Metacognition in the Classroom

Metacognition in the Classroom

By: Martin Friel

Editors: Martin read our September 2022 Think Tank on Metacognition in the language classroom and came up with some suggestions. Here is what he has to say.

I believe metacognition has a valuable place in the classroom. It encourages students to become more active in their own education and provides a constant source of feedback for the teachers to reflect on and help keep us flush with new ideas. As a response to September’s issue, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and experiences of metacognition in the classroom, and how we as language teachers might capitalise on it to pro-actively improve the classroom experience for all involved. To provide a little background context, I work at an English conversation school catering to a wide variety of students of all age groups. Of these students my focus will be on two in particular which I’ll refer to as class A and class B.

In the first class (class A) I had an experience that neatly fit Julia Daley’s ideas on metacognition. They are an extremely energetic group made up of five fourth grade students. They are highly communicative, but hold a very mixed level of English ability owing to some of the group having studied for as many as 5 years and some as little as 1. Upon the time of writing, the grammar target for our last three lessons has been comparatives and superlatives. I planned to spend four lessons on this topic, prepared accordingly and had been monitoring a group work activity when I noticed that the more experienced students were passing on difficult adjectives to the weaker students without any direction from me. The activity was simple, in one group of three and one pair the students were asked to work together making comparisons between a randomised stack of cards with animal pictures, i.e bears, cats, foxes etc. I was thrilled when the students began using the target language to teach one another through sentences such as “dogs are better than cats”, or “lions are faster than tigers”. By recognising their peers gaps in knowledge and using English to fill them, metacognition became a tool for the children to learn collaboratively. Usually at the end of a class I would ask each student a question before they leave to assess whether or not they’ve absorbed the lesson content. However, this time I chose to ask “what did you learn today?”, and was very pleasantly surprised to hear “lions are faster than tigers.” After reading Daley’s (2022) article, I found the three pillars she explains of planning, monitoring and evaluating to be a wonderfully useful paradigm for myself as a teacher to keep an open mind towards more effective classroom planning.

In Kalaja’s (2022) examinations of teachers-in-training asked to explain their ideal teaching experience, a great variety of teaching methodology was put forth despite the small group size. I strongly agree with the importance of vision as a motivating factor in L2 acquisition, and think that the ideal learning environment emerges when student expectations and teacher methodology are in sync. To explore this, I’d like to put forward the example of class B where these expectations could not have been further apart. Class B was a communicative English conversation school class I inherited from a departing co-worker with six junior high school students in their final year. There were four boys and two girls, all of whom I was introduced to as being ‘quiet’ despite a long history of English study for most. While a lot of these children had initially enjoyed the communicative and playful nature of language learning in earlier years, as they grew older their values started to shift. As a strong advocate of interactivity in the classroom, my plan of attack was simple, get them up, get them active and get them speaking together without spoon-feeding or rote memorisation. To achieve this, I tried a blend of TPR activities such as role-playing activities from their textbook, pair discussion on topics they expressed interest in, and team research projects, all to no avail. While frustrating, it was also an incredibly informative experience. I learned to take into careful consideration the expectations of L2 learners (in this case the desire to pass examinations) and form a common understanding or ‘vision’.

To play with the ideas in Kalaja’s (2022) article, The English Class of One’s Dreams: Envisioning Visually and Verbally, I asked multiple classes in mostly younger age ranges (6-14) to describe verbally and visually their ideal English experience. Results varied dramatically along the lines of language and artistic ability but some very interesting trends emerged. Most children depicted themselves on vacation or a similarly foreign setting, almost all images included some kind of English para-text[1] and many pictures focussed on what could be deemed westernised clothing such as sunglasses, baggy t-shirts etc. Girls in particular gave great emphasis to creating a ‘ladylike’ image, and as a consequence of this activity I had a significant upturn in the number of questions being asked as the children tried to find the words to explain their vision. This was the first time for many of the children to actively share a self-reflection in and about English, and while it was only a small-scale teaching experiment, I found it a compelling window into what Ryan and Dörnyei (2013) called the ideal L2 self (an idealised future self representation that strongly influences motivation).When given the opportunity for reflection, the children were able to think about their relationship to English outside the context of immediate requirement, and focus instead on acquiring English they were interested in for communicative use. Student motivation can all too easily be crushed by the weight of educational obligations like tests, so taking time for metacognition seemed to really help my students’ motivation in class.

[1] Speech bubbles, giant signposts and the like.

While class B has since broken up and moved on, I find myself wondering now what would they have produced given the same activity?

While metacognition might sound to many like a concept far removed from practical everyday application, the September issue on the topic has shown quite the opposite to be true. My classroom experimentation so far has been very productive and I very much hope this can be the case for all of you too!


  • Daley, J. (2022). Metacognition: Learning to think about learning. MindBrainEd Think Tank (8), 9, 7-13.

  • Kalaja, P. (2022). The English class of one’s dreams: Envisioning visually and verbally. MindBrainEd Think Tank (8), 9, 14-25.

  • Kimura, H. (2022). Interpersonality mediated: Metacognition at work. MindBrainEd Think Tank (8), 9, 26-33.

  • Ryan, S., & Dornyei, Z. (2013). The long-term evolution of language motivation and the L2 self. Fremdsprachen in der Perspektive lebenslangen Lernens. 89-100.

Martin Friel is an English language teacher and international education masters student based in Yamagata prefecture. His two main research interests are second language acquisition and educational policy borrowing.

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