3 Ideas for Teaching Students Struggling with Reading to Use Metacognition

Teachers help students struggling with reading by identifying areas of need, demonstrating strategies, and providing opportunities to practice new skills. But what if the key to helping students find the answers actually lies in teaching them to ask the right questions?

Metacognition, defined as “thinking about thinking,” engages students as active assessors of their own learning. According to the Center for Teaching (CFT) at Vanderbilt University, “Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.” Rather than passively receiving assessment results and using teacher-driven strategies, students can use metacognitive approaches to think about what skills are difficult for them and how they can alter their approaches. For students struggling with reading, “thinking about thinking” may well be the key to improving the reading process.

To encourage metacognition, the CFT recommends explicitly teaching this skill during lessons and activities. Below are three ideas for teaching metacognition to students struggling with reading:   

  1. “Think aloud” while reading

    Reading aloud is one of the first ways that educators introduce reading skills. Even the youngest students can learn how to hold a book, track print across a page, and associate printed words with their spoken counterparts by watching parents or caregivers read to them. In the same vein, older students benefit from watching educators think aloud while reading.  

    For instance, an educator might read aloud, model stumbling across an unfamiliar word, and share their thought process: “I haven’t seen this word before. I can usually figure out the meaning of a word through context, so I’m going to read through the rest of the sentence. What definition of this word makes sense? After I come up with several possibilities, I’m going to take a minute to look up the definition before I keep reading.”  


  2. Stop for reflection

    Rather than asking comprehension questions during a reading activity, try asking metacognitive questions. While comprehension questions help determine whether students understand the material, metacognitive questions help students recognize how they feel about the material.

    For example, instead of asking students “What is the main idea of this text?” teachers can pause during a group-read and ask, “How well do you understand the material right now?” or “How do you feel about this reading activity? Bored? Confident? Frustrated?” Then the teacher can guide students in using their answers to prompt next steps. If students are feeling confused or frustrated, ask them to reflect on the reading strategies they’ve been using. What other strategies could they use instead?  


  3. Craft an inner monologue

    As students begin to read more independently, they’ll need to remember to use metacognitive skills on their own. Teachers can contribute by assisting students in crafting an inner monologue to guide them through the process of reading, and by creating a list of questions for students to ask themselves before, during, and after reading. For example, here is a list for secondary students who have been practicing using metacognition:


Before reading, students can reflect on what they expect to read and what areas of strength or weakness they anticipate as a reader:  

  • “I know this material is about…”  

  • “I feel confident that I can ______ while I read.”

  • “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to…”

  • “What strategies can I use to help me with my weaknesses?”

While reading, students can pause and reflect:

  • “Do I understand what I just read? If not, why not?”

  • “What strategies am I using? If they aren’t working, what can I do instead?”

After reading, students can ask themselves:

  • “What else have I read that’s similar to this material?”

  • “What questions do I still have about the subject matter?

  • “Is there anything I need to reread or research?”

    Forming these inner monologues helps students engage the higher-level process of metacognition as they read.

While educators can provide assessments and strategies to improve student reading skills, it’s most important for students to understand their own strengths and needs as readers. By demonstrating “thinking aloud,” periodically stopping for reflection, and helping students craft an inner monologue while reading, educators can support students in developing their metacognitive skills. As students learn to “think about their thinking” as they read, they will also learn to guide themselves toward greater success.

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