The Power of Metacognition

Light up those neurons!
                Light up those neurons!

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition refers to awareness of one’s own knowledge—what one does and doesn’t know—and one’s ability to understand, control, and manipulate one’s cognitive processes (Meichenbaum, 1985). It includes knowing when and where to use particular strategies for learning and problem solving as well as how and why to use specific strategies. Metacognition is the ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed (Teal, 2012).

To put it simply, metacognition is being aware of and understanding your cognitive processes.

Why Should we Explicitly Teach Metacognition?

Yesterday I read Visible Learning for Literacy by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie. They include a thought-provoking list in their appendix effect sizes for various educational practices and environmental factors.  There are negative effect sizes (-0.20 – 0.00 approx.), developmental effect sizes (0.00 – 0.20 approx.), teacher effect sizes (0.20 – 0.40 approx.), and medium to high effect sizes (0.40+).

Number 14 on the list of 150 measured items is Metacognitive Strategies with a whopping effect size of 0.69.  Teaching Strategies is number 23 on the list with an effect size of 0.62.

We must couple teaching of strategies with teaching of metacognitive strategies to receive full value from each. How?  By teaching students to continually question their understanding of material followed by purposefully choosing strategies to help them comprehend what they read.

P.S. I don’t think it will come as a surprise to any teacher that negative effect sizes include summer vacation, retention, and television.


Teal Center Staff. “Fact Sheet: Metacognitive Processes | Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL).” Fact Sheet: Metacognitive Processes | Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL). U.S. Department of Education, Feb. 2012. Web. 13 July 2016.

Shoehorning Grammar and Punctuation into a Busy Day

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 3.11.19 PMThe most frequent complaint I hear from my teachers is “When am I supposed to teach grammar? And punctuation?”  After all they teach reading workshop and writing workshop and spelling and guided reading and have read-alouds and think-alouds. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything!

One of my over-arching questions is how can we teach grammar and punctuation effectively?  Last week I gave a workshop to our elementary school teachers about Jeff Anderson’s method, EveryDay Editing.  EveryDay Editing takes an authorial rather than a secretarial approach to teaching conventions–in other words we look at why authors choose certain conventions and how they use them to improve the quality of their writing.

The slide show that is linked below contains three different examples of the EveryDay Editing framework for different grade levels.  Following the examples are “How To” instructions of how to create your own lessons and framework slides for you to use.


EveryDay Editing (2)

Melding Dr. G and The Daily Cafe

cafe-bookLately, I’ve been making the adjustments needed to teach reading to this year’s group of readers.  Each year, the class-wide needs and the individual needs vary greatly.

I’ve identified visualizing and inferring as class-wide needs along with a generalized need to pinpoint where comprehension is breaking down.  First, I taught through Dr. Goodreader and we continue to use the chart daily to pinpoint our needs.  I’m dealing with inferring and visualizing through class-wide mini-lessons and read alouds.

Then I began to imcorporate portions of Gail Boushey and Joan Moser’s amazing book, The Daily Cafe.  I posted and taught the strategies from their daily cafe under the following divisions:

C:  Comprehension, A:  Accuracy, F:  Fluency, and E:  Enlarging Vocabulary. 

Then I had each of them consider their weakest area in the comprehension category and set that as a goal for the quarter.  This self-organized them into groups.  I figured that was a no-lose proposition because they would learn no matter which category they chose.

I’ve been meeting with these groups every few days.  I give them a short mini-lesson, and then a specific assignment.  The assignments are often painfully simple, but I’ve found they are already helping quite a bit.  The self-monitoring group has a sticky note that they move to the bottom of each page as they read and ask themselves the question, “Did that make sense?” at the bottom of each page.  The determining importance group asks themselves after each conversation in the book they are reading, “What was important in this conversation?” and puts a sticky flag next to the important parts.  The prediction group makes predictions and confirms them using text evidence.  Simple.  But.  Effective.  Thank you, 2 Sisters!

Context Clues Part 3

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The first step in teaching context clues is to make students aware of the different types:

  • Look for a synonym.  Sally and Susie often get into little skirmishes, but they don’t let these little arguments spoil their friendship.
  • Look for an antonym. (Compare and Contrast) Nicho tried to conceal his actions, but his face showed that he was reading another book at his desk.
  • Look for the definition.  Babushka lived in a dacha, a small house in the Russian countryside.  An addendum to this:  Some students need to be taught that the word or in a sentence can signal a definition as in, Babushka lived in a dacha, or small house, in the Russian countryside.
  • Look for words that appear in a series.  The dulcimer, banjo, and the fiddle are popular instruments in the Appalachian Mountains.
  • Look at cause and effect.  My husband infuriates me when he throws away papers that are important to me.
  • Look at general context.  He reminded me of Yin.  Yin was a king in China during the 1500’s whom I had studied about in school.)

Context Clues Part 2: Determining Importance at the Word Level

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One of the first questions Dr. Goodreader asks is, “Do I need to know the word for the text to make sense?”  Many of my students this year are struggling readers and writers.  Many of them had no idea if they needed to understand a word for the text to make sense.

Determining importance is important at every level of life.  The other night my husband and I were visiting friends.  “Oh, I watched the best movie last night,” our hostess said. “Would you like me to tell you what it was about?”  A half an hour later I was blankly nodding as she continued her narrative.  I have no desire to ever watch this movie after being regaled with such a lengthy retelling by someone who can not determine what is important.

”Proficient readers make decisions about what is important in text at three levels:  whole text, sentence, and word level.  While they are reading and after they read, they evaluate what was most essential to understanding the text.  So, strong readers are constantly re-evaluating meaning and importance.  (Keene and Zimmerman, Mosaic of Thought p. 87)

I sweated a lot, trying to work this out.  I finally came up with the following ideas.  Since these are not time tested, I’m presenting them solely in bullet form instead of full-fledged mini-lessons.

  • It is helpful for us to use the words “relevant” and “irrelevant” throughout our teaching day when teaching on determining importance.  We can give directions, throwing in an aside, and then remark, “But that’s irrelevant.  That’s not important.  What I want you to focus on is this.”
  • One way to teach determining importance at the word level would be through “Think Alouds”.  During the think-aloud we can model determining importance at all levels: text, sentence, and word level.
  • We can explicitly teach certain skills.  For example, in non-fiction the first and last lines in a paragraph are often the most important.  Also cue words are often followed by particularly important information – for example, “And finally…”  Also in non-fiction, text structure and text features (such as bold or italicized print, figures, and photographs) can help students distinguish important from unimportant information.
  • Text coding forces students to think about what is important.  We can have students code VIP’s – Very Important Points.  They can mark them with three arrows.
  • One of our teachers, Mark Valentine, uses student’s love for highlighters to great effect in his classroom.  For example, if he’s teaching transitional words, he has them highlight every time they used a transitional word in their writing, or perhaps when they see one in their reading.  In this case, students could be given a short passage of reading and highlight the very-most-important words/sentences.
  • When I read in Spanish, I usually only use a dictionary if the word is repeated a few times in a few pages.  I figure that repetition is a good indicator of word importance.
  • I would think that it would be quite important to understand the majority of nouns and verbs in a text, although I have to admit that descriptors can also be important.  “’Yes,’ he snidely said,” has a totally different meaning than “’Yes,’ he said.”
  • Determining importance is greatly related to our background knowledge.  Ideas that are most closely connected to the reader’s prior knowledge will often be considered most important – even when they’re not.
  • Although more on the sentence level, my class and I spent weeks, slogging through non-fiction articles copied from the History of US by Joy Hakim.  These articles are not as “dense” as textbook reading but gave us a lot of practice filtering out what was important from what was interesting.  Sometimes we worked as a group. Other times we worked in student pairs, and occasionally I sent home an article for homework.  Students would highlight what was important in one color and what was interesting in another color.  They had to support their decisions in a written “think-aloud” in the margins.

Did I clunk on a word?

Did_I_clunk_on_a_word_When using the Dr. Goodreader chart, we need to teach students that it’s not that good readers don’t make mistakes when they read, but that good readers notice when something doesn’t make sense and go back to correct their mistakes.

Even the best readers misread words from time to time.  Our brains assume what the next word will be based on the first letter or two.  When it doesn’t make sense we need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • Did I read the word incorrectly?  (I have ample opportunity to model this when I read out loud to my students.)
  • Did I substitute a word?  (This as far as most older intermediate readers need to go.)
  • Can I try reading the word out loud? (This helps younger students and ELL students.)
  • Have I looked carefully at the beginning and ending sounds? (Some students are in such a hurry that they skip over important parts of a word.)
  • Do I need to point and slide? (Very helpful to younger readers.)

Mind Wanderer or Mind Distracted or Both?

We’ve been talking about how some of us have problems with external distractions when we read and others of us with our minds wandering.  Here’s what a few of my students have to say:

  • I have problems with my mind wandering.  I start thinking about going to recess.  I can read a difficult book if my teacher is reading out loud if I have a copy of a book.flying books That helps me concentrate.  For myself, I pick easier books with a topic I like.
  • Many times when I read I am planning the future.  What I do about it is try to stop my mind and say to myself, “Concentrate, let’s do it!”
  • My mind wanders and I can still read the words, but I’m thinking about something else.  I read better when I read at my desk away from everybody else.
  • When I read, the movie plays in my mind, but sometimes my mind plays a different movie than the book such as me playing soccer.  I just ignore it and try to concentrate on my book.  (He must be good at it, because as a second year English learner, he’s read all the Harry Potter books!)
  • When my mind wanders I reread until I get it and I am re focused.
  • I can block out outside distractions, but my mind wandering doesn’t allow me to think about the book.  To stop thinking about other things I stop, tell my mind to concentrate, then think about the book.
  • Sometimes when I read a book and find a connection I start thinking about that and don’t concentrate on my reading.
  • Distractions bother me because my mind has to stay completely on the book.  To be focused I need silence.  I try to ignore sounds or I cover my ears with a pillow.
  • When I read I get distracted by sounds.  I can read when everybody is silent, but not when there is lots of noise.  I can’t read in my house because my brothers are watching TV in one room and in another they’re playing wii.  What I do about it is I go in my closet and read there.

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Did I get distracted or let my mind wander? Part 2

Being distracted and letting our minds wander can happen to any of us, but what can we do about it when we’re reading?whisper phone

First, we need to understand that distractions are external and letting our minds wander is internal. Making a list of our common distractions and wanderings helps make us more aware of these things, which, although counter-intuitive, is just what we need.  Once we’re metacognitively aware, we can do something about the problem. My students make long lists of distractions, but my personal distractions are pretty much limited to mosquitoes and fireworks (thus are the hazards of living in tropical, but festive, Ecuador).  Under the category of letting your mind wander, my students generally have short lists (what happened at recess, things not going well at home), where my brain often feels like popcorn as I battle with various to-do lists, obsessive replays of the day, and thoughts about what I should be doing rather than reading.

We explain that we all have good days and bad days with distractability and wanderability; it happens to the best of readers, but good reader DO something about it.  We brainstorm ideas with the kids, and if none of the following comes up in discussion, we suggest them:

  • Students often need to move away from others in order to have less distractions, and we have a number of hidey-holes around the classroom for those students.
  • Sometimes a student who IS a distraction needs to be asked to read in one of these spaces away from others.  Sometimes we even give them names:  Ricky’s Retreat and Charlie’s Corner.
  • Other students benefit from reading aloud to focus their attention.  We arm them with read-out-loud phones (see photo), move them away from other students and they read away!  (I have a class set of these that some parents made from PVC pipe.  We use them often with both reading and writing.  There’s nothing like reading your work out loud for sentence fluency!)
  • When our brain is wandering with to-do lists and remembered chores, sometimes the best thing to do is stop reading for a moment and jot down what we’re thinking about and then go back to the book.
  • The main strategy we use is to talk to our brains.  If the distraction is something we can’t do anything about, like the leaf blower running outside our window, we simply tell our brains to pay attention.  It works!  At the beginning of each year we study the different controls in our brains from the website All Kinds of Minds, and students are used to thinking and speaking about these controls.

Are you more bedeviled by distractions or letting your mind wander??

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Did I get distracted or let my mind wander?


When teaching children to use the Dr. Goodreader chart, our end goal is for them to use it enough that they internalize the information and eventually have an automatic checklist they use when they read for the rest of their lives.  Dr. Goodreader works for all readers.

After we ask the initial question, “Does this make sense?” if the answer is no, the next question to ask ourselves is, “Did I get distracted or let my mind wander?”  Children need to be taught how to deal with distractions in every setting.  I tell them that when I was reading last night, I found that I hadn’t understood a word for pages because my mind had wandered off to think about the day’s events.  My eyes were going across the words, but my brain was not actively engaged in my book.  Most students are nodding in recognition at this point!

There are many ways to avoid distractions, but it is difficult to create a perfect world in which to read.  So, our goal is to train ourselves to focus, no matter what happens.  To be so into the book that you have to be dragged out of Bookworld into reality.

In the classroom, we move from naming distractions, to brainstorming ways to surmount them, to learning to read deeply.  Some students my squirrel themselves away under tables or in corners to avoid the distraction of their fellow students.  By the end of the year, it’s difficult to drag them out of their books.  The room often stays completely silent when I announce that it’s time to jot down their reading in their reading journals.  Oh, the silence of success!