Metacognitive Literacy Skills

Planning “meta” literacy skills and practices for diverse learners.

Peter Olm (2008)

This assignment will be investigating metacognitive skills as they relate to student literacy development in the middle years of schooling. From a review of relevant literature on the topic, two strategies that develop students capacities to understand, reflect upon and adapt literacy-learning skills as they monitor their progress in their own literacy learning will be selected. The two selected strategies will be analysed in terms of the particular metacognitive skills and practices they develop and how they do so. Furthermore, the implementation of the selected strategies may impact and implications upon planning for diverse learners in a classroom will also be discussed.

In reviewing literature surrounding metacognition, one might broadly define the term of “metacognition” as being “thinking about one’s own thinking” (Costa and Kallick 2000). Paris and Winograd (1990, in van Kraayenoord & Paris, 1997) elaborate on this view, and have described metacognition as having two aspects. One aspect, being “self-appraisal”, refers to the self-evaluation of one’s abilities, knowledge states and cognitive strategies, whilst the “self-management” aspect refers to the self-monitoring of ongoing behaviour through planning, correcting mistakes and using fix-up strategies (Paris and Winograd, 1990, in van Kraayenoord & Paris, 1997, p. 525). In order to take these processes from what might be considered abstract and purely cognitive phenomena and relate them to skills that can be enacted with purpose and intent, one might turn to the writings of Perkins (1995). In writing about different views of intelligence, Perkins (1995) brokers the view of a reflective intelligence, this being one that considers the role of a person’s use of strategies, attitudes, metacognition and reflection in intelligent behaviour. Perkins refers to these elements as “mindware” (1995, p.13); being those elements of learnable intelligence that assist a person to solve problems, understand concepts and perform intellectually demanding tasks more proficiently. In this regard, this concept of “mindware” may provide us with a term that describes metacognitive skills that offer the prospect of improving cognitive ability through learnable thinking strategies, attitudes, reflection and metacognition. De Bono argues that intelligence can be applied with learnable skills of thinking (1976, p.45). Therefore, in developing “mindware” an individual is enabled to improve their performance in a particular pursuit.

In a useful addition to the discussion, in commenting on the dispositional aspect to the act of thinking, Harpaz (2003) makes a distinction between the notion of “thinking dispositions”, being a reasoned motivation to think in a specific manner, and a “disposition to think”, being the inclination to be involved in thinking and value it (2003, p.7). To combine these two statements, a useful definition of having a dispositional approach to metacognitive skills might be: valuing and having an inclination to be involved in metacognition, and displaying a motivation and sensitivity towards using metacognitive skills in a specific and reasoned manner. Similarly, De Bono suggests that skill in thinking includes “knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it and what to take into consideration” (1976, p.51). This statement reinforces the notion that the ability to analyse a situation and think about the skills required falls within the definitions of metacognition as discussed earlier.

It is this ability of “knowing what to do, when to do it, how to do it and what to take into consideration” that perhaps gives a criteria for metacognitive skills relating to literacy learning. For instance, a student’s use of strategies such as questioning and summarising involve putting metacognitive processes into action to improve literacy learning, particularly in relation to reading comprehension. The strategy of questioning, for example, can have a positive impact upon students’ understanding and recall of texts and when students learn to generate questions for texts their overall comprehension improves (Yopp, 1988, in Duke and Pearson 2002, and Duke and Pearson, 2002). The act of questioning before, during or after reading is an example of the “self-management” aspect of metacognition, as early identified by Paris and Winograd, as in questioning, students are engaged in on-going behaviour that allows them to monitor their understandings as they develop comprehension skills when reading texts. Duke and Pearson (2002) outline how the strategy of questioning has even been formed into a “routine” called QAR (Question-Answer-Relationships), which assists students in the process of differentiating the types of questions they could ask of text. For instance, “Right There” QARs were those in which the question and the answer were explicitly stated in the text; “Think and Search” QARs had questions and answers in the text, but some searching and inferential text connections were required to make the link; and “On My Own” QARs were those in which the question was motivated by some text element or item of information, but the answer had to be generated from the students’ prior knowledge (Duke and Pearson, 2002, p.223). Duke and Pearson (2002, p. 223) define QARs as being a “metacognitive routine” that is able to help students develop a sense of efficacy and confidence in their ability to differentiate strategies in both responding to and generating their own questions for text.

Similarly, the strategy of summarising is capable of improving students’ comprehension of texts. Dole et al. (1991, in Duke and Pearson, 2002, p. 220) suggest that summarising “requires readers to sift through large units of text, differentiate important from unimportant ideas, and then synthesise those ideas and create a new coherent text” that represents the original version. Once again, as the strategy of summarising has a dual purpose of not only improving students’ abilities to summarise text, but also to improve their ability to comprehend and recall understandings of texts it can therefore be considered a metacognitive skill in the”self-management” sense. In a similar manner to questioning, the use of metacognitive routines to aid summarising has been suggested. For instance, in taking a rule-governed approach towards summarising, McNeil and Donant (1982, in Duke and Pearson, 2002, p.221) outline a 6-part, step-by-step procedure for the deletion of unnecessary and redundant material, the composing of a word to replace a list of items or individual parts of an action, the selection or invention of a topic sentence.

Interestingly enough, these metacognitive routines have a similar theoretical underpinning to the notion of attention-directing devices as outlined by thinking theorists who promote the notion of teachable and learnable “thinking skills”. For instance, De Bono suggests that in order to achieve the aim of effective thinking, or in this case, metacognitive skills, one strategy might include the use of attention-directing devices (De Bono, 1976, p.49). The aim of using such devices would be to direct a learner’s attention towards ways of thinking that might have normally not have been carried out. De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats (1985, revised 1999) is one such example of an attention-directing device that develops normative skills (Harpaz, 2003, p.4). In this case normative skills may be considered to be those that attempt to establish standards that can be used to analyse one’s performance in a metacognitive and self-reflective fashion. For both the metacognitive skills of questioning and summarising, the notion of “routines” played a prevalent role. In many ways, the use of routines such as QAR for questioning strategies or the “rule governed” approaches to summarising may be seen as their own examples of attention-directing devices, in that they encourage learners to direct their thinking in certain ways, according to particular standards, in order to achieve a particular result that may not normally have been achieved without their usage.

However, one might need to look beyond just merely the use of attention-directing devices and routines as strategies in themselves, if one is intending for students to become metacognitive and self-reflective in an autonomous manner. In this regard, in taking a dispositional approach towards developing metacognitive skills, one would see the importance of an individual’s valuing, inclination, motivation and sensitivity towards responding to a broad range of situations with metacognitive skills in an autonomous and independent manner (Costa and Kallick 2000, Golding, 2006, Harpaz 2003, and Ritchhart, 2002). This approach towards the teaching of metacognitive skills would rely on these types of thinking being contextualised within learning activities and the learning environment and routines that provide an authentic context for metacognitive processes rather than simply the teaching of a metacognition as an isolated skill in a contrived instance (Harpaz, 2003). In practice, adopting a dispositional approach may indeed be more a process of indirect cultivation (Harpaz, 2003, p.8), whereby students are required to engage in metacognitive skills by the nature of tasks being set. In other words, learning tasks would place an onus on students to self-direct their thinking by reflecting and displaying motivation, inclination and sensitivity towards using appropriate types of metacognitive skills in order to address a task.

Similarly, discussion and teacher modeling play an essential role in the development of metacognitive skills. In providing such learning experiences, teachers would be providing exemplars of “good thinking” through their teaching pedagogy and curriculum planning (Golding, 2006, p.4 and Harpaz, 2003, p.7). This notion is supported by Duke and Pearson (2002), who in describing a number of metacognitive literacy skills, such asquestioning and summarizing, refer to the important of modeling, group practice and independent and individual practice in students being able to learn and apply the strategies. Similarly, in discussing the notion of metacognitive “routines”, Duke and Pearson (2002, p.225) suggest that one example, being reciprocal teaching (that involved the use of four strategies – two of which happen to be questioning andsummarizing) “involves a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student for carrying out each part of the routine”. Likewise whilst teachers might initially model strategies, “students assume increasing control over strategy use, eventually using the strategies with little or no teacher support” (Duke and Pearson, 2002, p.225).

In somewhat of an extension on these aspects of the dispositional approach and the notion of metacognitive routines, it could be argued that the strategic application of good thinking to improve the use of skills transcends merely the internal processing of tasks and extends into observable behaviours and habits that display good thinking (Golding, 2006, p.3). This brings forth frameworks of thinking “behaviours”, with Art Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind being one example (Costa and Kallick, 2000). In essence, the 16 Habits of Mind represent various labels that break down strategies, attitudes and metacognition into various independent groups. These behaviours are developed through much the same means as developing dispositions towards good thinking as mentioned earlier, with an added emphasis on an individual displaying their good thinking with observable behaviours. In many ways, the 16 Habits of Mind framework provide a metalanguage for students to refer to as part of a routine of metacognitive skills that might able useful in improving literacy learning. In providing such a framework for student reference, there may be a greater chance of recalling and independent prompting of the use of metacognitive skills on behalf of students, whilst similarly allowing for the opportunity for skill transfer to new and unfamiliar contexts.

In conclusion, metacognitive skills, such as questioning and summarising to improve reading comprehension are but two of many strategies that develop student capacities to understand, reflect upon and adapt literacy-learning skills as they monitor their progress in their own literacy learning. In order to effectively implement such strategies, a structured process of modelled, guided and independent practice of the strategies is a necessary pedagogical requirement. Similarly, attention-directing devices, routines and frameworks that promote a metalanguage to recall, prompt and describe metacognitive skills may indeed be useful approaches in order to develop student capacities to practice metacognitive skills in an independent and autonomous manner.



Costa, Arthur L. and Kallick, Bena. (2000). What are Habits of Mind? Available: Last accessed Thursday 1st May

De Bono, Edward. (1976) Teaching Thinking, England: Penguin pp. 33, 45, 49 and 51

De Bono, Edward. (1985, revised 1999) Six Thinking Hats, Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin

Duke, N. K. & Pearson, P. D. (2002) Effective Reading Practices for Developing Comprehension (Chapter 10) In Farstrup, A.E & S.J Samuels (eds.) “What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction”. 3rd ed., Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Golding, Clinton. (2006) Teacher Learning Network: Lines of Thought – From Thinking Skills to Thinking Schools Vol 13, No 2, Winter 2006 “From a Thinking Curriculum to Thinking Schools”, p.3-5, pp. 2, 3 and 4

Harpaz, Yoram. (2003) Approaches to Teaching Thinking: A Conceptual Mapping of the Field, Unpublished, to be published in “Teachers College Record” pp. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8

Perkins, David. (1995) Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence, New York: Free Press pp. 13, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 102

Ritchhart, Ron. (2002) Intellectual Character: What it is, Why it Matters, and How to Get it, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco pp. 19, 20, 21 and 27-30

van Kraayenoord, C. E. & Paris, S. (1997) Australian Students Self-Appraisal of Their Work Samples and Academic Progress.  In “The Elementary School Journal” 97 (5), 532-537

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