Metacognition as a Tool of Language Learning

September 2022

For the month of September, we’re going to be taking a deep dive into the inner workings of our brains and investigate how we can improve our learning abilities. That’s right, we’re examining metacognition, or how we think about our learning. What does it mean to think about thinking? You’ll have to read further to find out more!

Our cover: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

photo by jacek_osinski on Pixabay; others from Unsplash

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at metacognition, student beliefs about learning, what a class should be, and how a language should be studied. The Lite video gives a quick overview of metacognition while the Deep video discusses its theoretical underpinnings.

After a short introduction by Curtis Kelly, Julia Daley gives us the basics on metacognition and its use in the classroom. One of the leading voices on metacognition, Paula Kalaja, explains how her research on beginning teachers revealed differences in their thinking. In a similar fashion, veteran contributor Harumi Kimura tells us how her research on her learners revealed both how beliefs can impede learning and a way to counter them. Finally, John Eidswick tells us about how his language learning experiences affected his thinking and, later, his teaching.

In the PLUS section, Stephen M. Ryan passes on his students’ thoughts about being better informed about their brains and their learning.

Our Thoughts on Metacognition

Rethinking my Thinking on their Thinking Curtis Kelly, with Matt Ehlers

A few months ago, I was a lot different than I am now. Back then was when veteran contributor Harumi Kimura suggested we have a Think Tank issue on metacognition. As I have done many times before when I’ve heard that term, I googled it.

Contributor Matt Ehlers has the same tendency I do. When I told him the issue topic, he googled it too, and wrote his experience up. He mailed it to me. All 1600 words of it. (When Matt bites into something, he bites hard.) You can read it here if you wish. After all, it is rich in metacognition itself.

Think Tank Articles

Metacognition: Learning to Think About Learning Julia Daley

During your journey to create a classroom full of lifelong learners, you might well have come across the term “Metacognition.” The premise behind it seems straightforward enough: thinking about thinking. Yet there’s quite a bit more involved in practicing metacognition beyond just being aware of our own thoughts. Metacognition is more like a process to become a better learner, requiring us to recognize what we know and what we want to know, and figuring out how to bridge the gap between these two points.

The English Class of One’s Dreams: Envisioning Visually and Verbally Paula Kalaja

“Where there is a vision, there is a way,” claim the advocates of a theory of vision (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2014, p. 2). Visions (or envisioning) are a way to motivate learners to learn second languages (L2s) or to motivate their teachers to teach L2s. The idea is to ask them how they see themselves now and how they imagine themselves in the years to come, e.g., developing from halting beginners to competent users of an L2, or from insecure novice teachers to experienced professionals. Envisioning helps them maintain motivation until reaching the end-goal.

Now, as practicing TESOL teachers, if you were asked to think a few years ahead in time and envision an English class of your dreams, what would you be teaching or your students learning, how, and where—ideally?

Interpersonally Mediated: Metacognition at Work Harumi Kimura

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what your students think about their language learning and develop their own ideas about it? In fact, human beings can think about their own thinking, a function which is termed metacognition (Flavell, 1979). This is the ability to consciously and unconsciously monitor and control our cognition and cognitive processes. Metacognitive knowledge, or beliefs, fosters higher order reasoning and problem-solving skills; thus, it helps us abandon unhelpful ideas and activate useful and effective strategies to achieve goals. In SLA, Kalaja et al. (2018) defined beliefs about SLA as “the conceptions, ideas and opinions learners have about L2 learning and teaching and language itself (p. 222).” These beliefs play an important role in L2 learning, and healthy beliefs can promote L2 learning by pushing learners into effective learning behaviors (Wenden, 1999). However, beliefs can be wrong, unfortunately, pushing learners away from effective learning behaviors.

Metacognition and Interest in Language Learning John Eidswick

I can clearly remember the moment I realized I was a terrible language learner.

It was decades ago, at a time I carried fewer kilograms and more hair. I was thinking about enrolling in classes at the local community college. A friend encouraged me to take a French class taught by someone she knew.

The idea wasn’t appealing. Apart from the Spanish classes in high school I barely passed (I can still picture Señor Estrada’s blood-red marks on my vocabulary quizzes), I’d never tried studying a second language. But my friend arranged for me to observe a session, and I gave in. I was surprised to discover that observing the class triggered an interest in learning languages I didn’t know I had.

Think Tank Plus

Studying the Brain in English Class: Students React! Stephen M. Ryan

Why not teach our students about their brains?

This is the suggestion I made in our November 2021 Think Tank. It wasn’t a total shot in the dark. I had been experimenting with using Think Tank articles, recommended videos, and other brain-y materials, in my Reading and Listening classes for a year or so before I made the suggestion. The original Think Tank article gives many of the hows and whats. I’ve continued to develop these ideas since.[1]

[1] We have also been developing resources for teaching about the brain in simple English, partly with students’ needs in mind.

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Get Meta to Learn Better

For independent learners, metacognitive skills are crucial. Without the benefit of a teacher, how else would they keep track of their learning? Ed Parsons reflects on this, as part of his 30-day Spanish learning project.

 Reflective Activities – suggested by Heather Kretschmer


This is a collection of metacognitive activities teachers can use in their classes. The ones I’ve tried out in my courses have worked well, and I’ve also had the opportunity to try out other activities recently as a participant in some professional development sessions. While the website is geared towards higher ed, I think many of these activities could be adapted for other teaching contexts. Teachers are also invited to submit their own activities to this website.

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

             Heather Kretschmer          Curtis H. Kelly            Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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