Don't teach your students what to learn, teach them how to learn

Ultimately, YLs need to learn how to learn as much as they need to acquire new knowledge (Williams, 1991)

This has to be one of the most influential ideas I have come across in the world of education. As simple as it is, the implications are fairly radical: we need to spend less time teaching children what to learn, and more time teaching children how to learn.

This is the world of metacognition, or thinking processes about thinking processes. And as far as education goes, there isn’t anything much more exciting these days than getting your meta on. The reason for this stems from a need to understand how children are different to adults and how they learn differently.

When it comes to key features of young learners, we can say that:

  • As experiential learners, a child’s language emerges from describing experiences and interactions with the physical world;
  • As social learners young learners rely on models from their peers and mentors;
  • With limited attentional capacities, a child’s success depends on routines: their perception of control correlates to the amount of control the teacher has;
  • Young learners do not learn a language by choice nor do they differentiate between learning and non-learning situations.

So what might seem simple, law-abiding behaviour in a classroom to us, doesn’t seem that way to a child for many reasons, the least of which relate to the processes of socialisation, cognitive and biological development and the need to experiment with social rules and relationships.

This all boils down to one thing: children need to learn how to learn, and as a teacher, if you’re assuming this doesn’t fall within the scope of your responsibilities, then you’re really leaving the behaviour and learning potential of your children up to chance.

So what is metacognition?

Metacognition, or more explicitly, metacognitive strategies is an idea used by educators to increase the awareness a student has of the process and skills they use to complete a certain task. In other words, it's thinking about thinking. 

Think about the way you might write an article: do you write all the ideas down, connect them and categorise them, before you start writing? Or do you jump right in and then go back and edit and chop and change as you go along?  If you need to organise a part, how might you start the process and who might you call on for help. Why?

An awareness of your approach to solving a problem or completing a task is metacognition.  And so for our students, the principles are the same: a greater awareness of how they prefer to solve problems is likely to produce more flexible and articulate members of society.

So how is metacognition taught?

In the simplest sense, it happens when teachers stop and ask their students “so how did that go?”, but you can be far more effective than that by incorporating tasks and stages that focus specifically on metacognition as preparation and metacognition as reflection.

Here are some ideas that might help to build more resilient learners in your classrooms who are adept at metacognating (if that isn't a real word, it should be!)

Metacognition in listening lessons

  1. Set the context of the listening text and have students predict topics, vocabulary and content of the story based on what they already know. Ask students to then listen and check which ideas were correct. After they listen, ask the students to discuss which aspects of the prediction task made it easier or more difficult to achieve comprehension.
  2. Students often find it difficult to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary in listening tasks, so it’s worth exploring why this is, and what effect it has on them. One way of doing this is to set your listening task up so that students can record any unfamiliar phrases and then stop the recording to discuss potential meanings with their partner before you go through any challenging words and phrases with them. The idea here is to build tolerance to unfamiliar words, but also to listen in to the the discussions the students have and help them to support each other negotiate and predict meaning before you step in.

Metacognition in writing lessons

  1. One of the key issues with writing lessons is that students don’t know where to start. So, organisation and preparation is key.  Everybody approaches a writing task in a different way, so focus on giving your students exposure to a variety of approaches to preparing for a writing task: collaborative planning, free writing, mind mapping or planning structure and organisation.  As you go through each process, ask your students to compare each one with the previous example and have them discuss which one works for them and why? Which ones might be more suitable for take-home assignments and which ones might work better in exam settings. Why?
  2. Of course students make mistakes in their writing, but are they aware of it? Encouraging students to reflect on their writing and consider how and why they made mistakes is a key component to developing their interlanguage resources. So before you step in with your red pen, ask the students to underline phrases they aren’t sure about, and have them explain why they are uncertain to a partner. Perhaps they can help each other to work through the meaning before you are called on for support?

Metacognition in reading lessons

Why is it that we skim for gist before scanning for details prior to engaging in extensive reading? Is it because that’s what your tutor told you to do? Or is that the most efficient way to approach a reading text? Surely the approach you take to any text depends on the type of information you’re reading for?

  1. Before students read a text to answer questions, you could have them predict the form of any answers they are looking for. Are the answers likely to be numbers? People? Places? Phrases? Nouns? Are the answers likely to be found early on in the text or later in the concluding sections? Before they read, ask students to discuss why you’ve asked them to make these predictions, and then after they read, have them consider which predictions were correct/useful/counterproductive.
  2. An awareness of how you respond to a text is also important, and something that might be hard to identify at first. One approach to this could be a simple task where you ask students to place a pencil on the page as they start reading and to follow their eyes around as they read. This will create a trail map of all their eye movements, and while it might be challenging to keep this up for an extended period of time, after only 20 or 30 seconds it could reveal some interesting information about how individuals in the classroom actually read their texts.

Metacognition in speaking lessons

The hard thing about teaching speaking is that the language in any interaction happens and is then lost. But it doesn’t mean students won’t be able to tell you what they were thinking about at the time.

  1. One key consideration for many language learners is anxiety and the way this interferes with cognitive ability when speaking. Helping students to identify the number of times they use fillers (the umms, ahhs, errs) when they speak could be as easy as having them complete a speaking task in groups of three, where two people are talking and the other raises their hand every time they hear someone use a filler. Alternatively you could have them record all the fillers they hear for comparison at the end.
  2. Because students are under enormous pressure when they speak in a foreign language, it’s important to develop skills for them to use by pre-loading any speaking tasks. This often comes in the form of prediction exercises. What we don’t want is for students to write out a speech verbatim, but we do want them to consider potential content that needs to be covered, possible problems that might arise and how they would like to respond to those situations. This gives students a repertoire of strategies to take with them into a speaking task. One interesting experiment you could try is to follow up a speaking task like this by asking students to conduct the same task again but the second time you change one or two key variables. So the second time round, rather than have a role play in a cafe, have one student role play a very price-sensitive customer in an expensive restaurant and the other plays an arrogant waiter who loves his wine and is happy to share his disdain of the ignorant with everyone. Afterwards, have students reflect on what was different between the two situations and how this changed their need and approach in preparing for the speaking task.

Now it’s over to you: are there any ways you encourage your students to learn about learning?

If you're looking for more help with your teaching career, our TESOL teacher training courses in Hong Kong might be for you.


Williams, M. (1991). A framework for teaching English to young learners. In C. Brumfit, J., Moon, & R. Tongue, Teaching English to Children: From Practice to Principle (pp. 203-212). Collins ELT.

About the Author

James Pengelley

James worked at EfA as a CertTESOL and DipTESOL trainer and digital content manager. He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary). He has made multiple contributions to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development, which you can read here.

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