprehension than I had ever witnessed in my teaching career.

Teaching metacognition should happen in every classroom, at every level. When you help students think at deep levels while reading, they will become excellent lifelong readers and thinkers who can handle any text they encounter and form their thoughts about topics based on evidence.

What was the result of teaching metacognition at my school? Our reading scores climbed every single year, and now, 12 years later, my school still has some of the highest reading scores in the district. Your classroom and your school can do it too. Just think!


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